Civics & Citizenship

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Too Dumb for Democracy?

Why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones
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Daring to Dream

Daring to Dream

A Handbook for Hope in the Time of Trump
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Battle Royal

Battle Royal

Monarchists vs. Republicans and the Crown of Canada
also available: Paperback
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They all knew they were making history that summer. Over the month of July 1764, some two thousand chiefs and sachems, holy men, elders, warriors, and family members representing twenty-four indigenous First Nations arrived for a Great Council at Fort Niagara. Also present was the personal representative of the British king, George III. This diplomat, Sir William Johnson, was the superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies of America. Although Fort Niagara had been built by the French, it was now in British hands, having been appropriated following their conquest of New France in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Now, the king requested that the leaders of all the indigenous peoples living in the northeastern regions of North America congregate at the place where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. There, amidst the beauty of nature and under the ramparts and guns of the British Empire, they would discuss and enter into a treaty setting out how all this land was to be governed.
The First Nations people came from far and wide. Some arrived from what is now Nova Scotia, while others journeyed from as far west as the Great Plains. Many more travelled south, from Hudson Bay, while others headed north, beginning their treks in the Adirondack Mountains. Leaders of the Algonquin, Cree, and Huron nations arrived along with representatives of the Nipissing, Pawnee, Mohican, Odawa, and Potawatomi nations, to name just a few. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy of the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Onondaga was also well represented. These leaders and their people had all been informed that the French were no longer a power in the land and that the British would be their nearest non-indigenous neighbours. They had also been informed that the British king had spoken of new rules regarding how the British would live with the indigenous peoples in the land now claimed by the British Crown. There had been a royal proclamation, and they desired to know more. The chiefs wanted to hear from the king’s delegate himself, to listen to how Sir William would describe the new order of things, so they could decide if the English king’s words were fair and just, and determine whether they would live in peace or war with the British.
Johnson, married to a Mohawk clan mother named Molly Brant, was a keen observer of indigenous traditions and political systems. He respected the oral traditions of the First Nations, the importance of symbolism, and the idea that these nations deserved equal respect and dignity from the British. Over the month of July, Johnson met separately with the leaders of each First Nation to discuss the future. He gave them details of George III’s Royal Proclamation of 1763, whereby the British claimed sovereignty over the eastern half of North America. He stressed that this declaration recognized the existence of Indian nations and their pre-existing ownership of their lands. He further promised that the British desired free and fair trade with all First Nations and freedom of movement throughout all lands subject to the British Crown. And there was more. Johnson assured the chiefs, in the name of his king, that under British law the Crown had to respect indigenous land ownership, and that the only way for the British to acquire more land than they currently held was through treaties signed between the British Crown and First Nations. British subjects could never take land from “the Indians” without their consent and without the approval of the king. Furthermore, the British Crown promised to bring to justice any Briton who committed robbery or murder against indigenous persons and pledged that the Crown would protect and aid First Nations against their enemies.
By the end of July 1764, Johnson had secured a unanimous agreement from the chiefs present at the Great Council, and on July 29 the Treaty of Niagara was confirmed. This treaty was made real through the exchange of covenant chain wampum belts, which served as a symbol of the agreement between the British and indigenous First Nations to live in peace, friendship, and respect with one another, with each nation recognizing all the others as equals. The wampum belt that Johnson gave to the First Nations chiefs showed two figures — one British, one indigenous — linked by a chain of silver, signifying that the treaty required constant attention and polishing in order to remain bright and vibrant. The belt given in return to Johnson by the chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was a “two row” wampum. Ray Fadden, a Haudenosaunee scholar, describes the symbolic significance of this belt: “[It shows] two paths, or two vessels, travelling down the same river together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian people, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be for the white people and their laws, their customs, and their ways. We shall each travel the river together, but in our own boat. Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.”
While most Canadians have never heard of the Treaty of Niagara or the Royal Proclamation of 1763, these documents are recalled by First Nations to this day as reminders of the historic linkages between these nations and the British Crown, and of the ongoing constitutional obligations borne by Canadian governments to indigenous peoples. In 1763 and 1764 the Crown made legal commitments to First Nations, most of which were dishonourably broken and abused. The honour of the Crown still remains to be attended to, enhanced, and polished.

