Canadian Participatory Democracy

by Howard Fienberg -- Spring 1993

The average politician in this nation would have one believe that problems with the Canadian system are about the jockeying of power between the provinces and the federal government and that the next proposal written out by the big-whigs will strike the right balance between the federal and provincial governments, and everyone will live happily ever after: dream on. The fundamental issue at the heart of the Canadian political system is the dispersion of power between elites and the people.

The citizens of Canada have been separated from real power for so long that a few little tastes, such as the 1992 Charlottetown referendum, make them now desperate for the whole hog: "the itchy voters are dying to get this government into the polling booth, where democracy can be inflicted." (Fotheringham) Notice the word "inflicted"; this means that democracy is a weapon of the people for defense against the political elite. There are various options open to the Canadian government. It could continue on its present course with an apathetic, disenchanted public citizenry by feeding them inane bits of information and dull sound-bites. Adolf Hitler, in his book Mein Kampf, said that "If you wish the sympathy of broad masses, then you must tell them the crudest and most stupid things." However, this form of governing has reached its end. The masses are awakened and clamoring for more.

This problem of power distribution between elites and the populace at large can be examined in terms of the origins of the distribution, the best model of liberal democracy to explain the problem, and some of its proposed solutions. The origins of the present-day allotment of power run deep into Canada's history. The bonding to the nation and state can be compared to the circumstances in the U.S. in order to show these how the arrangement of power developed and the recent attempts to change the Canadian constitution can be shown in relation to their movements toward a more participatory democracy.

There are several comparisons to be made between the United States and Canada as to the success of the experience of bonding to the nation and the state. First of all, while the Americans fought for their freedom, the freedom of Canadians was granted to them. The Americans fought long and hard in order to secure the thirteen colonies against British control and to forge a new nation. People of different regions, such as New England and the South, fought side by side against a common foe that tried to withhold their liberties. Loyalists, those that preferred Britain to a new nation, fled North and settled there. Canadians, including a good number of Loyalists, were simply given their freedom in 1867, mostly due to the fact that Great Britain couldn't be bothered to support them any longer.

Second of all, there were the constitutions. The U.S. constitution and the British North America Act were both documents written by political elites. However, there are differences. While Canadian elites bargained with Britain behind closed doors for a constitution granting Canada its freedom, the American elites discussed with each other, and then with the people, how to compose their discussion; therefore, one finds a significant difference between the inter-state agreement, and the 'home-brew' constitution. Also, the Americans elites had to sell the agreement to their populace. The people were given some chance at input on a constitution that was for them. It included rhetoric that inspired the people, claiming that the document belonged to them, as did the government. The Declaration of Independence, a related document, stated that ``Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.'' The American constitution had to be passed in legislatures across the colonies, and in order to ensure its popular support, the elites even included a Bill of Rights to safeguard the rights of individuals. Canadian elites did none of this; the British North America Act was a dry and legal document not meant for public digestion. It also included such clauses as the Peace, Order, and Good Government clause that placed the final authority on the federal government, in contrast to the authority of the people in the U.S. Thus were the American people included in their political system from the beginning, while the Canadian people were shut out of theirs.

Third of all, there was internal conflict. Americans let loose their regional fury in a burst of bloodlust and violence that lasted some five years in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Federal government conscripted its citizens to keep the Southern states from seceding into the Confederacy by force of arms. Brothers shed each other's blood, and the national anger worked itself out, setting the stage for a change from a regional emphasis to a national emphasis. Canadians had no such conflict; there has been no venting of anger, nor any mass movement from a regional to a national accent.

Finally, there was the national outlook. Americans are a self-confident, at times arrogant, people. They tend to feel a moral superiority in their society and government. This developed as a result of ideals set forth at the nation's founding for which the people have tended to strive. American children are also imbued with a sense of nationalism in their public schooling, and are taught much about their nation, its ideals, its history, and its possibilities. As James Mill said, in the early days of the establishment of a system of state education, its purpose in society is to "train the minds of people to a virtuous attachment to their government." (Chomsky, 13) Americans also celebrate themselves whenever given the chance. Then there are Canadians. There is no general agreement on what it means to be Canadian; they are a diverse people, similar to Americans, but Canadians tend not to share common ideals and values. The nation is stuck in an inferiority complex because of its towering neighbor to the South. Its national consciousness is based on assertion that it is not and never will be American; but the notion stops there and falls apart. There is no real sense of nationalism or patriotism, except as a defensive reflex, and this is not enough to sustain a separate nation.

The recent attempts to change the constitution of Canada can be shown in relation to the movement toward a more linear and direct democracy. First of all, there was the Canada Act of 1982. The act set many precedents. It brought home the amending procedure and extricated the constitution from British hands. It was also negotiated only at the federal level, avoiding a constitutional convention that would have required the agreement of the provinces, leaving them with massive grievances. Also, there was the mention of the use of referenda which, although it never came to fruition, at least put the issue on the political agenda. Finally, there was the inclusion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada's first federal bill of rights. All of these points contributed to a changing environment in Canada.

Second of all, the Canada Act returned with a vengeance in the Meech Lake Accord. This accord was negotiated, once again, behind closed doors. The difference this time was that all the provinces were involved and received concessions. However, while nearly all elites across the nation were overflowing with enthusiasm for the document, the general public was rather annoyed; they had lost any voice. The 'undemocracy' of the process and the arrogance of the elites had been too much to take. A public already stirred up around the issue of free trade was now fuming about Meech, and only one in four Canadians supported the agreement. (Lyon lecture) Thus was much of the public relieved when the agreement failed to pass.

