Navigating the governance bug in the Commonwealth software
The Colonial place is my reality.
I was watching the TV show The Good Place, which explores an interesting idea of what heaven and purgatory might be like in a modern context, and the idea of the show helped me realize that our current governance structures are prime examples of power purgatory. Like how Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden of Eden because of their sins, our current political governance structure gives me a purgatory vibe. My first piece talks about shifting the economic development power; however, I realize that we need to address our power purgatory.
Our challenges surrounding defining power and exercising control, especially within the Commonwealth context, showcase what happens when societies evolve ahead of their governance systems. The best analogy I can make is operating the latest game on dated software.
We have a governance culture that values inclusive globalization because of its economic importance. However, how we govern ourselves is still operating within outdated software. From a capacity standpoint, this causes strains in the governance software and worsens matters because of the virus informally known as the colonial bug.
The colonial bug within our governance system is caused because the policy ecosystem is stuck in a Governance purgatory. I have been thinking about it for some time. As I watch different Commonwealth governments address their complex issues, I see the bugs in their systems which hinder community collaboration. You can see this in the fight to address health care concerns by Canada’s federal government and its provinces or in my home country of Bermuda’s affordability and sovereignty issues. I see it in my backyard as my rural municipality navigates its transformation into a regional municipality, well combating the gentrification wave of the upper middle class.
My authority on the matter
Before I get cancelled for being a leftist – embrace the idea for me. The idea of the colonial bug comes from my observations of navigating the world as a British Overseas Territory Citizen. My country is the second oldest British colony-turned-terrority. I grew up seeing the impacts of colonialism; I grew up playing on former British forts. When I looked off my island’s shores, I saw the straight lines from the environmental damage caused by British, Canadian, and American military installations.
I remember being dragged out of class to stand in a single file. My socks pulled up, my tie one inch from the belly button, standing on Middle Road (a former British military marching road that cut through the middle of the island) simply to wave at Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. I grew up with a passport that wasn’t from my country, but I always dealt with issues when I travelled internationally. To the point, I knew how to explain imperialism at the age of 10 simply because I didn’t want to get detained when I travelled.
Talking about the colonial bug isn’t a “hot topic” conversation for the dinner table; it is my reality. I remember my nationalist, pro-Black, and pan-African social science teacher reminding us of the importance of understanding what happens when the colonial bug isn’t addressed within the economic and political ecosystem. He referred to it as the imperialistic boot, which would always be on the neck of territories if they didn’t talk about the impacts of colonization. [*Also see original “foot on neck” statement by Sarah Grimke 1837 ]
The notion of British colonization of Bermuda has always been taught to me as my parents grew up during a transformational era of Bermudian history. Their parents grew up during the Second World War and experienced the militarization of their country and the transition from hard colonial influence to soft colonial power. This soft colonial influence came in the form of a governance structure and system that valued dividing a country based on racial and ethnic differences. The imperialistic boot resulted in Bermuda’s colonial bug encouraging division among its founding people.
Exploring the “imperialistic boot”
The idea of this imperialistic boot has interested me since my youth. It is also why I decided to explore the idea of power within the context of the Commonwealth space. As I explored the ideas of this influence, I realized that we, as colonized people, need to have conversations about how this influence controls our governance process and creates groups of people that feel they have a community or that they feel that they are a community without.
The desire to understand community ‘within and without’; a concept first introduced to me by Dr. Chantal Hervieux, grew during my time living in Canada. Watching a country as developed as Canada navigate its colonial bug made me realize the sins of our forefathers are deeply embedded (perhaps entrenched) in our governance culture. I am exploring the idea of power, control, and trust within the economic development space because economic power governs community power. As I engage with individuals around this concept, I am quickly learning that the Canadian governance story is filled with colonial bugs – down to the fact that most of the founders of this country had economic ties and connections to the country’s former colonial master. The idea of the colonial bug isn’t to say that the United Kingdom still controls Canada. But the structural mechanism that upholds an unbalanced governance system is still seen today, fostering and encouraging divided populations in countries across the Commonwealth.