Distant Echoes of Regal Origins
The monarchy in Canada today is necessarily of British origin. Elizabeth II is Queen of Canada because she is also “Queen of the United Kingdom and of her other Realms and Territories.” She holds sovereignty over Canada because her ancestors laid claim to Newfoundland in 1497, the Hudson Bay watershed in 1670, and acquired Nova Scotia by treaty from the French in 1713. And, most significantly, the British won control of a large part of North America from the French during the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63. The Citadelle of Quebec fell to the British in 1759, with the French government of Louis XV ceding all of New France, save for the little islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, to George III and his British Empire through the Treaty of Paris in 1763. While the British lost possession of the American Thirteen Colonies in 1783, they retained control of the northern half of the continent and its separate colonies and territories, eventually witnessing four of these jurisdictions — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario — form the nation of Canada in 1867.
We are our history, and the history of Canada has been shaped by the actions of the British Crown. But monarchies existed in what is now Canada long before the arrival of the English. In 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier set foot on the Gaspé, planting a crucifix while claiming all that he saw in the name of Francis I, the king of France. This act inaugurated over two centuries of French royal rule in North America. These years would witness the birth of a distinct French Canadian society in North America, centred upon the St. Lawrence River and the lands of Acadia.
Watching Cartier raise his cross to his king were indigenous peoples. Likely Haudenosaunee, these wary observers were members of just one of the First Nations spanning the continent. A significant number of these nations were themselves either monarchies or had governments strongly influenced by monarchical ideas of aristocracy and hereditary rule, a reality not lost on early French colonial leaders. The first international agreements between First Nations peoples and Europeans were military and trade alliances entered into between indigenous leaders, viewed by the French as kings, and representatives of the French Crown.
The arrival of the English into North America heralded a period of added complications and increased tensions to an already complex political environment. By the early eighteenth century, the British Crown was front and centre in the development of two crucial political realities in the history of Canada: one focusing on the power relations between the French and the British, the other the link between the British and indigenous First Nations. The historical narrative respecting both sets of relationships is fraught with contradictions. In the years before and immediately after the conquest of New France, agents of the British Crown were leading figures in some of the most shameful episodes of racism and discrimination against First Nations peoples and French Canadians in our country’s history. In the opinion of many Canadians to this day, these are chapters in Canada’s history that still bring the reputation of the Crown into disgrace. In the years after 1763, though, we observe the first signs of a willingness on the part of various Crown officials to marry English and French interests; to recognize and respect certain features of the distinct social, linguistic, religious, and legal culture found in Quebec; and to see French Canadians — former foes — become loyal subjects of the Crown, eventually setting the stage for Confederation in 1867. Even pre-dating these events, we see the beginning of a special, historic, and ongoing relationship between indigenous First Nations and the British Crown. Before the conquest of New France, the British were entering into treaties with First Nations in what are now the Maritime Provinces; these documents recognized indigenous nations as nations with legal personality and with rights to traditional use of indigenous lands. These treaties and the related Royal Proclamation of 1763 endure as valid legal documents. They are recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as bestowing significant entitlements to First Nations and important obligations on the Crown. The relationship between the Crown and indigenous Canadians is one that is both as historic as the old treaties and as current as the struggle for indigenous self-government and social justice.

