Canadians for
 Direct Democracy (CDD)

Direct Democracy -- the right of citizens
to hold referenda on any issue

Progress toward Direct Democracy in B.C.

An article to be published in Monetary Reform magazine in Summer, 1999
By Colin Stark, Canadians for Direct Democracy, Vancouver, B.C.
Edited by Doug Porter and Lorys Schouela

It is just two years since a disparate group of idealists adopted Margaret Mead's words as their inspiration:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world;
indeed it's the only thing that ever has."

In these two years Canadians for Direct Democracy (CDD) has made progress on many fronts, and is poised to bring the topic of citizen-initiated referenda into the public eye in the B.C. Municipal elections in November 1999.

While this article focuses on our experience in B.C., we see similar abuses of democracy elsewhere in Canada, including the forced amalgamation of cities to form the Toronto Megacity, and the absurd direct democracy legislation proposed by the Harris government.

Defining Direct Democracy
Progress of CDD over 2 years
Objections to Democracy
Lessons we have learned
How do we proceed?

Defining Direct Democracy

We at Canadians for Direct Democracy define direct democracy as:
"a system of citizen-initiated binding referenda whereby voters can directly amend, introduce and remove policies and laws:

1. The Popular Veto -- when a group (usually 1-10%) of voters challenges a law by petitioning government (local, provincial, or national), a binding referendum vote must be held. If the referendum passes, the law is struck down.
2. The Popular Initiative -- when a group (1-10%) of voters demands a new law by petitioning government, a binding referendum vote must be held. If the referendum passes, the proposed law is enacted.
While these are the two basic and essential tenets of direct democracy, there are many nuances that can be adapted to fit the individual needs of a community.

Complete details, including the District of North Vancouver's Task Force Report on Direct Democracy, are at our website at

This system does not imply government by referendum. More than 95% of laws will continue to be made by the existing system of representative government. Only when more than 50% of voters are strongly opposed to the government's actions or inactions does the referendum process take effect. However direct democracy is more than just a mechanism: it is an ever-present process that influences our representatives to remember at all times that they are ultimately accountable to the people. All too often, at all levels of government, legislation is strongly influenced by party policies, leadership autocracy, and lobbyists; all of which are anti-democratic. Direct democracy strongly encourages decisions to be made in an open and transparent atmosphere where elected representatives are accountable to the people. Direct democracy encourages a focus on the issues rather than on the politics, because it allows citizens to vote on the issues that are most important to them.

It is likely that only one to ten decisions in one or two referenda per year will be made by referendum. This is the experience in Switzerland and Rossland, B.C..

This basic system has operated in Switzerland for 140 years, in Rossland, B.C. since 1991, and in the province of Saskatchewan since 1984. A system of Propositions operates in 24 States of USA, including Washington, Oregon, and California. Significant differences exist among all of these systems, and they exist in different cultures, so the results of a referendum in one area would not necessarily be repeated in another.

Progress of CDD over 2 years

 We have learned much in two years. Initially we talked to all who would listen. Our desire to tackle the biggest problems first led us to believe that direct democracy could best serve citizens at a national level, where legislation like NAFTA and the GST (regardless of their merits) had been rammed through without any specific mandate from the people. At the provincial/local level, issues like casinos and incursions into the agricultural land reserve grabbed our attention. Citizens strongly resent Federal and Provincial governments making these major decisions without any specific mandate.

We quickly became aware that our whole system of government is topsy-turvy. All legal power is vested in our federal government, which allocates some powers to provinces, which in turn pass down some minimal powers to municipalities. Nowhere are the people involved in this power-sharing. Therefore in struggles for power, the senior governments usually have their way, regardless of the wishes of the people.

Federal Conservative MP Patrick Boyer made a valiant effort to introduce direct democracy in a private member's Bill in 1988. It was defeated in the smoky back rooms without even getting an hour's debate. Part of Boyer's legacy is five superb books on democracy, including "The People's Mandate, Referendums and a More Democratic Canada".

In 1991 the B.C. government called a referendum on citizen-initiated referenda and recall, in conjunction with the provincial election. The people voted in favour of referenda by 83%, and in favour of recall by 81%. The Harcourt/Clark governments delayed legislation until 1995 when they introduced an act carefully designed to make citizen-initiated referenda virtually impossible. One MLA has been recalled, and several unsuccessful recall attempts have been made. CDD does not support recall, provided initiative and veto are in place.

From this background, and from the replies to our own letters to political leaders, we realized that the power of referendum was well known to the politically savvy leaders in senior governments, and that they wanted no part of it.

