Cooking up Democracy in Canada

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Participation Monday, June 02, 2014 View Count = 1577

Cooking up Democracy in Canada

Today's blog post comes from Samara volunteer Shifa Tauqir. Shifa is currently an undergraduate student in the International Relations program at the University of Toronto. She joined Samara last fall as part of a service-learning component of her coursework. You can read more of Shifa's blogs for Samara here

Growing up in Pakistan, I thought that politics was something that we only watched on TV or read about in newspapers. Where I grew up, people didn’t give much importance to political participation or civic engagement. Participation in the democratic process was limited to voting in elections, and many people did not participate even in this one available way. In the most recent general election in Pakistan, voter turnout was 55%. Historically, that is actually quite high.

When I came to Canada at the age of 12, I continued to notice similar patterns and behaviours in my surroundings. The Canadians that I knew did not seem to be very engaged in politics. 

I am lucky, however, to have parents, who buck this trend. They love to stay informed about politics and always vote in elections. After arriving in Canada, they participated in community initiatives and local politics. That’s how I became involved and began to love Canadian politics. 

Of course, not all newcomers to Canada have a political background or relatives who are civically engaged. From my own experiences, and interactions with new immigrants, I know that it can be difficult to understand a new political system, as democracy is practiced differently in different countries. While in Canada, civic education is part of the school system, providing students with at least some knowledge of politics by the time they are ready to vote in elections, politics and different political systems were not discussed in the schools that I attended in Pakistan. 

As I became more and more interested in civic engagement, I started to wonder- how do most newcomers become ready to participate in Canadian democracy? How will they know about their rights and responsibilities? All my worries disappeared when I attended a Democracy Talks session hosted by the North York Community House on April 29th as an observer to help improve the programming. 

NYCH regularly hosts cooking classes with a group of mostly South Asian women, and they have recently experimented with adding discussions about democracy into the mix.  The day I attended, for their Democracy Talk activity of the day, the women were asked to rank policy issues based on their personal priorities. Likely because many participants have young children, they tended to rank policy issues such as “better teachers” and “safer neighbourhoods” higher than issues such as “less regulation of businesses.” During the conversation they discussed the need for better parks in their community. They mentioned that better parks would provide space for their children to play and for community members to interact. 

The group was then asked to redo the task, keeping the interests of society-as-a-whole in mind, rather than just their own priorities. It was interesting to see that according to these women, healthcare is the most important policy issue for Canadian society-at-large. 

I was really excited to hear the comments of the participants after they completed the exercise. One woman stated that the activity made her start thinking about various government policy issues. One woman wanted to improve the state of a local hospital and another wondered how she could get a side road fixed so that kids in the community could easily walk to school. It was great to join the women eagerly discussing ideas that impact their daily lives. I was most impressed when some women asked for ways to make their voices heard. This sentiment felt particularly important because at the beginning of the conversation, a number of women stated that they considered politics to be something only practiced by men. This Democracy Talks session certainly gave me hope for a bright future of our democracy, where such women might lead our country to make it a better place for all. 

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