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Is Democracy An Endangered Species In Canada?

While we have democracy in theory and a democratic process, we do not have democracy in practice.

07/25/2017 15:57 EDT | Updated 07/25/2017 16:00 EDT

In all developed countries today there is some form of indirect democracy and a democratic process for electing the representatives who actually govern. However, is it really democracy?

The word "democracy" according to Merriam-Webster means: "government by the people; especially rule of the majority... a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."

In Canada, the Constitution Act 1982 ("Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms") in Section 3 states the Democratic Rights of Citizens: "Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein."

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Voters cast ballots during the federal election in Toronto, Ont., on Oct. 19, 2015.

So far so good. There is a strong history of democracy in Canada and its provinces, and there is a transparent democratic process for elections; where democracy in Canada breaks down is in the execution.

Based on the results of the federal election in October 2015, the winning Liberals were elected by just 26 per cent of the eligible voters. That means that 74 per cent of Canadian voters either voted for another party or didn't vote at all. In fact, about 9 million (or about 34 per cent) of Canadians did not vote and exercise their democratic right. And this was the highest voter turnout in 20 years!

In Ontario, the story is even worse. In the 2014 election, the Liberals won a majority of the seats to form the government in which less than 19 per cent of eligible voters actually voted for them (and only 51 per cent of eligible voters actually voted). That means a staggering 82 per cent of Ontarians either voted for another party or didn't vote at all!

This is clearly not democracy as defined by Merriam-Webster, and there is lots of blame to go around.

First and foremost, many of the citizens of Ontario are to blame for not bothering to inform themselves of political issues, and then once informed, exercising their democratic right to vote. But some of the blame falls elsewhere.

While we have democracy in theory and a democratic process, we do not have democracy in practice.

The education system does not adequately prepare students for a life of civic engagement and their responsibilities of citizenship. In fact, in 2016 the Liberal government was thinking about scrapping civics as a secondary school subject all together. Fortunately, that idea was killed, but the current civics course is woefully inadequate at preparing our future citizens.

And, finally, some of the blame goes directly to governments and politicians who actually like the current cozy system. Low voter turnout coupled with first-past-the-post electoral systems is a significant advantage to incumbents and to those who are able to mobilize a small minority of voters to actually show up on election day.

So, while we have democracy in theory and a democratic process, we do not have democracy in practice. In fact, we are a long way from it. One can argue that the current Ontario government, while it has the legal authority to govern, is a long way from having the moral authority to do so. It is approving and implementing significant changes that affect all Ontarians including our current social structure and it is doing so with over 80 per cent of Ontarians either opposed or indifferent.

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Voting signs for the Ontario Provincial election, June 12, 2014.

In today's age of choice, widespread access to information and more direct control over our lives, why have we allowed government to remain as the sole intermediary on important social questions? In many aspects of our lives, we have been steadily eliminating intermediaries and taking more control ourselves, so why not government?

Now, it would be impractical to have no government to regulate society, but is it not reasonable to require government to seek more direct and binding input on major questions of social policy. How can we as citizens allow these important questions to be left in the hands of a government that has less than 20 per cent support?

Switzerland has long maintained a system of semi-direct democracy. Representatives are elected to the country's parliament, but major policy questions are often referred to the people directly and voted on by way of a referendum. In order for a policy question referred to a referendum to become law, it must be supported by at least a two thirds majority of votes cast.

With the significant changes in the world and in our lives, democracy must change to keep pace. Democracy is fragile and must be protected at all costs, and each one of us must do our part if it is to survive and prosper. In 2018, in Ontario, you will all have a chance to do just that.

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