Canadians for Direct Democracy
by André Carrel
Burnaby B.C. - October 22, 1997
The Globe and Mail of last Friday, October 17th, had a small article by Michael Valpy titled "Small communities still ripe soil for planting values." It referred to a keynote speech delivered to the Jane Jacobs Conference by Dr. Lukas van Spengler, former senior policy advisor to the Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
Dr. van Spengler talked about cities – historically the crucibles of values – and how they are losing their traditional capacity to create and sustain values. He observed that we choose to pollute, to widen the gulf between rich and poor, to eliminate jobs in the economy, and he suggested that no decline in the rising trend of man-made problems is to be expected.
Dr. van Spengler identified six primary civic conditions for value creation:
Dialogue – needed to forge understanding and agreement among individuals and keep communities together; Diversity – because without diversity there is no reason for dialogue; Involvement – otherwise, we remain bobbing frivolously on the surface of social life; Responsibility – which allows us to act. If you can't act, why go through the painful process of changing values; Cohesion, compassion and empathy – which are what we need before we can get involved at the level of our feelings; Collective Memory which is harder and harder to hold on to in cities because of the pace at which people move around.
In his conclusion, Dr. van Spengler speculated that today's prime value factories are small communities where the conditions for creating values have not eroded.
Welcome to the City of Rossland. The City of Rossland is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year 100 years since the discovery of gold created an instant city of 10,000 people on the slopes of Red Mountain. With today's population of 3,800, Rossland is one of those small communities Dr. van Spengler referred to in his address to the Jane Jacobs Conference.
In the late 1980's municipal government in the City of Rossland could at best be described as dysfunctional. A chronicle of the first 100 years of Rossland had this to say about that period:
For eighteen months [Mayor] Camozzi amassed grievances against the administrator but was unwilling to fire him because "I was afraid of getting sued." As a majority on Council continued to support [City Administrator] Carrel, it became apparent that the conflict at City Hall was not just between the mayor and his administrator but between the mayor and his council.1
Rossland Council had made land use decisions blocking access to popular hiking trails and other decisions with long-term implications; the community was frustrated. The pressure inside as well as outside City Hall reached a point where the Mayor and one Councillor resigned in mid-term. A by-election saw Bill Profili, two-term Mayor in the early 1980's, returned to the Office of Mayor by acclamation. Political turmoil was not limited to city politics at that time. That was the time of the Meech Lake Accord. Citizens throughout the country, Rossland included, were upset about the future of the country being decided by eleven men in suits meeting behind closed doors. Recent local events led Council to recognize that citizens are as excluded from decisions at the level of local politics as they are from the national level. Rossland City Council decided to do something about it. In the spring of 1990 Council requested a discussion paper to bring forth ideas on how to change the status quo.
In August 1990 a discussion paper titled A Constitution for Local Government, was presented to Council. The paper suggested that many of the chronic problems we face in governing our municipalities are rooted in the structure of municipal government. Municipal government in Canada began with the Baldwin Act of 1849; it was adopted when Canada was still a British colony. The guiding principles of current-day municipal statutes are those of the Baldwin Act. The guiding principles of current-day municipal statutes in Canada are profoundly colonial.
The discussion paper explored an outline for a new municipal government structure, a municipal constitution that would radically change the relationship between council and citizens. The structure proposed in the paper placed legislative responsibility in the hands of citizens and executive responsibility in the hands of council. The structure proposed in the paper was carefully designed to be implemented under the authority of the British Columbia Municipal Act. A new municipal government structure requiring a change in provincial legislation or the Constitution of Canada would have been of little use. Council wanted something to do, not something to store on a bookshelf.
Rossland's Municipal Constitution provides for two distinct democratic tools: the referendum and the citizens' initiative. The referendum is used as a mechanism by which citizens are empowered to decide whether a bylaw advanced by their Council should be implemented. The citizens' initiative is used as a mechanism by which citizens are empowered to introduce a bylaw directly. Both are triggered by petition. A petition is valid provided it is signed by 20% of the community's registered voters. When Council receives a citizens' initiative petition, Council is required to bring the appropriate bylaw to first reading within 12 months. When Council receives a petition for referendum on a bylaw, a referendum must be held within 12 months, and the outcome of that referendum is binding on Council. And that is all there is to Rossland's Municipal Constitution.
