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Disappointed with Democracy: Canadians Speak Out on Barriers to Political Participation

The university students sitting around the table at the Citizens’ Academy in Ottawa have never met before, but you wouldn’t know it from all the laughter. After the facilitator starts the meeting, all the students are asked to identify themselves and a social or political issue that concerns them. The students have a wide range of issues on their minds — rising tuition costs, international development, job security and employment.  

The last person to introduce herself is Lisa (participants names have been changed). She says she is concerned about the environment, then she laughs. “Really? Or you’re kidding?” the facilitator asks. “Really,” she says seriously, “I’ve written letters to the prime minister about it.”

As a child, Lisa tells the group, she travelled to Quebec and came across an old pulp factory emitting a terrible smell. When she expressed concern, her mother suggested she write to someone about it, so she did. Now, almost a decade later, she has written to three successive prime ministers about specific environmental concerns, and has yet to receive an answer that satisfies her.

“The responses I got back were just, ‘Oh we’re trying,’ ” she said. “One time they sent me a picture of themselves and a pin.”[view:in_this_series=block_1]

It has been a few years since Lisa tried contacting a government official. When asked if she ever would again she says, “I would, but it makes no difference.”

Lisa told her story at one of a series of conversations hosted by Samara, the non-partisan charity I founded in 2009 that is dedicated to increasing political participation in Canada.

In 2013, in partnership with a range of non-profit community groups, Samara conducted a first phase of facilitated discussions with nearly 200 Canadians from Newfoundland to British Columbia in an effort to understand their experiences with politics and the barriers they face to political participation. We call these discussions Democracy Talks, and from stories like Lisa’s we are learning a lot about what needs to be done to inspire more active citizenship in Canada.

The Power of Conversation

The health of a democracy depends on citizen engagement, which can take several forms. Citizens can engage with each other around public issues, as they do in many nonprofit community groups.  They may – as individuals or as groups – seek opportunities to share their views with their elected officials or public servants. But perhaps the most direct measure of citizen engagement is voter turnout.

Voter turnout in Canada has been sliding for a generation; the 2011 federal election saw the third-lowest turnout in Canadian history. Furthermore, Samara’s most recent public polling shows satisfaction with Canadian democracy is at an all-time low — in Samara’s fourth democracy report, only 55 per cent of Canadians reported being satisfied with the way our democracy is working. (*This paragraph has been corrected. The original story said that 65 per cent of Canadians reported being dissatisfied with the way democracy is working.)

These troubling indicators of the health of Canadian democracy led us at Samara to develop the Democracy Talks program. The premise of Democracy Talks is that there is a meaningful correlation between citizens’ engagement with each other on public issues and their political participation.

The challenge for Samara and other nonprofits that hope to increase political participation is that only 40 per cent of Canadians report they have even discussed a societal or political issue in person or on the phone in the last year. Only 42 per cent of Canadians reported discussing politics online in any way.

Democracy Talks is designed to encourage political participation by extending an invitation to talk about politics in an approachable, non-partisan space. Participants do not need to have a deep understanding of political parties or the political system to join in the conversation. They need only bring their personal experiences with the political system and their ideas for improving it. During this past year, Samara’s efforts were targeted at three demographic groups: university students, low-income youth and new Canadians. The one thing all of these groups have in common is that they’ve recently gained the right to vote.

For many participants, Samara’s facilitated discussions were the first time they had ever been asked to share their views on politics, to think critically about their relationship to MPs and political parties or to imagine what their role in Canada’s democracy could be. During the discussions, participants were asked about their personal experiences with politics and barriers to participation. They were asked for their advice on how to engage new voters like themselves.

Is Being ‘Political’ Un-Canadian?

The barriers that the new voter participants in Democracy Talks identified were at some times simple and at others surprising.

One topic that came up again and again in conversations with newcomers was the lack of civics education provided during the settlement process. One of the participants noted that her “Discover Canada” guide actually contained the same number of paragraphs on beavers as it did on political participation.

University students echoed newcomers’ concerns about their limited civics education. One student in Hamilton told us that her high school civics classes left her thinking citizens’ role in the system was “as voters and not much else.” Their uninspiring civics educations, combined with observations that political conversations are considered impolite in Canada, led both new Canadians and students to infer that “being political” just doesn’t seem like something Canadians value. As a result, there is little social encouragement, let alone pressure, to participate.

Another recurring theme in the discussions was participants’ frustration with the political process, and a general feeling that engaging with politicians is ineffective.

A number of participants in the groups of low-income youth and newcomers said they felt that not only were political powers unresponsive, but actively working against their interests.

One young participant poignantly stated: “I think, when you look at society, for example, the laws, the tax breaks for the big guys, [it] reflects who is important to the government and who is not important… They know about the problems the poor people face, but do they care?  If they did, we would see it.”

Those who felt that the political power deck was stacked against them seemed to feel it was a waste of time to even try influencing political decisions.

Is The Problem Apathy or a Broken System?

In general, participants expressed little faith in the political system, and found few incentives to get involved. While many pundits explain disengagement as apathy, Samara’s work with new voter communities suggests that declining political engagement is, at least in part, based on rational assessments of a political system that has provided citizens with concrete and disappointing experiences of politics.

Without a clear starting point or a friendly face to show them how to get involved, it is unlikely new voters facing these barriers will take steps to participate politically on their own. That is a problem that should concern all Canadians. Every voice that is absent from the political process ultimately lessens the legitimacy of Canada’s representative democracy.

Alison Loat is the executive director and co-founder of Samara, a charitable organization dedicated to increasing political participation in Canada. Find out more about Democracy Talks online or contact John Beebe at john.beebe@samaracanada.com.

This article originally appeared in The Philanthropist.

Up next in this series: Do Non-Profits Hold the Key to Political Participation in Canada?

Image Credit: Zack Embree

Like a kid in a candy store
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Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

If Canada wants to be an international biodiversity leader, it has to start at home

Rodrigo Estrada Patiño is program director at Greenpeace Canada. Stephen Hazell is president of Ecovision Law and was executive director of both Sierra Club Canada...

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