This article originally appeared in the Canadian Mennonite in December 2012. Photo by Casey van Wensem.
Are you feeling unsatisfied with the state of democracy in Canada? You may not be the only one.
A recent poll released by the charitable organization Samara found that only 55 per cent of Canadians are satisfied with the way our democracy works. This dissatisfaction appears to be a relatively new phenomenon; a survey that asked the same question in 2004 found that 75 per cent of Canadians were satisfied with the state of our democracy.
For Alison Loat, co-founder and executive director of Samara, this demonstrates a contradiction in the way our country is seen by others. “If you look at international rankings of democratic countries, Canada always comes in the top 10,” she said over the phone from her office in Toronto. But the numbers from this survey indicate that Canadian democracy might not merit such a high score, at least not according to its own citizens.
Part of the blame, this poll suggests, may lie with our Members of Parliament. When the same survey asked Canadians how happy they were with the way MPs do their jobs, only 36 per cent said that they were satisfied.
And when MPs themselves are asked for their opinion, it turns out they aren’t satisfied either. After the 2011 election, Samara conducted exit interviews with 65 outgoing MPs. What they found was that the overwhelming majority of MPs had felt more constrained by their own parties than they had by the Parliamentary system. “For [MPs],” the report said, “it is often the way political parties manage themselves, their members and their work that really drives the contemporary dysfunction facing Canadian politics.”
Loat also noted that “only somewhere between one and two percent of Canadians are members of a political party.” “We’re not really joiners,” she said. This shows a wide disconnect in how well our ideas influence our country considering that, as the Samara report says, “political parties play critical roles in the functioning of our democratic infrastructure.”
In light of this democratic dysfunction, citizens, and Christians, continue to make efforts to have their voices heard. One Christian organization that has found creative ways to present its witness to government is Citizens for Public Justice. They seek to influence government policy on issues such as poverty and the environment.
For Joe Gunn, CPJ’s executive director, success in political advocacy comes in a variety of ways. “Sometimes [change] comes through legislation and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said during an interview in his Ottawa office. One of these successes came during the last federal election. “We had four of the major parties running on a poverty reduction plan,” Gunn said.
CPJ has also found ways to turn failure into success. When a parliamentary committee’s report on poverty was ignored by cabinet, it looked like CPJ’s dreams of a federal poverty reduction strategy were over. Months later, CPJ tried to bring members of that same committee together again in an effort to get poverty agenda back on the federal government’s table. Initially, this looked to be another failure. “We only got one MP to come,” said Gunn. Soon, though, that one MP turned into more than 40, and the All-Party Anti-Poverty Caucus was born. Now, the APC serves as a forum for parliamentarians to work together across party lines with the goal of finding concrete solutions to end poverty.
In light of these successes, however, there is still work to do for Christians who want their voices to be heard. For Loat, civic engagement in Canada has a long way to go, and her organization seeks to do something about that. “We need to do a much better job of cultivating political citizens,” she said. For Gunn, the fact that CPJ is still around means that they haven’t achieved all of their goals yet. “If we were being really successful, I guess we’d close the shop,” he said.