To the skeptic, Rossland's Municipal Constitution is a buck-passing scheme. It allows Council to avoid making the tough decisions needed in government today. It abandons the uninformed and otherwise preoccupied masses to suffer the consequences of their own ignorance. It allows the majority to trample on the rights of the minority. If you hold that view, you have reason to be concerned. Those ignorant masses in Rossland, that tyrannical majority, oblivious to the needs and aspirations of the community's helpless minority, is the same crowd that used to elect the Mayor and Councillors to run the show with unobstructed authority. If the masses, the people living in our communities, are indeed ill informed, apathetic, uncaring, selfish and ignorant – democracy is dead. Anyone who suggests that we can only have a democracy if an elected elite has the power to keep the majority of our citizens under control fails to understand what a democracy is. If the masses are uninformed, disinterested, apathetic, uncaring and selfish, it really does not matter whether or not we hold an occasional election or referendum. In such a society, however gentle and caring a government may be, whatever political commentators may call the system, the society is not - it cannot be - a democracy.
With all due respect, you are wrong when you assume that we have representative democracy in Canada, at the federal, provincial or municipal level. We live in a "responsible democracy", not a representative democracy – there is a difference. It is our proximity to the US and the cultural influence the US has on us that leads us to believe that we live in a representative democracy. "We the people" is a US constitutional phrase. Canada's Constitution recognizes governments, federal and provincial, not citizens.2 The Canadian parliamentary system is based on the philosophical concept of responsible government and is modeled on the British prototype. The existence of a legitimate government, in a formal sense, requires that a political party, either alone or in coalition with others, has the confidence or support of a majority of the members of parliament. The people are assumed to have a collective will, which is expressed through the election of governments with legislative majorities.3
Responsible government has lost much of the legitimacy it once had. Information technology has created opportunities for abuse and, along with the passage of time, has transformed our responsible democracy into what David Marley calls a "ritualistic democracy." Our society has reached the point where cynicism and disdain are the only methods left for many citizens to cope with "politics as usual." The hypothesis of Rossland's Municipal Constitution is that citizens, voters and taxpayers, will take an interest in issues of substance, will seek to inform themselves about facts, and will debate the merits and the cost of public policy questions – provided their efforts can truly, honestly and effectively determine the decision, if and when citizens so choose.
When the Municipal Constitution arrived in Rossland there was an initial bravado; voters rejected – three times consecutively – an attempt by council to increase its remuneration. They defeated it narrowly, but nonetheless they did it with glee. More recent decisions Rossland voters have made have been far more thoughtful and devoid of reactionary anger. To expect that citizens in Rossland should have switched with ease and noblesse from being spectators of a "ritualistic democracy" to being responsible and empowered citizens of a "democracy" plain and simple is expecting too much.
Today the tone of political discourse at Rossland townhall meetings is civil, and debate is focused on real issues within the municipality's sphere. Far from leading to slash-and-burn tax revolts, citizen participation in Rossland's municipal decision-making process has enabled Council to invest heavily in basic municipal infrastructure while, at the same time, paying down its accumulated debt. Residential property taxes bring in over 90% of the City's tax revenues, yet taxes have gone up, not down, since the Municipal Constitution became a reality. Just this year, well over 200 citizens attended the Open House and Official Opening of Rossland's first water treatment plant. It is British Columbia's largest slow sand filtration plant, British Columbia's first municipal ozone disinfection plant, and the buildings were designed to conform to the City's Gold Rush area heritage design guidelines. It cost about $1,000 per capita to build, about 20% more than what a standard run-of-the-mill water treatment plant would have cost. The people of Rossland voted for this by referendum in February 1995 with a 48% turnout and 80% in favour of the project and its costs. Far from using their empowerment to slash taxes, Rossland citizens have consistently been using their democratic power to enhance and jointly pay for the community's common good. Citizens in Rossland know who owns the municipal corporation and its assets; they are the shareholders.
