Canadians for
 Direct Democracy (CDD)


Citizens' Hall: Making Local Democracy Work

by André Carrel

Excerpts (authorized by the publisher) from Chapter 7 - The Democratic Way, pages 99, 102-104

Publisher, Between The Lines, Toronto, 1-800-718-7201

My passion for democracy greatly exceeds my ability to express in clear and concise language what it is.
Saul points to the involvement of the citizen as the key to the secret of a functioning democracy - citizen involvement, not citizen rights. Saul also refers to "the citizen", not citizens. The emphasis is on the singular. A democratic decision is not the product of numbers, that is, of majorities; it is a blend of individuals' minds, ideas, virtues, and ethics. Citizens' Hall: Making Local Democracy Work

How do citizens become engaged in the democratic process without opening the door to anarchy, to mob rule? I hear it every time the subject of referendums is raised: "What about minority rights?" If the choice is between the tyranny of the majority - mob rule and the tyranny of the minority - apartheid - who is to make the choice? Who would want to? How could democracy be the expected outcome of any governing philosophy that entails tyranny by anything or anyone? Is there not a third option, a middle ground? Or is that third option as elusive as the third option in a coin toss - heads, tails, or edge? Where can we find the balance, the equilibrium, that Saul speaks of?

As it is, the role of citizens has been pushed to the margins of Governance as elections have been debased to the level of vulgar popularity spectacles. Public debate, particularly during elections, has been narrowed to flogging slogans as cure-all solutions for whatever ails the community, province, or nation. Mass communication and advertising techniques have allowed an elite to dominate public debate by offering facile solutions to difficult issues, many of which reflect humanity's endless struggles. Those struggles are not singular problems that can be resolved in the same way as we would deal with the problem of a leaking roof.

As Saul puts it, a simplistic system of majorities does not constitute democratic governance. The counting of votes is only the final step in a democratic society. The votes are only counted after questions and ideas have been explored, examined, and debated. The mindless crunching of numbers that has come to dominate so much of our political discourse today, from opinion polls to election results cannot replace the nuances and complexity of a democratic equilibrium. It is not surprising that citizens are confused and frustrated by how the Canadian brand of democracy works. Our pseudo-democracy's ailment is the absence of a civilized, effective, and meaningful process that empowers citizens to participate in their own governance. As it is now, people's views appear to be sought only during elections and in the ubiquitous opinion polls.

Researchers and pundits often cite the growing gap between the rich and poor as one of the leading problems of our times. Another gap, equally wide and growing, also exists, and it is arguably more threatening to the health of our society: the gap separating citizens from their governments, and thus from effective control over their own communities. Robert Putnam's analysis points out: "A region's chances of achieving socioeconomic development during this century have depended less on its initial socioeconomic endowments than on its (p 104) civic endowments. Insofar as we can judge from this simple analysis, the contemporary correlation between civics and economics reflects primarily the impact of civics on economics, not the reverse. 6

A dominant idea today is that the needs of civil society must be adapted to serve the interests and principles of a global economy. Capital rules, democracy serves. This is not a new development: civic government has been in a struggle with economic self-interests for many generations. Michael J. Sandel concludes, "A national economy dominated by vast corporations diminishes the autonomy of local communities, traditionally the site of self-government."7 The gap between rich and poor ceased to close and began to widen rapidly in the 1980s as the economy ceased to be seen as having a role in support of civil society. The call to cut taxes - money for the common good - has become a chorus song across the political spectrum. The obscenity is that the economy, including its massive dependence on advertising (is advertising not concealed taxation?), can afford to pay ridiculous compensation to actors and professional athletes, but that same economy can, apparently, no longer support education and health in proportion to earlier levels

The symptoms of the gap between citizens and their governments are disillusionment, discontent, and cynicism about politics. The consequence is a diminished democracy, which in turn makes it difficult to realize the common good even if its values still exist. Ultimately the estrangement of citizens from their own government will diminish the rights we have come to cherish so much.

Today power would appear to be vested not in "The People," but in the hands of a few people, an elite. How then is our system different from other forms of government in which a few privileged people make decisions that have an impact on the lives of everyone? The concentration of power at the top leads to the consequence that strategies for the pursuit of power appear to have a higher priority in politics than strategies for a public debate on public policy. We have seen how the Reform Party of Canada gradually moved closer to the main-stream - a shift that some onlookers considered to represent the Party's corrupting of the party's early ideas. The Reform Party's metamorphosis from a Western Canadian protest movement to a traditional political party concluded with its rebirth in spring 2000 as the Canadian Alliance, whose single-minded objective was to think big and gain power. Reformers apparently came to believe that, in order to play ball in the Canadian political power league, they had to wear the uniform that went with the game. In the beginning the party did not follow the power-is-everything-snout-in-the-trough mentality of the older establishment parties. The Preston Manning that stood before them in their community halls a decade ago was not the same stylishly coiffed Stornaway resident who turned Reform into the Alliance. Manning went from "think principle" to "think big." The history of the power of (p 104) political ideas in Canada appears to have been forgotten. Many of our present social programs, for example, have their roots in ideas advocated by the CCF/NDP. Those ideas were gradually adopted by the mainstream of Canadian society without the CCF/NDP ever having gained power at the national level. Medicare, once decried as a socialist curse, is today cherished as a National Trust.

If we cling to the belief that in Canada "The People" ought to have a role in the decision-making process, how do we achieve that goal without being sucked into the vortex of political games despised by so many Canadians? Is merely having the right to "throw the bums out" periodically (and elect a new set of bums) enough? If not, why not? How do "The People" gain a greater voice in making the decisions that govern our lives? How can we, governing at the municipal level, make democracy happen?

What must distinguish democratic government from other forms of government is a grounding in mutual trust among citizens and between government and citizens. Trust can be sustained only if it flows in a closed cycle: from citizen to government and back to citizen. If it flows in one direction only, the well will soon run dry. Through regular and free elections, citizens place their trust in a small group of their peers to govern on their behalf. This system is well developed. What remains underdeveloped, if not totally undeveloped, is a way in which governments can demonstrate their trust in the citizens they govern. To that end governments must demonstrate a willingness to receive and respect not just input, but also direction and decisions from the citizenry.

There is nothing to be feared but a lot to be gained when councils trust citizens to bear the responsibility not only for the policy direction to be taken by their administrations but also for those decisions citizens themselves (not their elected leaders and not the provincial government) deem to be of critical importance to the community. The fulfilment of this goal requires a proper dialogue between citizens and government, as well as between citizen and citizen. The communication of certain "facts" - for example, how big is the deficit? How big is the national debt? How many Canadian jails have golf courses? - is not dialogue, it is just arguing about facts (sort of). Dialogue, in my view, means discussion and debate about ideas, vision, and objectives - the kind of matters that will eventually jell into policy. Any pretence of democratic government is lost when a government communicates with its citizens by way of self-aggrandizing propaganda and slogans, or through feel-good announcements. …

Obtain this book from Between The Lines, 1-800-718-7201

Excerpts and E-mails from

To Match a Dream

by Deborah Coyne and Michael Valpy

From: Colin Stark
Sent: Thursday, March 15, 2001 2:51 PM
To: M. Valpy Subject: Referenda in "To Match a Dream"

Dear Michael Valpy and Deborah Coyne

I am in the middle of reading your excellent book: To Match a Dream: A Practical Guide to Canada's Constitution where I encounter some interesting observations about referenda, as follows. My comments are in [CAPS]:


Yours sincerely,

Canadians for Direct Democracy Vancouver, B.C.





Finally there was an amending formula based on four regions -- the Atlantic provinces, the West, Quebec, and Ontario. For most constitutional amendments, the formula required the consent of the federal Parliament and any province that had at any time 25 per cent of the population of Canada (Ontario and Quebec alone would qualify), and at least two of the four Atlantic provinces and at least two of the four Western provinces with a combined population of 50 per cent of the West. This gave Ontario and Quebec an effective veto over constitutional change. A federal initiative to include a referendum as a deadlock-breaking device was rejected.



Yet a referendum mechanism would have provided a safeguard against any provincial government acting contrary to the wishes of the majority of the population by refusing to consent to an amendment.



Its absence - then and now - leads to confusion over the real source of sovereignty in Canada: the people or some combination of their federal and provincial governments.


Since the Victoria Charter conference, a number of federal proposals (including those in the 1982 amendments) to include a referendum mechanism in the amending formula have been blocked by provincial governments.



The popular revulsion toward the Meech Lake exercise - in which the first ministers unsuccessfully tried to force through significant constitutional amendments without testing public support - shows the strength of Canadians' feelings that the Constitution belongs to the people. The Charlottetown referendum vindicated this feeling.



Indeed, the Charlottetown referendum may have established a constitutional convention requiring a referendum before any significant constitutional change is made.



Bourassa certainly had not achieved everything he had wanted at the Victoria negotiations, but he accepted their result. He subsequently was so castigated by Claude Castonguay, his Minister of Social Affairs, and publicly by Claude Ryan, the influential editor of Le Devoir, for coming away with so little in the way of new legislative powers - especially on income security and social services - that he meekly withdrew his consent and refused to ask his government to approve it. The Victoria Charter passed into history.

From: "Valpy, Michael"
To: "'Colin Stark'" Subject:
RE: Referenda in "To Match a Dream"
Date: Tue, 20 Mar 2001

I'll quote to you from the earlier book on the Constitution I co-authored with Robert Sheppard, The National Deal: The Fight for a Canadian Constitution (1982, Fleet Books, Toronto -- there's a latter paperback version by MacMillan), at p 74:

"Trudeau became convinced [in 1980] of the merits of including an entirely new element: a federally controlled referendum to be used as a tie-breaking mechanism. This idea was strongly supported by senior [federal] bureaucrats. . . . It provoked a long, spirited debate in Cabinet. Influential figures like Chretien and Lalonde were against it, arguing that a referendum is a clumsy, divisive technique; having just come through the Quebec referendum in the spring, they did not wish to reopen old sores.

"But Trudeau was keen on the notion, and despite significant opposition in Cabinet, determined to make it part of the package. The tie-breaking referendum [i.e. if federal and provincial governments could not agree] was a completely new force in Canadian constitutional reform. Trudeau became sold on it for a number of reasons: it symbolized the popular aspect of the package, by which the people of Canada would have the final say whenever their governments were deadlocked; it would affect future negotiations, in that the central government could threaten to use a referendum to outmaneouvre a recalcitrant province; and (most important) it bequeathed to his successor the same trump card that he would use once and for all in the unilateral request to the British Parliament [to patriate the Constitution]."

The referendum was strongly opposed by the provinces and Trudeau reluctant agreed to withdraw it -- this is me talking, not the quote from our book -- in order to send a more or less consensual resolution to the British Parliament.

Thanks for your interest.

Michael Valpy

The Final Chapter of Judy Rebick's book

Imagine Democracy


p 227

PERHAPS YOU HAVE READ UP TO HERE and are thinking, Oh sure, these are great ideas, but they will never happen.

Power is just too entrenched to ever let these kinds of changes come to pass. People are too self-interested; they don't really want more direct participation in the democratic process. Most people are just interested in themselves and their families.

One of the most stunning moments of my brief career as a visiting professor at the University of Regina in 1994 was the day that a young man in my class asked, "What's the point of fighting for social change? You've been fighting for twenty years, and things are worse now than they were then." In some ways they are, but in some ways they are not. The status of women, for example, which was my focus for much of that time, has been completely transformed.

I'm fond of telling the story about when I graduated from McGill University and applied for a job writing news for a private radio station. This was the entry-level job of that time and my mostly male colleagues on the McGill Daily were all applying.

"We don't hire girls," the station manager explained to me. "Why?" I asked.
"Because the men swear in the newsroom, and they wouldn't be comfortable with a woman there."

"I don't give a shit if they swear," I replied, and now I was doubly damned: not only a woman but a foul-mouthed one at that.

That was in Montreal in the spring of 1967. Not that long ago. But things changed because of women like me rebelling against such treatment, getting together and organizing against the big and little indignities and injustices we suffered daily. No man was going to give up even a tiny share of power if all we did was ask politely. And governments were no more friendly to a women's rights agenda in the 1960s than they are today to the deep democracy ideas developed in this book. In the late 1960s, when Prime Minister Lester Pearson was asked if he would appoint Pauline Jewett to the cabinet he answered. "Oh. no, we have one woman already." The resistance of the powerful to women's rights can be measured by how slowly women rise in their ranks. Especially when compared with the speed of their gains at other levels. Yet through fighting for our rights in all the ways that we did, and through turning that struggle into a fight for equality, feminists around the world have forced the power elites to change, indeed even to begin the process of their own transformation at least in gender terms. Organizing can and has changed the world.

To be sure, some things have changed for the worse since I was in university, but for women everything has changed for the better.

And generations before mine fought for and won workers' rights and other once-unimaginable protections and entitlements The people in power do not easily make changes that threaten that power, but they'll never make any changes at all unless there is a massive and well-organized movement to counter them.