Finally, there was the Charlottetown accord and the referendum. This was the first referendum on a constitutional change ever held in Canada, and the government had no hesitation in spending millions of taxpayer dollars to advertise for a `Yes' vote. Committees had been set up and various people in the country had been asked their opinions, and it culminated in an accord that went against the consensus that was gathered, weakening a federal government most people wanted to strengthen, and not granting enough rights and recognition to those that felt neglected in the making of the Charter. "Only someone who is clearly arrogant ... would call a referendum that could not possibly be won," and the elite proved this arrogance to the citizenry with Charlottetown. (Fotheringham) The accord was rejected with 45 percent in favor and 54 percent opposed; three-quarters of Canadians took to the polls and debunked the elites for their arrogance. Such a manner of dealing with the public could not occur again.

So, one can see the origins of the classical distribution of power between elites and the masses in Canada, and recent events bringing the distribution into question.

The growing alienation of citizens from big government can only be replaced with confidence if the government is perceived by the citizen as doing what he defines as being in his interest. (Lyon, 8)

One might believe that politicians that are sent to represent groups of people at parliamentary institutions would reflect the views and interests of their electorate; however, this is hardly ever the case. One finds this fact concurrent with a Marxist viewpoint on politicians and power, where the outsider is destined to become assimilated when he or she reaches the inner side of the power structure. (Neufeld) The National Democratic Party, for instance, estranged its supporters once it reached office in Ontario by turning its back on the socialist ideas that fuelled its rise to power.

This is a regime, hived into their Rockliffe Park mansions, that has no relation to those who do not pick up their New York Times Sunday edition so as to select the trendy Broadway hits. (Fotheringham)

How can citizens allow Bobby Rae to play golf at the same private green as the upper class without his adopting an upper class outlook? The answer is a more aware and participatory electorate.

When referring to C. B. Macpherson's four models of liberal democracy, the model that can best help one understand the nature of Canada's problems is the fourth model, that of participatory democracy. MacPherson postulates

that low participation and social inequity are so bound up with each other that a more equitable and humane society requires a more participatory political system. (MacPherson, 94)

One finds that there are infinite possibilities in achieving participation, but that some become more feasible than others. Three of these possibilities are technological democracy, a pyramid parliamentary system, and accession to the United States.

A technologically-driven direct democracy entices many people in the modern age, and it could be introduced in several forms. A town meeting which is broadcast by television into households and residences across the nation, such as that attempted by Ross Perot in his failed race for the American presidency, which allow citizens to phone in questions to their representatives, sound interesting. Citizens may come to feel that they are a part of government and the political system through their participation in prime-time politics. However, there are limits to such an idea. How many questions can be addressed at one meeting would be extremely limited and, as illustrated in Steven Lukes' second view of power, the elites holding the meetings would determine which questions would be addressed, and any question they preferred not to answer would not be placed on the evening's docket; the agenda would still be under elite control. Also, what is the line between the Parliament Channel and the Phil Donahue Show? Television being geared as it is towards gaining mass audiences through sensationalism would inevitably affect attempts at this particular form of direct democracy. This could be interesting if interest groups could compete in gameshows for political support and public amusement. However, `the Price is Right' is not democracy, and as such, a tainted television system cannot work in implementing a more participatory democracy.

The other technology available for direct democracy might be some two-way computer hook-up ``beside every bed'' with a console for voting and expressing opinion. (Macpherson, 95) This would be a neat little gadget with Yes and No buttons, or Agree, Disagree, or Don't Know buttons, or any other combination thinkable. Nonetheless, a similar problem crops up here as above; the elites will have to formulate the questions. Dangerous questions would be kept from the political agenda, and questions could be worded in a misleading or confusing manner.

Another possibility for linear democracy would be a pyramidal parliamentary system.

To achieve citizen-government rapport, there must be dialogue, but the governors will only talk seriously with citizens who are organized and have clout. (Lyon, 8)

A pyramidal model will provide citizens with that clout and organization. At the base of the pyramid would be neighborhood gatherings in order to debate issues face-to-face, and to elect delegates for the next highest level on the pyramid, a city or borough council. (Macpherson, 108) So it would continue on up the pyramid, slowly shrinking the number of delegates, and increasing the size of the representation. This system would alow greater accountability to the average citizen, and would also provide him with greater ease of access to the political system.

A final possibility for increased participation would be accession to the United States. The U.S. is quite open to accepting Canada into its fold formally; it even has an amendment to its constitution that allows Canada specifically to be annexed with little hassle. This could be a boon to both nations. Chaos would surely occur if this occurred, but from that chaos could both systems be replaced with a new hybrid of linear democracy that would increase the power of the citizen and reform the management of government.

In conclusion, one must examine the problems of participation in Canadian politics very seriously, and consider the possibilities of that participation increasing. Rousseau, in the Social Contract, said that ``as soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, `What does it matter to me?' the state may be given up for lost.'' (Pranger, 87) It would be a shame to give up on the last 125 years of Canada.


Chomsky, Noam. Necessary Illusions. Boston: South End Press, 1989.
Fotheringham, Allan. ``A Fury That Found Its Voice.'' MacLeans. November 2, 1992.
Lyon, Vaughan. ``Houses of Citizens.'' Policy Options. Halifax South: The Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1984.
Lyon, Vaughan. ``The Meech Lake Accord: Breaking Point of Elite Control.'' Politics 100 lecture, February 18, 1993.
Macpherson, C.B. The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Neufeld, Mark. ``Marxism and International Relations.'' Politics 220 lecture, February 10, 1993.
Pranger, Robert J. The Eclipse of Citizenship. New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1968.

Return to Howard Fienberg's home page