Rossland City Council has not lost its ability to provide leadership for the community. Quite to the contrary, Council has earned the respect and trust of citizens and that has enabled Council to explore new ideas, to look to the future, to create a vision. Council knows that if it leaves the community too far behind, citizens have access to a civilized and effective process by which to rein in their Council. Citizens and Council know that one process - the election process - deals with the personality and character of Council members and that another - the referendum and initiative petition process - deals with issues. The respect for Council was not garnered through clever political advertising and posturing, it was not just earned by honestly and seriously consulting voters and taxpayers, it was, above all, earned by empowering citizens. In Rossland, citizens are not just consulted, they are empowered to make the decision. Citizens and Council know that, as voters and taxpayers, citizens suffer the consequences of decisions made at City Hall good or bad. Citizens know that their community's Municipal Constitution places on them the responsibility for decisions in matters that affect the common good of the community long after the term of the present-day Council has expired. They had a choice, they voted for their Municipal Constitution twice.
Let me assure you that Rossland politics is not a Norman Rockwell scene. You can easily find people on Rossland's main street who believe firmly that the Mayor is a crook, that Councillors are gutless sheep, that City workers are lazy bums, that the administrator should be run out of town - tarred and feathered and on a rail - and that it is unfortunate that there is not a damned thing people can do about it. Rossland is not that different from many other small communities in Canada. It is the kind of community, however, where Council's remuneration is subject to citizen approval, and where it is normal for Council to circulate a 21 page questionnaire to over 50 citizens in the community to help it evaluate the performance of its administrator!
We live in an age where we expect guarantees for everything; if it does not work right, we are not hesitant to sue "whatever may happen to me, it is not my fault, someone else ought to pay!" We also live in an age where we expect everything to be instant - instant gratification, instant communication, and instant noodles. Democracy is neither instant, nor guaranteed. The struggle for democracy started over 2,000 years ago in Greece, and the perfect recipe has escaped every thinker and philosopher that ever pondered its principles:
In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:"He who makes the law knows better than anyone how it ought to be executed and interpreted. It seems then that there could be not better constitution than the one in which the executive power is joined to the legislative. But it is just that which renders this Government insufficient in certain regards, because things that ought to be distinguished are not, and the prince and the Sovereign, being the same person, only form as it were a Government without a Government. "4
In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote:"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all." 5
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
"Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people's reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty."6
In 1849 Henry David Thoreau wrote:
"The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."7
In 1995 Jeremy Rifkin wrote:"Now, however, that the commercial and public sectors are no longer capable of securing some of the fundamental needs of the people, the public has little choice but to begin looking out for itself, once again, by reestablishing viable communities as a buffer against both the impersonal forces of the global market and increasingly weak and incompetent central governing authorities." 8
And finally, in 1995 John Ralston Saul wrote:
"Direct Democracy seems to push the citizen forward by emphasizing the importance of casting a ballot. Of course the vote is essential to the democratic process, but it is not the purpose. Consideration, reflection, doubt and debate were the primary purpose of the Athenian agora and ekklesia, as of representative assemblies over the last few centuries. These four processes are the body of the democratic sentence. The vote is merely the punctuation. The body of the sentence, if properly expressed, makes it almost inevitable that sometimes there will be an uncertain question mark, a careful period or sometimes a determined exclamation. Without the body, these signals are clear and even exciting, but meaningless. Direct democracy is all punctuation, but denies functioning language." 9
I guess Rossland could have waited until someone found a solution to Rousseau's concern that "one cannot imagine the people remaining constantly assembled in order to attend to public affairs." We could have waited until the Federal Government, with the support of the House of Commons and the Senate and all the Provincial Governments from coast to coast agreed to give citizens the right to vote on those municipal issues they the citizens themselves deem important. We could have waited, but it would have been a long wait - so we didn't. In November 1990 City Council asked the voters of Rossland: "Do you want to be empowered?" They said: "Yes!" And seven years, ten referenda, one plebiscite and four failed petitions later, here we are not perfect, but alive and well.
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