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The Real Outsiders

designed to elicit and examine people’s perceptions of politics and democracy—the first-ever study of its kind in Canada. Participants in seven of these groups self-identified as less interested in politics and most did not vote (the disengaged). We also spoke to an eighth group of politically engaged Canadians for comparison purposes. These different groups were chosen to provide a broad cross-section of perspectives across Canadian society (see “Background to The Real Outsiders” on page 5 for more information).

Indeed, their dislike of politics seemed closely related to their perception of a gap between what politics is and what democracy should be.

The responses of the disengaged were intriguing and remarkably consistent. The types of answers that we received transcended different social and economic backgrounds, whether we were speaking to groups of lower-income Canadians, less-educated youth, urban Aboriginal people, women, new Canadians or rural Canadians. Even more remarkable was the contrast between the experiences of the disengaged and the experiences of our comparison group of engaged suburban dwellers.

Three specific findings emerged from our research.

First, whether they were engaged or disengaged, our participants universally condemned politics. Contrary to the notion that the disengaged are apathetic, we found that those less likely to participate were neither disinterested in nor uninformed about the system. Instead we found that their disdain for politics was driven by an intuitive understanding of how the political system functions and their previous interactions with it.

Indeed, their dislike of politics seemed closely related to their perception of a gap between what politics is and what democracy should be.

On the one hand, democracy is seen as a worthy ideal for society. On the other hand, for the participants, politics is a source of frustration and disappointment. These were attitudes gained through concrete experiences of interacting with political institutions—whether accessing daycare, covering tuition costs, or getting a speed bump installed on one’s street. The disappointment people feel with respect to politics may therefore be caused by a disconnect between democratic expectations and political reality.

Second, the key difference between the disengaged and the engaged is their relationship to politics. Almost without fail, the disengaged we spoke to described themselves as political outsiders. On the basis of their experiences, they described government, bureaucrats, politicians and the media as working for someone else and, therefore, irrelevant to their needs. Some went so far as to say that the political system makes them outsiders on purpose. For those who feel like outsiders, there is little reason to engage in politics when politics does not engage with them.

In contrast, those who identified themselves as politically engaged describe an insider relationship with politics, believing that the political system works for them. And even though these insiders do not always get what they want and are sometimes frustrated with the political system, they maintain a sense of hope that they can effect change. In short, it is this belief in their own efficacy that seems to keep these insiders engaged in politics.

Why do outsiders feel as they do?

The third and final finding of this report proposes that disengaged people become outsiders through their daily experience and

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