The Hill Times: Best Books of 2017
What are the limits of Canadian democracy and how are they being expanded by a revolution in participatory democracy?
The Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States illustrate that our system of representative democracy is in deep trouble.
There are signs of political alienation everywhere. Most believe that government is run by a few big interests. Wealthy corporations receive grants and beneficial regulations. The incomes of middle and lower earners have remained stagnant or decreased.
The way to change this imbalance is by strengthening our democracy and encouraging participation in the political process. A powerful grassroots movement of participatory democracy is emerging. Freeman’s message is that democracy is rising in this country, but we must organize to redress the dominance of business interests, and finally fulfil the promise of government by the people.
About the authors
Bill Freeman is an award-winning author who has written historical fiction for young adults, film scripts, documentaries, theatrical plays, educational videos, and non-fiction books. He specializes in writing about Canada and the Canadian experience.
In the 1960s and '70s Bill lived, worked, and studied in Hamilton. The play Glory Days is part of his exploration of the life of the city and its fascinating history. Bill is perhaps best known as the author of novels for young adults set in Canada in the latter part of the nineteenth century called the Bains Series. He is also well known for his books of popular history. His most recent work, Hamilton: A Peopleâ??s History, surveys the cityâ??s often turbulent history. Many of his books have received high critical acclaim and a number of awards. In recent years Bill has worked in the film industry as a writer and historical consultant. He has been on the creative team of many film projects as writer, narrator, and consultant. The projects include a science series for high school students and Mighty Machines II, a made-for-television project for preschool children. Bill Freeman lives on Toronto Island with his partner Paulette.
Excerpt: Democracy Rising: Politics and Participation in Canada (by (author) Bill Freeman; foreword by Adam Vaughan)
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.
A POINT OF VIEW
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.
Bill Freeman champions the idea that it is possible to achieve social justice democratically through organizing from the ground up.
Adam Vaughan, MP, Spadina—Fort York
The challenge of democratizing democracy is key to the survival of our society. Without putting a participatory democracy in place, we can never reverse the environmental crisis, and establish a balance with Nature.
Dimitri Roussopoulos, author of Political Ecology: Beyond Environmentalism
This is a very important book. It argues that only grassroots organizations can bring the changes we need to reform our political practices and engage people in public life.
Irene Mathyssen, MP, London—Fanshaw
In this highly readable book, Bill Freeman successfully captures the history, and the vast breadth and depth, of Canadian community based organizations. He tells their stories with insight, often derived from his own personal involvement. This book will inspire, and delivers a road map for our communities, and our country. Even better, he shows how to get there.
Brian Iler, lawyer and community activist
Other titles by Bill Freeman
The Mafia, the Media and the Party Machine
The New Urban Agenda
The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area
Canada's Fairy-Tale Castle and Its Owner, Sir Henry Pellatt
A Play and History of the '46 Stelco Strike
Hamilton: A People's History
A People's History
A People's History
Ambush in the Foothills
A Magical Place
Toronto Island and Its People