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Democracy Rising

Democracy Rising

Politics and Participation in Canada
also available: eBook
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In 2016 two political events have been like an earthquake, shaking the waters of public life. The first was the Brexit vote by the British people to leave the European Union, and the second was the long campaign of Donald Trump and his election to become the president of the United States.
Many political leaders, the corporate elite, and the media have been in a panic. All of their predictions have been wrong. Trump was dismissed at the beginning of the primaries as being a lightweight, and yet he went on to win the presidency of the most influential and powerful country in the world. Britain’s exit from the E.U. was thought to be so remote a possibility that a referendum was called to put the issue to rest. It was believed that ordinary people would not leap into the unknown and vote for political options that could lead to chaos and disaster, but in both instances the public defied the elites.
The media is still puzzling over what happened. They blame those who have been economically left behind and say that these votes point to the rising influence of right-wing politics. Age, ignorance, and gender are other factors, apparently. In both Britain and the United States, it was older males lacking post-secondary education who voted for these marginal candidates and causes. In fact, the roots are much broader and deeper than this.
There is a common element that runs through both of these events. Vast numbers of people are fed up with the elites who control the political process and engineer government policy for their own interests. Decisions are being made that threaten their jobs, their families, and their communities, and no one is listening to their concerns. They want it known that they are hurting, and that the political system is not working for them. People are struggling, and their children face a diminished future. They don’t like it one bit.
But above all, they are tired of prosperous members of the elite telling them what is good for them and how they should be voting. They have rebelled in the only way they can — the only way the system allows them to rebel — by voting for a know-nothing, self-centred political demagogue, and by rejecting the E.U., a political power centred in Brussels that they know little about.
There is deep dissatisfaction among the followers of the left, right, and centre, and it goes through all parts of the developed world, Canada included. People are not happy with the cozy relationships their governments have with the elites. The message that they have delivered is that they want something done about the way governments are run, or there is going to be hell to pay.
That is what this book is all about. It spends time diagnosing the reasons for the political and social malaise that we are facing, it takes a close look at the groups that have struggled for social change, and it examines the rising demand for a new type of participatory democracy.
The route through this maze is via historical Canadian events and movements, but what is offered is a very different type of history than what you might read in conventional texts. Historical examples are used to demonstrate both how elites built special privileges, and how people have built opposition groups to express their grievances and to right wrongs.
And let me warn you of another somewhat unusual thing that you will come across in this book. The typical view of politics held by Canadians is that it is something restricted to elections, or to the activities in Ottawa, the provincial capitals, or city hall. This is too narrow a view, in my opinion. I believe that politics is an ongoing process that all of us are involved in — whether we know it or not. It happens whenever people talk about political, social, and economic issues that affect us: things like debates at union meetings, discussion of a new development in a neighbourhood, a corporate committee meeting to discuss regulations influencing the company, or a government finance meeting.
The participation of citizens in politics is, or should be, at the core of civic life. The problem is, there are large numbers of people — the vast majority in fact — who have no real ability to influence our political life. Not only are they excluded, but their concerns and issues are ignored. That is the malaise that has affected us. Democracy is the promise of government by the people, but we have developed a government dominated by elites, particularly economic elites. I believe the only way we can change that is by creating a participatory democracy. It is within our grasp, and we must do it.
At heart I am an optimist and this is an optimistic book. There are disturbing things included in these pages that some people will not like. But there is hope, too. And, I must admit, there is also a good deal of personal opinion. Any book like this is hard fact and opinion. Even what a writer chooses to write about and what to ignore is a choice shaped by opinion. But the core idea in this book is “Democracy Rising.” The long arc of Canadian history shows that we are developing a more participatory, more inclusive political culture, and this is all to the good. We must do more to make this a truly participatory democracy.


Now that I have thrust myself into this discussion, let me tell you a little about myself so you can see what has shaped my understanding of this country. I have been a writer most of my adult life, but I come out of an academic tradition, like many other writers in this country. I was trained as a sociologist and studied at McMaster in Hamilton. Today I live on Toronto Island — one of the islands just offshore the Toronto mainland and a unique place to view the political scene — but I grew up in London, Ontario. I lived for a time in both Alberta and Nova Scotia, and spent ten years teaching in Montreal. It is hard to get a grasp on this enormous, sprawling country of ours. I don’t pretend to understand everything about Canada, but I do have a feel for the country and all of my writing has been about some aspect of Canadian life.
I have written fiction, novels for young people, and books, like this, about politics, but my interest in all of these things is what I describe as a “view from below.” It focuses on ordinary people by looking at how history and social experience shape people’s lives.
Over my career I have been involved in many different groups. I was an organizer with a welfare rights organization in Hamilton in the early 1970s and active in the NDP in that city. In Montreal I taught at Vanier CÉGEP and was on the local union executive at the college. I participated in the Montreal Citizens’ Movement and organized political campaigns. Back in Toronto, I worked for the Bob Rae NDP provincial government for four years, 1991–95, and was assigned as political staff to the minister of municipal affairs, where I learned a lot about community groups and their impact on provincial politics. For decades I have been an active member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, and served as its chair in 2004–05.
One of my major preoccupations as a writer has been cities and grassroots organizations. I wrote my dissertation on Local 1005 of the Steelworkers; it was turned into a book titled 1005: Political Life in a Local Union. My most recent book, The New Urban Agenda: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, has material about urban issues and communities.
In recent years, community groups have become a major interest of mine. I have been active in my own community and involved in the long and difficult fight against the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. I follow as best I can what is happening in community groups, environmental organizations, and co-ops because I find that world of citizen politics fascinating.
Through my involvement I learned that the practice of politics and community engagement takes an inordinate amount of time and patience. This has led to stress and worry in my life, with more defeats than victories, but along with many others, I have helped to shape decisions that affected communities that were very important to me. In the process, I have made deep and lasting friendships that are central to my life.
I have been a political activist all of my adult life, working in the trenches for political change and that, more than anything else, has shaped my views on democracy, participation, and the ideas in this book.

