Rescuing Democracy? A look at local politics in Canada

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Participation Monday, October 06, 2014 View Count = 1628

Rescuing Democracy? A look at local politics in Canada

 This article by Samara's Acting Director and Research Manager Jane Hilderman was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Public Sector Digest.

Jane votingMore than half of all Canadians will have a chance to vote locally this fall with municipal elections set for Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and many small communities in between. Such events seem full of promise for a higher level of engagement compared to the more distant and removed politics at the federal level. After all, these elections will return the local councils that shape many everyday experiences for citizens– their access to drinking water, public transit, safe streets and parks, daycare services and the list goes on. But are cities, compared to Canada’s federal government, truly “the theatres of strong democracy” as Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Rules the World: Dysfunctional Nations[i], contends?

With voter turnout rates hovering around the 60% mark in our nation-wide elections, the opportunity to vote  is clearly not translating to the number of ballots cast. As tempting as it may be to interpret this pattern as a passive approval of the way things are, research suggests otherwise.

Opinion research firms that track levels of trust annually, have documented a steady decline in Canadians’ trust towards government. In fact, 2014 marked the past decade’s nadir for the number of Canadians who “trust the government in Ottawa to do the right thing” (24% according to EKOS[ii]), and Edelman[iii] observed in their 2014 baromter that the trust gap continues to widen with government falling further behind NGOs, business and the media. These falling trust levels parallel Canadians’ growing dissatisfaction with “the way democracy works in Canada” – where in 2012, Samara observed that only 55% of Canadians say they were very or somewhat satisfied.[iv] In short, Canadian citizens are hardly content with the status quo of federal politics at the national level.

Samara’s research has dug deeper into citizen dissatisfaction to probe which behaviours of Members of Parliament and federal political parties may be driving the dismal outlook on federal politics. These ‘scorecards’ – wherein Canadians indicated the roles they viewed as most important, and then graded MPs[v] and parties[vi] on their performance—reveal a striking similarity: both MPs and their political parties received the most critical grades for the very roles Canadians viewed as most important. Canadians scored MPs’ ability to “hold the government to account” a failing grade of 45%. For political parties, “reaching out to Canadians so their views can be represented” scored just as poorly at 43%.

Would Canadians return the same dismal report cards for their local councilors or alderman? Samara has not surveyed Canadians about their views on their local representation, but a 2012 survey from Ipsos-Reid suggests that Canadians hold more trust towards their local government than their federal or provincial counterparts.[vii] This is not an observation that escapes Barber – and one indicator why he sees cities’ democracies as better. Barber also points out that cities are the loci for new forms of citizen engagement in the 21st century, such as participatory budgeting. Though these developments may be accurate to Canada – cities like Guelph, Montreal and Halifax, to name a few, have led the way with participatory budgeting pilot projects– it is far less certain that our cities really are “our democratic destiny if we are to have one,” as Barber argues.

In many of our own backyards, it would be exceptional should more than 60% of voters turnout in Toronto, Winnipeg or Vancouver, who had turnouts of 51%, 47% and 35% in 2010 elections, respectively. Moreover, simply focusing on the collective turnout often obscures more nuanced variation across a city and overtime. Research by Myer Siemiatycki and Sean Marshall shows that in Toronto’s elections from 2003 to 2010, wards varied in turnout from 36% to 51%.[viii] They also demonstrated that wards with the lowest turnouts tended to have a high proportion of immigrants and visible minorities. Democracy at the city level is often highly uneven in practice – and uneven in ways that may disadvantage some socio-demographic groups.

Though Canadians’ disenchantment with federal politics may generally capture more scholarly attention and media coverage, it does not mean that another level of politics– namely the local – goes without its own challenges for engagement and political participation as evident with voter turnout. Barber’s enthusiasm for municipal democracy may bring forward further innovations – his proposal to generate a Global Parliament of Mayors seems to be gaining traction with the support of a Canadian institution, the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.[ix]  Though new institutions like a Parliament of Mayors bring a certain shine, democracy as a collective process still requires the daily grunt-work of building citizens’ political voice and ensuring that these voices are heard. This work cannot and should not happen at only one level – a lesson all locales where governance takes place can revisit.

 [i] Barber, Benjamin J. 2013. If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. Yale University Press.
[ii] Ekos 2013, “Looking Back and Looking Forward – Part 2”
[iii] Edelman 2014. Edelman trust barometer – Canadian Findings:
[iv] Samara. 2012. “Who’s the Boss: Canadians Views on Their Democracy.”
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Samara. 2014. “By Invitation Only: Canadians’ Perceptions of Political Parties”
[vii] IPSOS-Reid. 2012. “Canadians Say they Trust, Get Better Value from their Municipal Governments than the Feds or Provinces.”
[viii] See the Maytree Foundation for further details about Siemiatycki and Marshall’s research.
[ix] See Global Solutions Network for further details about the plans and work to date on the Global Parliament of Mayors.

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