The “imperialistic boot” origin story stems from the fact that our governance structures are hybrid entities that embrace the ideas of sovereign jurisdiction but run and operate like modern businesses. Because of this, policy development is only successful when it connects to economic productivity. This culture results in policy and decision-makers using their power to benefit economic control, resulting in mistrust throughout the system. Now, what are the KPIs of adopting this model? From my standpoint, we need to research and evolve how we govern ourselves because the authority of the power is placed in a way that supports the culture of the colonial bug.
Suppose we look at Nova Scotia or any of the original founding provinces of Canada. They started as colonies governed by trading companies with the authority to make decisions that benefited the economic needs of their benefactors. From the start, Canadian sovereignty has always been geared towards profitability and trade, which is typical for most Commonwealth countries. But should a capitalistic ideology be a governance structure? I say No. Do we need to have conversations about where the governance culture shift should be? I say Yes. But what is stopping the shift?
The idea of British colonialism balanced the art of hard and soft power, which in International Relations ideology looks at balancing the ability to co-opt and coerce jurisdictions to work for an economic goal that encourages wealth creation for another jurisdiction. The common theme in the Westminster political system is that the house (whoever the benefactor is) always wins because it divides the community and places power around a select few. If you flip this thinking and view it from a governance perspective, the control mechanisms through decision-making are thus also limited.
The Colonial Place
When I approach decolonization conversations, I get stuck at these points. I recognize that being someone whose community has not historically held power, my desire to reimagine a new structure drives me. As I live in The Colonial Place, I want to understand why we don’t focus on navigating the transition into a new form of governance. In this context, my obsession with governance and policy development stems from understanding how communities achieve power and direct, meaningful control. As I work with communities exploring economic growth, I realize the weight of our colonial bug has resulted in disconnection.
Society craves equality; because we want to be seen. Society also craves economic power; because we want to control our economic future. To achieve sustainable economic prosperity, we must explore economic growth through a decolonial lens. When I think about Bermuda, on paper, my country’s constitutional authority came to our shores in the late 60s. However, as the constitutional authority came to Bermuda, we still operated our governance structures as a colonial colony. And, since the 60s, we have struggled to address and explore how to govern ourselves as a country with diverse needs and traumas.
The byproduct of this struggle is a country that has built an economic foundation that is cracking, with a generation of people leaving their country. I am one of those who left my home because of our colonial bug. I see a similar trend happening throughout the Commonwealth. We are creating a culture of individualism, and we see ourselves without community.
This societal virus can be observed in Canada, especially within Atlantic Canada – and it is even greater when we look at the development of our urban and rural communities. The region has centralized its economy, resources, and, sadly, its people. It results in neighbouring communities viewing each other as competition instead of partners. The spread of individualism throughout the region is causing division and slowly breaking down the much-needed trust required to collaborate. The Maritimes is proud of its Loyalist heritage. Still, this loyalty to an unbalanced system has resulted in generations of economic division that view economic growth solely as a winner-takes-all approach.
One factor of colonization we need to recognize is that there is no actual winner for a group of colonized people. It is always portrayed as if colonization has winners and losers. The Colonial Place, like in the TV show The Good Place, gives the illusion that the actors within the system are living their best lives, but in reality, they are being tortured. When I think about the modern-day governance structure of Commonwealth countries, we torture ourselves because we are holding onto the sins of our past in the name of heritage.
I want to hear from you and engage you to reach out to me for further conversations. And in honour of fellowship, I would like to invite you to an online chat 5 to 7 pm AST on March 3rd to explore the idea of the colonial place. If interested to attend please register here:
Kjeld Mizpah (KJ) Conyers-Steede
Fellow at Inspiring Communities
Principal Consultant of Catalyst Conversation Strategies
Imperialist Map, Vadac, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons