It’s time for next steps in democracy’s evolution

Between the Queen’s passing and Pierre Poilievre’s ascension as head of the Conservative Party, there’s been a lot of talk lately in Canada about leadership.

The margin by which Poilievre was able to secure the leadership and the interest he has garnered from younger and more diverse Canadians must not be ignored. Nor should the sentiments and concerns of the many Canadians who occupied Ottawa in February, and those across the country who supported them.

Poilievre’s message resonates. Less government, more voice of the people.

But Poilievre, like most political leaders, only focuses on pocket-book issues and doesn’t actually suggest a mechanism to listen to the voices of Canadians. And he doesn’t offer a means to give people more control over politics. This is where a new political opportunity lies – not only for Poilievre and the Conservatives, but for all parties.

Canadians have been through a lot over the last two and a half years. They want leadership that listens and policies that represent their interests. And despite the disruptive tactics and the anti-science, anti-reason approach, if the Freedom Convoy tells us anything, it’s that when a call for participation is issued, people are willing to dedicate their time and energy — potentially even going to extreme lengths — to have their voices heard. 

While protest is important and valuable, public participation can be much more productive. Clearly, we need better channels to bring people together with leadership to propel our democracy forward.

The struggles we are seeing in democracies around the world are not a sign that democracy is dying, they are a sign of the frustration that people feel and a desire to break through. They illuminate the urgent need for the next step in democracy’s evolution.

Now is the time to harness the energy of the public to get involved in a thoughtful, tested, effective way. The active inclusion of people in politics is an approach that we’ve seen developed in small ways in this country over the last 15 years, and explode in Europe and around the world, through something called ‘deliberative democracy.’

Deliberative democracy includes processes like Citizens’ Assemblies that bring together randomly selected, yet demographically representative residents of a particular jurisdiction to learn about an issue, problem solve and then work collectively to develop tangible recommendations for policymakers. It’s about trusting that the public, as a whole, are more interested in coming together to overcome differences than to exacerbate them. 

In Ireland, a real leader in Citizens’ Assemblies, they have been been employed to tackle seemingly intractable political hot potatoes like abortion and same-sex marriage. In many countries in Europe, they have been working towards action on climate change and have led to France banning short haul flights within the country.

Here in Canada, we are using Citizens’ Assemblies to ensure the real perspectives of Canadians are incorporated into the government’s thinking on how to manage online harms while protecting free expression.

The method has an impressive track record, and perhaps most importantly, effectively brings people with very different backgrounds, ideas, perspectives and political leanings together to have meaningful conversations that lead to consensus.

Citizens’ Assemblies are the antithesis of oppositional politics and offer a collaborative approach that allows political leadership to show us to ourselves, to bring people together to participate in their democracy and propel policy that really does represent the thoughtful recommendations of the electorate.

Now is the time for leadership across this country, from the smallest municipality to the Senate of Canada, from red to blue to green and orange, to take up the task of revitalizing democracy by bringing people into the heart of the policy-making process.

Leadership is not telling people what they need and it’s also not blindly pandering to uninformed opinions. Leadership is about appreciating that one’s role as an elected representative is to believe in the people you represent and give them the chance to put their time and energy into solving our problems together.  

It’s time Canada’s leaders not only listened to the people – but gave them a purposeful role in building our democracy as well.

Sarah Yaffe has built a wide-ranging career in the arts, culture and urban innovation fields as a leader in public engagement programming. She is a Director at MASS LBP and sits on the board of the YWCA Toronto.