Canada's message to newcomers: Beavers are important, political engagement less so

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Thursday, April 04, 2013 View Count = 1504

Canada's message to newcomers: Beavers are important, political engagement less so

Do you know who Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine was?  Ask that question at a citizenship ceremony and you’ll get hands shooting up around the room.

In our discussion with Lowie on Tuesday, he brought up the “Discover Canada” guide -- the booklet that new immigrants must study in order to pass their citizenship test. Some of the information in the guide (like the question above) would make many native-born Canadians stare blankly at a test page. The introduction to civics, however, is all too familiar to anyone who has experienced a seventh grade social studies class: a lot of technical information, and almost nothing on how to engage with our government.

At one of our Democracy Talks with new Canadians, a contributor came into the room carrying the Discover Canada guide and asked “Why does this book only have one paragraph on voting, when it has two on beavers?” As it turns out, there is only one paragraph on beavers – but the sentiment still stands.

"How Canadians govern themselves” is the page in the Discover Canada guide that introduces newcomers to the local system of government. It is almost entirely made up of a description of the different branches of government, Canada’s relationship to the Queen of England, and the meaning of “federalism.” There is only one sentence dedicated to citizen engagement:  “It is important for Canadians aged 18 or more to participate in their democracy by voting in federal, provincial or territorial and municipal elections.”

The section in the guide titled “Federal Elections” gives detailed information on registering to vote and includes a long list of MPs’ responsibilities. Notably, however, "representing the concerns of constituents" is not one of them.

What message does this send to newcomers? No space in either section is given to a “how-to” for engaging your MP, and no clear explanation of MPs relationship to citizens' is provided. There is definitely no information on joining a party or becoming a candidate.

Unfortunately our talks with university students and newcomers reveal a consistent message about our political system: political participation in Canada=voting every four years. It's becoming clear through our Democracy Talks that many Canadians are looking for more than that.

Want to try out a citizenship test for yourself?

ACSA, one of our partners, is currently running political workshops for newcomers in Scarborough, Ontario.

Also, the new "Welcome to Canada" guide was released on Tuesday. Intended as a complement to the Discover Canada guide, we gave it a skim and found two points related to political engagement:
 1. Citizens have the right to vote in elections
 2. Citizens have the right to stand as candidates in elections (a welcome addition)

What tools, resources or programs helped you learn about and engage with politics in your adopted country? If you have an idea or experience you'd like to share that you think would be helpful to newcomers to Canada, let us know!

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