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The Unbroken Machine

The Unbroken Machine

Canada's Democracy in Action
also available: eBook
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The machine is not broken. It has a defined purpose and it works — it works well, in fact. At the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, candidate nominations are held. Political parties hold conventions to decide policy and elect leaders. Elections are held in towns and cities across the country to elect councillors and mayors, provinces and territories hold elections for their legislatures, and nationally, federal elections to select MPs, and thereby, a government. Following all of these elections, the various politicians and the government bureaucracies work to keep all of the offices and agencies of state running smoothly.
But many of the people who operate it seem to have forgotten just how it’s supposed to work. They keep coming up with ways to “improve” it, to somehow change its outcomes — creating something that will be fantastic and magical, like unicorns. However, when they don’t use the machine properly, and when they have unrealistic expectations about what it’s supposed to be producing, well, they deem it to be “broken” and in need of an overhaul.
Welcome to the state of Canadian democracy, something that many claim needs reform. While for decades now it has often been said that ours is an age of reform, it would also seem that ours is also an age of civic illiteracy. The demands that we see for electoral reform often spring from unfamiliarity with just how the system operates, and some blatant misrepresentations about the nature of some of our institutions. It doesn’t help that we are bombarded by depictions of the American political system in our popular culture, depictions that have created a distorted image of our own system — a fiction that involves elements of the American system mapped over ours in people’s minds. Things are made worse by the fact that many Canadians are wrapped up in American political concerns, never mind that they can’t actually vote in their elections.
For some Canadians, the level of illiteracy is pretty extreme — you might even say that it is alarming.
“Stephen Harper’s the mayor, right?” asked one constituent of a prospective MP who was knocking on doors in a Calgary riding during the 2011 federal election.
Many can’t tell you the three levels of government, who the head of state is, and you might be lucky if they know who the prime minister is at any given moment. Others can’t distinguish between the public service and the elected officials, between government and Opposition, or between the roles of an MP versus the role of a minister. To them, everything is just “government.” Many people don’t know about the nomination process that political parties use to select candidates, or the policy conventions that parties hold to draft election platforms, or the roles that parties play within our system, and may instead believe a narrative that fits their world view, which often involves belief that a small cadre of powerful elites pulls the strings and makes our democratic institutions dance to their machinations.
This general confusion about Canada’s electoral system and belief that it is “broken” is often encouraged by the very people who do know better. They do this because they have their own ideas about how the system should operate instead, which usually involves changes made for their own partisan advantage. They sow additional confusion into the system and then declare it to be broken because it is in their advantage to do so. Of course, they may not actually have engaged in enough of a consequence-based analysis of just what would happen if they should implement their “reforms,” but that doesn’t stop them from trying to push their own vision or agenda. “Reform,” they feel, will benefit them in the long term.
And more often than not, their visions will go unchallenged by the media or the general public because of a pervasive lack of knowledge of how the systems of our democracy operate, or how they would be affected by changes that may sound novel or interesting.

For many Canadians, this lack of knowledge of our system of government stems from inadequate education in the primary and secondary levels. Most provinces don’t require civics education or its equivalent in their social studies curriculums, and when students are offered civics education, they are often taught only a few basic facts without being given an accurate representation of the mechanics of a system. In some cases, such as in Ontario, it was found that the civics course being taught in high schools was imparting wrong information about the roles and responsibilities of the different institutions of government.
Not only are our students being given an inadequate education in civics but they are often being taught by instructors who have a bias against the system as it exists. Studies have shown that teachers with the greatest interest in politics are also those with the greatest belief in the need for reform of the system. This bias among many teachers and political scientists for reform of one form or another, means that students often graduate with a distorted understanding of the system and how it operates currently.
One of the most damaging misunderstandings about how the system operates stems from a pervasive misuse of the term democracy, or rather, democratic. This leads to the completely false notion that things can be made “more democratic,” as though there were a way to assign a point value to the “democraticness” of systems or proposed reforms, and the first one to get to a hundred, wins.
The most popular notions for making things “more democratic” tend to involve adding more votes to the process — votes by the general public, or by members of the House of Commons — or require positions currently held by appointment be made elected ones, or that certain decisions that would ordinarily be under the purview of the Crown be similarly put to a vote. And while votes are a good thing, they need to be held with a specific purpose in mind and within a specific framework — what is this vote going to accomplish and what does the democratic weight behind it mean?
Part of the problem with many of these proposals to hold more votes is that the resulting votes are simply votes held for the sake of holding a vote to put a coat of “more democratic” paint over decisions that are, in fact, foregone conclusions based on how the seats break down in a majority government in the Commons. Others are votes structured in a way to artificially create a “50-percent-plus-one” result, even though that was not the intent of the votes being cast. Still others ignore one of the most fundamentally important mechanisms inherent within the Westminster democratic model: accountability.
As things are currently structured in the Canadian parliamentary system, there is a healthy tension between democracy and accountability. When voters elect MPs, they hold them accountable for their conduct at the next election. When MPs form governments, those governments are held accountable to the Commons by votes of confidence. And when decisions are made by governments, they are made accountable to both the Commons and to the electorate.
But this is where the demand for more votes can turn into a problem. When individual MPs start voting on decisions that the government should make on its own, it dilutes accountability because it means that when things go wrong, those MPs share in the decision. When an appointed position is instead made an elected one, it starts to lose its ability to speak truth to power because it must satisfy the demands of voters rather than holding the government that appointed it to account. The delicate balance between democracy and accountability tilts toward “more democracy,” and inevitably what results is less accountability. But unless one understands that the balance exists within the system, then it gets easy to be swept up in the romanticism of “more democracy,” and the accumulation of imaginary points toward the supposed perfect one hundred.

