• Photograph by Elections Canada

Democratic engagement is a core health issue

Are we powerless to effect change? It's a notion that's been popular for many election cycles. But just try telling a local community group that's just rallied for a new service or program, that they are powerless. The truth is, there are some very achievable changes we can make to the Canadian democratic system, to get everyone a lot more engaged.

I recently had the honour of joining Samara Canada’s Jane Hilderman to present one of our association’s Agent of Change Awards to a very special organization called Kingston Community Health Centres.

It recognized their contributions to democratic engagement among diverse communities in the City of Kingston, Ontario. As a health and healthcare organization, Kingston CHCs have taken exceptional steps to incorporate democratic engagement into their strategic vision and they have rolled out a variety of activities to increase democratic participation by members of the community, including newcomers to Canada.


We thought this deserved recognition, and we believe it’s still critical for health organizations to put time and attention to democratic engagement, because it deeply matters to the health of individuals, families and communities we serve. It is part of our core business.

Our association is in alignment with organizations like Samara Canada and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing that describe the importance of democratic participation in helping people build a sense of empowerment, a sense of connection to society-at-large, and a belief, if only faintly, that collective action can change society and lived reality for the better. We support hope against hopelessness. This applies to individuals, families and communities – both geographically-based communities and communities of shared interest and identity. This sense of belonging, connectedness, and belief in one’s ability to improve lived reality are all important inputs for physical and mental health.

Community Health Centres see each day what success could look like

Despite the importance of democratic engagement, evidence from sources like the 2012 Canadian Index of Wellbeing Report reveal that participation in democratic activities across Canada is on the decline. This is not limited to voting. It also refers to participation in political debates during elections, volunteering for political parties, and the extent to which individuals identify that they participate in discussions focused on issues of concern as they relate to elections and the role of government.

There are several factors causing this.  Some citizens have confusion and anxiety about how various elements of the democratic process work. For others, there is a lack of belief that democratic processes can actually change our lived reality. There is also a creeping cynicism about the motivations of individuals who occupy political office. Topping it all off, we all face increasing distractions in an age of over-abundant information.

Together, these factors have coalesced to produce both passive disengagement, and active retreat from political processes across Canada. Our association finds this alarming, and this is a deep concern shared by our Community Health Centre members across Canada.

Community Health Centres see the impacts of disengagement and social isolation on the health and wellbeing of the individuals, families and communities they serve every day. But at the same time, CHCs have also seen the limitless possibilities for health and wellbeing that occur when the spark is lit within individuals, families and communities that participation and collective action can, and do make a difference.

In order to get there we must reignite belief in the positive potential of our democratic processes

The dynamics at play when a community group achieves this type of success are the same factors that are at play within our democratic processes. And while the challenge of affecting broader social change through political processes is a more daunting one, Community Health Centres see each day what success could look like -- just on a smaller, local scale. It’s what informs CHCs and our association, that we must marshal our resources and capacity to push back against the tide of political disengagement across our country.

Our shared conviction was solidified in September 2014 with the adoption, by our full membership, of a resolution that reaffirms the role and commitment of our association and Community Health Centres to democratic engagement. The resolution reads as follows.

“The Canadian Association of Community Health Centres and its members, as non-partisan organizations, recommit to the fundamental role of Community Health Centres as civic agencies which not only provide high-quality healthcare services and programs, but also programs and initiatives that explicitly seek to improve Democratic Engagement as a key determinant of individual, family and population health.”

This commitment has set our association and a growing number of CHCs across Canada on a course to expand efforts to engage community members around the importance of democratic participation. The work being done by Kingston CHCs is just one example from a growing chorus of community-based strategies and activities that has begun to unfold.

We want to positively influence political parties at all levels of government to commit to healthy public policy, a goal we share with Upstream. Our parallel challenge along the way is to ensure that the driving force for change is a  grassroots call, channeled through increased public dialogue and participation at the ballot box. But In order to get there we must reignite belief in the positive potential of our democratic processes, we must demystify how they work, and we must encourage each other to make this a priority. Once we get the voter turnout numbers after the federal election we can re-assess where we stand, but it would be a tragedy to see the recent uptick in attention to democratic engagement wane. As healthcare associations and organizations, we must be leaders.




scott_wolf_headshot.jpgScott A. Wolfe is the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres and Advisor to the International Federation of Community Health Centres. He's also served as Senior Policy Advisor for the Association of Ontario Health Centres, Director of Global Health Policy for the International Association of Providers in AIDS Care, and Communications Advisor in the Programs on Non-Communicable Diseases and Health. Wolfe holds a Masters in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Toronto, and lives in West Toronto with his partner and their two daughters.

Connect upstream.