Perhaps Canada never really had a democracy, at least the way we think about it today. In the days of Confederation, there remained a belief that abided for over a century: the system worked best when the intelligent elite ran the business of the country. But the illusion of democracy was important. To that end, the elite still had to be selected in a ballot process by citizens. It was a successful compact – I’ll give you my vote if you look out for me while you’re in government. Like our American and British counterparts, we built a fairly successful country on such a model.
Today, those respective arrangements are faltering. Britain in riots, the U.S. in a crisis, and Canada in stasis – something we too often mistake for stability. Citizens in all three countries are losing faith in representative democracy and capitalism. Something is out of whack and we know it.
All this is creating a desire among activist citizens to rethink democracy as something more direct, more grass root than we have historically experienced. Yet two great questions remain: Are politicians really that bad and inept, and are citizens really that good and committed? As we await the answer, corporatism has enjoyed a much clearer field than at any other time in our history. But one thing is certain. However the new democracy will look in the future, citizens will insist on more access to power and decision-making. The trust lost in the representative process will inevitably drive citizens toward the ability to look out for their own interests – somebody has to.
And so, in the days of transition, we are at sea, not knowing the end from the beginning. The democratic proposition fails unless people see their government as a subject rather than an object; a responsive organism as opposed to an inanimate vending machine. Go ahead and ask anyone on the street who Canadian democracy belongs to and they will say it’s the property of someone else, not “us.” They believe everything is now run by political parties, elites, corporations, special interests, the courts, the banks, the Americans – never by citizens. But – and here’s the kicker – it never was. Responsible, intelligent and well-connected individuals on our behalf managed Canada, and for the greatest portion of our history it was a reasonable accommodation. We just didn’t have time as citizens to apply ourselves to the complexities of governance. If what we want as citizens is more responsibility because the present system is faltering, then we have to understand a few things.
First, the ultimate arbiters of democracy are, in fact, us. So we do have a certain legitimate claim for more access. Second, blame our present administration all we want, but it was still us who failed to hold them accountable. If the system isn’t working at present, much of it is because we have chosen those who ruled over us. Third, if we’re serious about exercising our franchise judiciously as citizens then we must practice it as though all concerns are more vital than just our own as individuals. Citizenship is the freedom of mind and the growing understanding that the world is not oneself and that we must live for others and not just for the opinions or the votes of others – a tough lesson. The narrative is always plural – not one story but many, none of them more privileged than others. Fourth, if we wish to join in the leadership of a new citizen movement we must earn that privilege by being selected and not self-appointed. It seems, at present, that everyone has an opinion they believe is better than everyone else’s – something we often get in Ottawa and we see where that got us.
It is indeed time for a new forging, for a new compact unlike anything experienced in our history. If we think we’re smarter than the elites, we have another thing coming. The reason they no longer govern well is because they refuse to govern all, choosing instead a partisan following over a national one.
Dedicated citizens are those who believe that they can forge their talents and energy together to find new life, new direction. Democracy presents itself by a few fundamental expressions of national character – honest discussion of public issues, the accountability of the governors to the governed, and a progressive drive towards equity, to name a few. What will join us together is not some common language, nationality or race (all which speak of the past), but rather the participation in a shared work of imagining the future … together.
Are we actually ready for this? I don’t believe so. But it’s possible if we train ourselves to think larger and grow in capacity as a people. In our accelerated rush toward consumerism we must acknowledge and compensate those left behind. As Voltaire put it: “The comfort of the rich requires an abundant supply of the poor.” Well, not in our country. At least not if we claim our rightful role as citizens.
Democracy is best understood as a state of being rather than as a system of government. The great energy of Canada flows from the capacity of its citizens to speak and think without artifice or blame, from the willingness to defend and blend our interests, argue our cases, and say what we mean in humility. We don’t have that right now and if we don’t mature as a people, we will always get governments that are just as self-centered and forgetful of the national dream as we are.