If Canadian democracy was a patient, it would be in the hallway on a gurney on its way to palliative care.
- Rick Mercer, Rick Mercer Report March 31st
Rick Mercer, one of Canada's iconic CBC personalities, isn't the first to use a health metaphor to describe the state of our body politic. But while Mr. Mercer may just be using a figureof speech, it brings attention to an important fact — the health of our democracy and the health of our citizens are inescapably connected.
As the work of Upstream demonstrates, peoples' health outcomes are a direct result of the policy, regulation and law which are a part of our political process. For this reason we should be seriously concerned that our democracy is not doing so well.
Canada's need for a democracy health check-up is corroborated by extensive research conducted by our organization, Samara Canada. Samara is a non-partisan charity dedicated to monitoring and improving the health of democracy in our country. Thus far, the prognosis is not good.
At Samara we feel that too often our understanding of our democracy's health is left to the blunt measure of voter turnout once every four years. To expand our evaluation of democratic health, we released the Democracy 360 report. It's the first-ever measure of how well democracy is faring at home, going beyond voter turnout and focusing on three broader areas that are essential to a healthy democracy: communication, participation and political leadership.
The Democracy 360 report ultimately awarded Canadian democracy a lousy "C" grade, finding that Canadians don't believe politics affects them. According to the report, we just don't see our leaders as influential or efficacious, or feel like we are participating in politics as much as we could be.
the political process now repels more citizens than it attracts
It's worthwhile digging a bit deeper into some of the report's findings. The Democracy 360 found that only 31% of Canadians think politics affects them every day, and only 40% trust MPs. 42% trust political parties "a great deal" or "a fair amount". This should concern us all, since the ability of our elected representatives to make decisions on our behalf requires Canadians to consider politics worthwhile, and place trust in our MPs and political parties.
Furthermore the imbalance between those who contribute to our democracy and those who the report finds are "checking out" is a stark one — in the 2011 federal election there was a 36% gap between the cohort with the highest turnout (ages 65-74) and that with the lowest (ages 18-24). Meanwhile the political process now repels more citizens than it attracts, particularly young Canadians. As a consequence our political system is becoming less representative, leading to inequalities between Canadians who participate and those who do not. The failure of many Canadians to contribute to our political life — or to see it as a way to make meaningful change — should serve as a warning sign to anyone interested in our society's well-being.
The challenge is that a majority of Canadians no longer feel politics is serving them. If a majority of Canadians no longer felt the healthcare system had their best interests in mind, its legitimacy would begin to crumble. The same goes for our politics. If the majority of Canadians are withdrawing from the political process, the health of our democracy is in peril.
The Democracy 360 report did find some positive signs. Over half of Canadians donate to charity and volunteer, for example. In doing so they are revealing their ability and desire to contribute resources toward building a better society. But if we want a truly healthy society we need to work together, to encourage Canadians to more fully develop their political and civic voices.
As part of our efforts to encourage these healthy communities, Samara created the Everyday Political Citizen project, the first of its kind to celebrate positive political role models to build a culture of positive politics in Canada. Last year, over 350 Canadians were celebrated from coast to coast for their willingness to contribute to their communities and their democracy.
Projects like the EPC are a start, but there is much more work to be done. Organizations like Upstream play an important role in demonstrating the link between politics and the issues they care about, and an election in 2015 represents a real opportunity to build on this momentum towards a more engaging political life. For a healthy political culture, we need more than just higher turnout. We require a broader shift toward "everyday democracy" in which citizens feel that politics is a way to make change int he country and have their voices heard.
With more Canadians recognizing that a healthy democracy is key to a healthy society, there's hope that ours won't need that bed in palliative care.
Jane Hilderman is the executive director of Samara, an organization dedicated to citizen engagement and connection to politics, where she spearheaded the Democracy 360 project. She holds a master's degree in public policy from the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto, and has worked on Parliament Hill for both government and opposition benches.