Democracy Talks Dispatches: Needed - A PhD in MP Relations?

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Tuesday, April 09, 2013 View Count = 2170

Democracy Talks Dispatches: Needed - A PhD in MP Relations?

Democracy Talks is a community-based discussion series that brings people together to discuss politics and share ideas for improving civic and political engagement in Canada. Lately, we’ve been chatting with groups of youth and new Canadians about their experiences with politics. Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to some of these Democracy Talks participants, and their big ideas for transforming Canada’s political culture.

Now introducing….James Wattam

Age: 20
Occupation: Currently studying Environmental Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. Also acts as the Vice-President of Advocacy and Finance at his campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders.
A bit of back story: We met James in Saskatoon in October for an on-campus Democracy Talk.
James talked to us about: Making MPs more accessible.

Since becoming one of the leaders of an active advocacy group on his campus, James Wattam has had the chance to sit down with plenty of Members of Parliament. He told us that in his experience most MPs have been “very encouraging and supportive.”

Still, he said it can be difficult to understand how talking to MPs converts into real-life actions. Especially because many “emphasize the limited impact they can have – particularly if they aren't on a relevant committee.”

This challenge – of how to effectively engage MPs and see tangible results – is one that many of our youth participants experienced. One student in Saskatoon said:

              We’re already passionate and excited and informed on development issues,
              but it’s that linkage between what government does and how we can    
              participate in it (that is missing).

A few others told us of the frustration they felt when they tried to become involved politically and only received stock answers in response:

             [The response I received] had some good points but ultimately lacked
              substance or a commitment to action of any sort… All this effort, I feel like it
              didn’t really do anything. (Student, Hamilton)

             I wrote to my MP and got a letter back that just said “thanks for your input.” I
              don’t think I have an avenue to express my thoughts. (Student, Saskatoon)

On the whole, James said he’s had “more positive than negative” interactions with MPs. So what did he think made his experiences so different from those of his peers?

Specialized training that he received from Engineers Without Borders Canada.

Most people, he said, “don’t understand what MPs really do.”

            I certainly credit the training and experience I have received from EWB for my
            understanding of government procedures. [The] training has made me more
            comfortable with raising my voice, [and] increased my understanding of what
            an individual MP can actually do.

James added that while training definitely did benefit him, it shouldn’t require specialized training to feel empowered in the political process. “Everyday citizens should be able to inform their local representatives of their views easily and quickly.” We certainly agree.

On Thursday we’ll be talking with political staffers about James’ insights. As the first line of communication between MPs and their constituents, we’re getting their take on how to make these interactions more constructive, transparent, and accessible. We’ll also be sharing some of EWB’s great resources on political engagement. Stay tuned.

*N.B. James is traveling to Malawi to work on a Water and Sanitation project with EWB this summer. Follow his trip at

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