That movement, I believe, is already forming around the world. I have argued that this anti-corporate movement - along with the movements continuing to fight for economic and social equality, peace, and ecological sanity - needs to focus on bringing more people into active participation in the political arena. And all these movements must bring in not just people who are in agreement, but also all the people who have so little opportunity to share their political wisdom in ways that are meaningful. Still, I've learned enough from my years of activism not to argue that active citizenship is the only important issue facing progressive people. I have had too many arguments with those who told me that if the world blows up, feminism will mean nothing, or that if we poison the planet, wages and working conditions will make no difference. Resistance to the cancerous plague of greed that is sweeping the elites around the world is essential. Continuing to expand the horizons just newly created for women, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities is inevitable and inspiring. Deepening the struggle against racism until everyone understands that it pervades our society and nothing short of a transformation will rid us of its mean, thieving ways is central to any struggle for democracy. Never have I felt the importance of the environmental movement more than I do now, with the dangers of bio-genetics, agra farming and corporate fishing, weird climate changes, and epidemic respiratory illness among children. All of these movements need to embrace participatory democracy, not only in their own ranks but in society as a whole.

People already in the corridors of power have an interest in this too, including backbench MPs, public-service workers at every level who know better how to do things but never get a chance to say so, journalists who would rather be doing something more meaningful and connected, and honest politicians.

But mostly this transformation will benefit those who have never participated in political life beyond voting and keeping up with current affairs. The day the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abortion law was the most joyous moment of my life to that point. And so I understand that there are few feelings more satisfying than knowing that you, along with others, had a direct impact on changing the world for the better. Working with others in a common cause is another excellent feeling. That genius that Tom Paine noticed is inside of us all - it's time for political liberation.

We need a political movement that unites everyone in fighting for an expansion of democracy. Unlike Preston Manning, I don't think you can combine an expansion of democracy with fiscal conservatism. The rule of the market is of necessity anti-democratic. There it is those with the most money who have the most power. Expanding democracy means that those with the most power will have to share more of it and probably even have to give a fair bit of it up.

That the right has tapped into the interests of Canadians in more direct forms of democracy is a credit to them. But their democratic vision is limited by their economic principles, which ensure a pyramid-shaped society rather than one built more in hills and dales. A democratic platform that includes economic democratization is needed more than ever before. And we need not wait for an existing political party to take up the cause, any more than we needed to wait for an existing political party to take up the cause of women's liberation.

Paternalistic democracy has outlived its time. The people are ready to take more responsibility in governing themselves. If our governments are on the road to accepting self-government for aboriginal people, why not keep going?

The rule of the father is starting to be democratized in our families, in our communities, and in our culture. Why not continue the democratization into our political system? It's not enough just to have more people play the role of the father. We learned that in the women's movement. If nothing else changes, then it changes nothing to have women in some of the powerful roles. We have to transform the patriarchal rules of governance.

The rule of the rich and powerful has not been as strong as it is today since the early days of capitalism. If it is not countered by the interests of the majority, the future for most of us will hold much less than the present. Youth movements around the world are already beginning the struggle to restrict unbridled corporate power and to create alternative visions of a more egalitarian, eco-friendly, peaceful, and just society. Women are uniting across the globe to fight against the scourge of poverty and violence. Resistance to the new robber barons, who seek not only money but the very elements of life, is widespread, especially in the East. Yet most of you probably don't even know about these movements. We need to open up the democratic space so we can learn from those who do not have power in the world.

In closing, let me summarize the model of active citizenship as:

  • combining of direct and representative democracy;
  • establishing an electoral system of proportional representation; in valuing the wisdom of everyday life;
  • including citizens at every level of decision making;
  • allowing referenda on central issues;
  • decentralizing and democratizing the administration of the state;
  • having experts on tap rather than experts on top,
  • inviting people to participate directly in the decisions that affect their lives;
  • reducing the power and influence of the corporate elite;
  • electing politicians to work co-operatively with the citizens they serve;
  • making the process of decision making central to the right decision;
  • redesigning democracy to be bottom up more than top down;
  • including all demographic groups, especially those most marginalized in our current system;
  • valuing voluntary organizations as a primary vehicle for citizen participation;
  • ensuring more accountability for political parties and paid lobbyists;
  • establishing citizen watchdog groups composed of the users of major public and private services;
  • creating an adequately funded public broadcaster and more accountable private media.

    To enable participatory democracy, we need to:

  • urgently address and reverse the growing gap between rich and poor;
  • open up and democratize international institutions;
  • reduce the work week; and
  • create pools of capital that can be democratically invested in the community based on community priorities.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is time to complete the democratic revolution. As John Lennon once sang, "It's easy if you try."

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