We thus shifted our focus to the local level of government, where we found that some councillors and many political activists were fuming at the lack of democracy even here, where the politicians live in the municipality which they serve. It has been at the local level that we have had, and expect to continue to have, the most success, although we continue to hope for miracles at senior government levels -- who could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall?

When we made contact with Councillor Ernie Crist in the District of North Vancouver, a prosperous municipality of 50,000 voters, he brought a proposal for direct democracy to council, which unanimously approved the formation of a Task Force. The Task Force began meeting in May of 1998, and its unanimous report, recommending a referendum on a non-binding system of referenda, came before Council on March 8th 1999.

Sadly, Council rejected its own Task Force's unanimous Report by a 4-3 vote, despite little significant debate, and despite 19 citizens speaking in favour of the report, and none against. The fight for direct democracy is far from over. Reaction by columnists and letters-to-the-editor in local papers has been overwhelmingly in favour of the Task Force Report (see website).

Objections to Democracy

Why are so many people so strongly opposed to direct democracy?

The short answer is that the vast majority of people are in favour of it, as indicated by the B.C. referendum when 83% voted in favour. This result was confirmed in a poll conducted by the North Shore News after the March 8th rejection of the Task Force Report.

So who is opposed and why?

We agree with Dr. William Downe's excellent article "Fear of Democracy", in the fall issue of Monetary Reform, that the "why" reduces to irrational Fears.

He lists seven major fears, and our experience supports his analysis. The results in referenda and polls suggest that the one fear that blocks progress more than all others combined is "Fear of Loss of Political Influence and Power".r

Ekos surveys indicate that the priorities of political leaders are vastly different from the priorities of the general population. While over 80% of the general population consistently supports direct democracy, it is clear that most politicians, and especially their leaders, oppose sharing power with the people, or being accountable to the people.

Given such overwhelming support, why do citizens have so much trouble having their wishes followed in a country that we think of as being a democracy? Again Dr. Downe points at:
"Canada's present political system keeps its citizens in a dependent-child state."
We have been raised in a society where "father knows best", and most of us have yet to grow up!
Sad but true!

Lessons we have learned

We have learned to focus on local government, where elected representatives are more open to listening to the people. We are surprised that even locally, politicians are so resistant to direct democracy. Municipalities have little power allotted to them by the provinces. In the past year alone, the B.C. government has downloaded over $200 million of costs on the municipalities without any mandate. In issues like Skytrain, Burns Bog development, and casino gambling, to mention a few, the province has steamrolled municipal governments. One would think that local governments would see that they would gain popular support by taking such issues to referendum.

Our major focus this year will be on the November 1999 B.C. municipal elections. Several townships have had experience over the past three years of local governments being grossly insensitive to their views:

ü Langley council tried to privatize the civic Ice Rinks, and despite petitions carrying twice the required number of voters signatures (5% is required under the new Bill 31 to call for a referendum on a limited range of issues), proceeded with a modified course that circumvented Bill 31.
ü Delta council quickly backed away from the Burns Bog development plan under a storm of province-wide protest, but this issue could come up again at any time.
ü In Pitt Meadows, the notorious Swan-e-Set project is back despite 40% of voters' signatures on a petition 2 years ago.
ü Citizens in several other municipalities, North Vancouver included, have shown signs that they are ready to vote for candidates who favour direct democracy.
November 1999 may well be the turning-point B.C. has been waiting for.

NOTE - December 1999 - There were major upsets of Mayor and Council in Langley and Pitt Meadows (and Maple Ridge) - A slate in North Vancouver ws returned with an increased majority.

We have tried to form alliances with environmental and citizen groups, with limited success. We hope that over time, these groups, which are supplicants to governments, will realize that they have much to gain by taking their proposals directly to citizens by referenda. We believe that this solution complements the current case-by-case struggle that many of these groups engage in.

We at Canadians for Direct Democracy welcome contact from interested groups or individuals.

How do we proceed?

 But the question remains: "What can one person do?"

We have little faith in the tired advice: "write to your MP, phone your councillor, write to your newspaper, etc." Occasionally, on a huge issue like Burns Bog, these measures work. But they are never enough.

We say that much more is needed:

ü get involved with a group like Canadians for Direct Democracy as a means to inform yourself, and to gain the support of like-minded people;
ü seek out a democratic councillor who will bring a motion for direct democracy before your council;
ü run for office in November;
ü seek out, and work on behalf of a candidate who stands for direct democracy, there will be many;
ü attend public meetings and speak out;
ü phone in to radio and TV shows and voice your opinion.

And if you have no time or energy for all of that, at least get out and vote this November, it will be your last chance till 2002!

Colin Stark is Vice-President of Canadians for Direct Democracy, Vancouver, B.C.

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