‘Shoring up the pillars of hope’: A conversation with Hugh Segal

Hugh Segal, master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College, spoke at a November fundraiser hosted by the diocese of Montreal. Photo: Contributed
Published January 31, 2019

Hugh Segal is not an Anglican—but you might get that impression, based on his appearances at a series of high-profile church events in recent years. In 2015, the former Conservative senator and political strategist (along with former Liberal Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne) gave a speech to a synod of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario; in 2017, Segal spoke at a symposium hosted by the diocese of Ottawa, where he shared some of his views on the costs of poverty in communities and the idea of a basic income.

More recently, this past November 15, Segal addressed the Bishop’s Annual Dinner, a fundraiser hosted by the diocese of Montreal. In a talk that was, according to Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson, inspiring and widely appreciated, Segal, who has been serving as master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College since 2014, spoke about the importance of hope in society, and the church’s role in advancing it.

The Anglican Journal spoke with Segal a few days later. This interview has been edited for brevity.

What moved you to speak about hope?

My view is that every situation in the world, however difficult it may be, is made worse when people despair. And if we look at what has gone on in some parts of Europe with respect to nativism and rabid anti-migrant bias; at the deep divisions in the United Kingdom over Brexit—both sides are saying that if the other side wins, it’s the end of civilization as we know it; and what is now happening in the United States—where the endless barrage of attacks on the judiciary, attacks on the other branches of government, attacks on the media, and on a series of policies in terms of openness to people of other backgrounds and religions, migrants and whatever, [all] would seem to be a pretty muscular counsel of despair—it strikes me that one of the things that the church should be engaged in support of, as should governments, as should not-for-profits, as should educational institutions, is shoring up what I would call the pillars of hope.

Because any time you do something that is constructive—you put money in an envelope for a cause, you go to university to get a graduate degree, you volunteer for something—you’re doing it because you’re hopeful that this will help. You’re hopeful this will make a difference in people’s lives and help them make some progress.

When hope is completely destroyed, and all there is is despair, that pretty easily leads to counsel of racism, and hatred and division, and in the case of Europe in 1939 that led to a war which saw 50 million human beings perish. Had there been more hope in the marketplace of ideas, it might have made a difference.

That’s why I make the case now that if we believe in “small L” liberal democracy, and if we believe in a balance between freedom and responsibility, and if we believe in community, one of the critical adhesives that keeps that all together is really hope. So we have to be honest about what are the threats to hope, and then we have to be serious about what we do to sustain and advance and deepen hope at every opportunity we have.

What can the church do about this, and what should it be doing?

Any time a church does something beyond the normal events for worship and festivities, and actually reaches out, it becomes an instrument of hope in the community. And that I think is a huge, huge thing and the more that our churches are able to do that and get support from their parishioners and congregants to make that happen, the more real their impact.

When we had the tragedy of various worshippers being shot to death at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, what we saw here in Toronto, and certainly in Kingston [Ont.], was people from all faiths and other groups gathering around synagogues the following Friday to produce a protective fence of human beings who said, “Look, we’re all in this together.” Those are the things that become beacons in the night, candles in the darkness, and it’s very, very important that we keep our shoulder to the wheel on that front.

Do you think there’s a hope crisis in the world today?

I think there’s a combination of things going on that give us sometimes a feeling to that effect. And today the myriad of different media platforms that come at us, that bombard people, probably tend to exaggerate the bad events.

When we had two channels in Canada—CBC and CTV—and a few newspapers, you could gather up the news and it would be horrific, but there’d be an editorial function and a balancing which would allow people to put it in some perspective. I think today the nature of digital media, the extent to which it is everywhere to be found and going 24-7, and the fact that there is often not a distinction between real news and opinion, will tend to make difficult things appear worse. And then if someone is not informed themselves, or all that balanced in their assessment, that could produce a heightened sense of despair.

Do you think this problem of hope has anything to do with the decline of organized religions that we’re seeing?

I don’t know that there’s a direct relationship in that, but I think that part of what would happen in the past, if you think about the Second World War experience, people would sit around the radio and get news of battles that went badly or thousands of Canadian casualties, and then many would be in church on Sunday, or in synagogue on Saturday, where a minister or a rabbi could talk about what that meant, put that in perspective, connect it to history. And of course, when you get less people showing up in our traditional churches for whatever reason, that opportunity for the sanity of reflection together is often lost.

Earlier, you mentioned recent trends in Europe and the United States you find worrying. Where do you see Canada in all this?

My view is that Canada remains a relatively hopeful place, and I think it’s a little bit because of the diversity of our population. I think it’s because we have large population centres that are divided up by large empty spaces, largely, in Canada, so there’s a great sense of opportunity and solid prospects. I think that when people have that attitude when they come—and we’re a welcoming country by definition—that will dissipate a lot of the despair and the anger that feeds off it.

Can you talk about your own religious background?

I went to Jewish parochial schools in Montreal, one of which was a pre-rabbinical seminary. Wy wife was raised as an Anglican. But depending on one’s view—either good for the Anglicans or not!—I am not a member of that faith. I am a member of the Jewish faith. Both faiths’ festivals are celebrated in our home—always have been. They are something which we embrace, because we think it’s tremendously rich, and it’s very good for our daughter, and it’s very good for our friends.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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