Our collective lack of understanding of how the Westminster system — the parliamentary system that Canada inherited from Britain — operates has also allowed for a more presidential political discourse to develop here, and as a result, the role of individual MPs has been reduced in favour of an expansion of the power of party leaders. It’s rare to hear anyone discuss the election of local MPs; instead, we focus all of the attention on the leader. Despite the fact that policy is supposed to come from the grassroots membership of a political party, we have become used to the expectation that leadership candidates will develop their own policy platforms during party leadership contests, and so we are now seeing the rise of candidates with no history of political involvement who suddenly decide that they should run for leadership because they have policy ideas they want to present. Never mind that there are already mechanisms in place for parties to decide policy, the fact that the focus has shifted entirely to leadership means that the avenues for ordinary citizens to contribute to the process are being steadily sidelined and starved for oxygen.
This same kind of lack of oxygen for the role of the grassroots also affects MPs. The lack of civic literacy is not only a demonstrated problem for voters but for the MPs they elect as well, and there are studies that show that the vast majority of MPs don’t even know their own job descriptions. Canadian politics and elected office has become an exercise in winging it, while all eyes are on the leadership. Backbenchers are increasingly treated as puppets or ciphers for those party leaders. They have become little more than a chorus, background actors who only do as they are told in Parliament. With their reduced status in Ottawa, they are encouraged to take on a vastly inflated role at the constituency level that focuses on “customer service,” work that the permanent civil service should be doing, while the work that MPs should be doing — holding the government to account — is left by the wayside.
And a perhaps more damning indictment is that the media itself largely doesn’t seem to have a firm enough grasp on civic literacy and the importance to accurately reflect the system. The prorogation crisis of 2008, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper used a procedural tactic to avoid a confidence vote, was a prime example of how the media was largely unable to offer informed commentary on just what prorogation meant. Even fewer offered challenges to the Conservatives who delivered talking points about going over the head of the governor general to take the question of a coalition to the people — in fact, Don Newman seemed to be the only journalist who challenged a minister on that very point. The fact that prorogation became synonymous for an illegitimate attempt at shutting down a legislature from that point on indicates that the media as a whole still hasn’t come to terms with a routine operation of Parliament or legitimate power of the Crown.
During elections, media comment immediately moves to a “winner takes all” mode rather than relying on the actual parliamentary process — the election of MPs, the summoning of Parliament, the giving of the incumbent the first opportunity to meet the House of Commons, and the selection of a new first minister only once they inform the governor general or lieutenant governor that they intend to resign in order to let someone else try to form a government that can command the confidence of the chamber.
Media attention is leadership-focused, and as a result, recognition of the importance of individual MPs is reduced. Most MPs gain no attention from the press unless they do or say something outrageous. There is an inherent dichotomy in the competing demands that MPs have a bigger role, while at the same time any glimmer of independent thought or action is immediately accompanied by headlines that the party leader is losing control of the caucus. Policy is written about as being decided by leadership candidates rather than grassroots membership, especially as leadership contests take place. In day-to-day parliamentary coverage, much of the coverage revolves around personalities, in part because of the dramatic narratives that can be drawn from it. Many other aspects are dismissed as “process stories” which, it is assumed, people will not read — despite the fact that the heart of democracy is process and that understanding how that process works and how the issues of the day fit into that process is a critical component of civic literacy and a gateway for citizen engagement. Debate or argument is written off as “squabbling,” despite the fact that the Opposition is an inherent and important feature of our system because it is a built-in mechanism for accountability. Entire segments of the parliamentary process are treated with outright derision, in particular the Senate, while there is little awareness of the role of the Crown-in-Parliament.

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