The Active Citizen Papers

Blog Post

Participation Thursday, April 16, 2015 View Count = 5833

The Active Citizen Papers

Lecture Hall

While declining voter turnout is well researched, what’s less regularly examined is how Canadians participate in politics beyond elections. And although volunteering, signing a petition, having a political conversation, donating to a charity, protesting, boycotting or becoming active in a community group are all valid ways to enrich Canadian political culture, Samara’s Lightweights report showed that the average Canadian participates in only five of 20 identified political activities beyond the ballot box.

Under the instruction of Gordon DiGiacomo, one University of Ottawa class decided to do something about this lack of participation, with each student completing and reporting back on at least seven political activities. A sample of the results is collected here from three such students, including their reflections on the value of the different forms of participation.

Dylan Kruger was one such student, whose forms of participation for the Active Citizen Papers ranged from volunteering in an MP’s office to donating to charity. We start though where most forms of political engagement start: with a political conversation. Krugar saw the value in having a dialogue around the proposed Energy East Pipeline project and he saw the value in having an online discussion about it:

“I have taken to social media to promote the positives of this pipeline with the hopes of persuading some of my friends who are more skeptical about the project. Posting these articles has generated a very interesting dialogue with my friends about the merits of the energy industry. Many of my friends consider themselves NDP or Green Party supporters, and have pushed back on my ideas. Posting these articles has allowed me to practice strengthening my arguments. It has also given me a greater appreciation for the positions of my friends. While I still disagree with them, I am glad that social media has given us a platform to discuss our ideas.”

Kruger showed in another of his activities that words can also have power; as part of his Active Citizen work, he signed a petition to award a prestigious honour to Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers for his heroic actions during the October shooting on Parliament Hill:          

“I signed the petition because I believe Mr. Vickers needs to be recognized publically for the heroic work he did on that tragic day. It takes extreme amounts of courage to risk your life in order to save those around you. […] My understanding is that the cross of Valour is the highest possible award of honour available in Canada for non-military personal. I believe it would be more than fitting for Mr. Vickers to receive this award for the great service he has done for this country.

Thanks in part to this petition, the Governor-General’s office has announced that a recommendation has been made that Vickers receive the award this year. […] These results prove that if used properly, petitions are an effective means of informing parliamentarians, other authority figures, and those in the community of the views of a large group of people. Before this Active Citizens Paper, and before the Ottawa shooting, I had never given serious thought to signing a petition, or using my name to voice a political point or concern. I now plan to do this far more often.”

Another way for words to be effectively used in our democracy was demonstrated by Josee-Isabelle Gauthier in her own Active Citizen Paper. Gauthier’s first activity was writing a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Sun about a decision made by the Ottawa Safety Council to prohibit any crossing guards in Ottawa from hugging a child:

“While I can agree that no child should ever be touched, in any capacity, against their will, it seems absolutely ludicrous to me that if a little boy asks for a hug from a sweet little 70 year-old lady who helped him crossed the street, he will be refused for fear of ‘invading his personal space’. The article suggests that crossing guards should avoid all types of physical contact including handshakes and roughhousing and that it would be ok to help lift a fallen child off the ground but would be best to avoid anything else for fear of being reprimanded. 

After reading this article I was upset and decided to write a brief letter to the editor that I entitled, ‘Don’t look at my kid’.  The letter is quite sarcastic. It suggests that crossing guards, teachers and anyone else a child may come in contact with on a daily basis should avoid things like eye-contact and simple conversations with children because the parents aren’t around to make sure the interactions are safe.”

Gauthier didn’t just write about political issues though, she also got involved in a volunteer opportunity at an Ottawa food bank:
“As I had never been to a food bank or done anything like thisin the past, I was unsure of what to expect […]After spending the first hour or so putting together the food hampers I was asked to help with handing them out to the people. This is when I realized that there are all kinds of people in this city that go hungry, and if not for places like the food bank, they would likely starve. I saw people in suits, business types who if you saw on the street you would assume were wealthy and successful. I saw teenagers, who barely looked old enough to be out of high school, senior citizens in wheelchairs and walkers, families of three, four, five and more, and then I saw lone children, and it broke my heart.

[…]That day I left the food bank with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was happy that I had volunteered my time to the community in an effort to do some good for those in need. On the other hand, I left feeling that I didn’t do enough, that we as a community, do not do enough for our brothers and sisters and neighbours in need. I now try to donate at least a few items through the local grocery store every week.  When I am feeling financially strained, I try to at least put in an hour or two at the food bank because I know they are often short on volunteers and every extra hand helps. It is up to us as a community to help each other out. Sometimes a small act on one person’s part can make a huge difference for someone who’s in need.“

The final contributor for the Active Citizen experiment whom we’ll feature here wanted to preserve their anonymity. Here, we see them getting involved in a political group:

“At the beginning of the semester I decided to join the University of Ottawa Young Liberals to further my participation within the party I identify with. […] All in all, I believe joining the University of Ottawa Young Liberals has allowed me to get much more involved in the political system at a grass roots level. I had an amazing time volunteering at phone banks and canvassing for each respective candidate. Along with that, I have enjoyed my time interacting with other various Liberal MP’s and senior staff members. I feel as though being part of the UOYL has allowed me to experience politics in a whole new light. I would recommend any student interested in politics to join a political campus group to gain valuable experience at a party level.”

While this is just a taste of the stories, what emerges out of the Active Citizen Papers is a picture of diverse political conversation and participation that exists for some Canadians but which could very easily be adopted by many more. While the students who took part and shared their papers with Samara are of diverse political persuasions, they all found issues that mattered to them and ways to get engaged that felt valuable. More than that, several of the passages from the papers showed how participation often brings surprises and unanticipated lessons about politics and community.

Participation and learning—what could be better than that?

To learn more about the report that inspired the Active Citizen Papers, check out Lightweights right here. If you’re a student or teacher hoping to adopt our research for classroom, get in touch with Samara staff here.

Samara also has a new report that incorporates political participation into a broader evaluation of Canadian democracy—you can read the Democracy 360 here. And for more stories of political engagement and participation beyond the ballot box, check out the Everyday Political Citizen project.

(Photo credit: "5th Floor Lecture Hall" by Xbxg32000, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

On the Samara BlBlog logo representing the letter 'o'g