09/01/2012 04:05 EDT | Updated 10/31/2012 05:12 EDT

How's this for an election issue: Replacing our democracy

For a number of politically cynical Quebecers the current provincial election isn't about which political party they like best but about the legitimacy of representative democracy itself.

Members of student organizations, citizen assemblies and anarchists are increasingly vocal in their criticism of a centuries-old form of government they consider insufficient.

Such conversations grew during the Occupy movement, swelled with the student unrest, and are now transpiring on the fringes of the provincial campaign which ends Sept. 4.

One idea would see elected officials consult with local assemblies before acting in parliaments. Another would see political parties disbanded. In the most extreme form, some anarchists would dissolve state institutions — including parliaments.

Adherents of "direct democracy" have vastly differing visions.

One thing they have in common is the belief that citizens deserve a more active role in the decision-making process.

"I don't think voting every four years and then shutting up is what democracy was intended to be," said Alia Al-Saji, a member of a neighbourhood group that sprang out of the pots-and-pans protests in Quebec this spring.

Direct democracy arguably has a deeper history than Canada's Westminster model. It was practised in the golden age of Athens around 2,500 years ago, although that early version excluded women and slaves.

The approach has been used more recently by modern governments.

Iceland employed the principles of direct democracy to create a new constitution when political reforms were initiated following the country's 2008 financial collapse.

Citizen representatives were picked from each region. Local meetings were held to let citizens share their desires for the new constitution. Finally, the representatives met a national constitutional assembly to put together the country's fundamental law.

During that assembly, regular citizens were given updates on progress and were able to offer input through social media. Two years later, after unanticipated delays, the country's citizens are expected to vote in a referendum this fall on whether to approve the document.

The principle is applied in citizen-initiated referendums in U.S. states and Europe. In California, voters used it to ban gay marriage.

That case is used as a warning flag by direct democracy's skeptics.

The idea does raise important questions: What impact might it have on minorities? Is it practical? Will the loudest voice always get its way? Will it give the uninformed a veto over public policy? Will people choose to do what's popular instead of what's difficult, but right?

Hugo Bonin is more optimistic about the process. He experienced direct democracy at his student union's general assemblies last spring.

There, he said, he was free to take the microphone, help shape the meeting agenda, debate and eventually vote to set policies.

One reason it took so long for the more ardent CLASSE student group to denounce violence this spring was that its assemblies had never voted to put the issue on the agenda.

"It's not like clicking 'Like' on a Facebook photo," Bonin said.

"You're putting yourself into the decision, you're a part of it, so you're more likely to be part of the mobilization."

Now Bonin, a recent graduate of Concordia University, is a co-spokesperson for the CLASSE, taking over the position vacated by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.

Al-Saji said she no longer spends Thursday nights at home working quietly on her research.

The McGill University professor meets with 20 to 70 neighbours in her trendy Montreal neighbourhood to discuss issues that concern them most.

Lately it's been the Charest Liberals' protest law, Bill 78, or gentrification of the neighbourhood. They set the agenda, debate, and reach a consensus for an action plan.

"Most of us have been living side by side for years now and have never said anything to each other beyond a 'hello'," Al-Saji said.

She is a member of the Mile End area's Autonomous Neighbourhood Assembly, one of over a dozen such groups that popped up in and around Montreal this spring.

They have opted to invite musicians to play alongside pots-and-pans protests to make the banging and clanging more appealing to the ear. They also held a well-attended street festival that informed people about their group.

"The student movement clearly just wasn't about the hike," Al-Saji said, adding that this opinion was her own because her assembly is leaderless and non-partisan.

"It made (people see) structures in society that were problematic — one of which is how we are governed," Al-Saji said.

The unofficial mascot of the Montreal student marches, Anarchopanda, finds these forms of democracy appealing.

When not dressing up in a panda suit to defuse tensions between students and police, the junior college teacher tries to live by the philosophy of non-violent anarchy.

Many of its followers envision a stateless society that organizes around voluntary associations, which aren’t hierarchical in nature and use consensus-building to solve problems.

"My own dream would be to abolish political parties altogether," said Anarchopanda, whose real-life name is Julien Villeneuve.

"They've outlived their usefulness."

He said he wants people to be able to vote for individuals, not party members, who he says are too attached to business interests and partisan issues.

"The conflict between party interest and public interest is obvious," he said.

Alexandre Leduc, candidate for the party Quebec solidaire, disagrees.

He said the small left-leaning party, formed in 2006, was founded by people who adhere to direct democratic principles.

"It's natural for us, coming from social movements from the left," said Leduc. "Francoise David comes from the feminist movement," Leduc said of his party's co-leader, "(and) I come from the student and union movement."

Quebec solidaire only had one seat in Quebec's national assembly but Leduc said he's expecting more, with his party's increased engagement with the population over the years.

Since 2009, Quebec solidaire has been holding annual conventions to build the new party's program where, Leduc says, specific issues are chosen ahead to be discussed each year.

Before heading to each convention Leduc says candidates attend citizens' assemblies in their ridings, open to all, to have constituents convey their ideas on each issue.

"My first assembly there were about 30 in attendance. Now I see 50," Leduc said.

Leduc also says Amir Khadir, the party's sole representative in the national assembly, meets members of his riding in an open assembly twice a year to present them with what he has done and receive input on what to do next.

"If we get into power," Leduc said, "we want to make that law."

Quebec solidaire's greatest direct democratic triumph would be achieving Quebec independence, he said.

Quebec solidaire plans to hold constituent assemblies formed of elected persons — but not candidates — from each riding throughout Quebec. They would be tasked with building a plan for an independent Quebec, by consensus.

"Before holding a referendum first we need to know what (an independent) Quebec will look like," Leduc said.

"Then we'll take it to a referendum... People will know exactly what they're voting for and we'll win."

The poll-leading Parti Quebecois proposes to do something similar to plan an independent Quebec — but only after winning a referendum.

"We're hoping that if they win a minority government," Leduc said of the PQ, "and we hold the balance of power, we can convince them to do it first."

Anarchopanda is skeptical about what Quebec solidaire can achieve.

"Most of the Quebec population doesn't think things are bad enough to do much," Villeneuve said.

"The real honest reason why we don't have good politics is not the fault of the people we're electing — it's us."

He said most people are too focused on their jobs to get involved. Until people have more leisure time, he said, voter apathy might continue to be the norm.

"Representative politics exists because a lot of people think or feel they have better things to do," he said. "Until we get off this crazy unsustainable economic growth train, and use our technology to work less, people won't have enough free time to get involved."

He said he's hoping that more civic education — and not a crisis, as happened in Iceland — will prompt people to see the error of their ways.

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey says direct democracy movements are symptoms of a sick system where people feel they no longer can effect change.

But he doesn't think tearing up the current system will help either.

"The idea of replacing our parliamentary system with citizens in the street is visionary and undesirable," Grey said.

Direct democracy also runs the risk of muffling the voice of minorities.

When the idea of a referendum on same-sex marriage was floated in Canada, then-prime minister Jean Chretien dismissed it immediately. He warned that the rights of a minority should never be subjected to a vote by a majority.

Warnings about mob rule also abounded in Quebec during the spring. The provincial government demanded that student votes be held by secret ballot following complaints that people who spoke up against the strikes were heckled at assemblies.

Not that Grey thinks the current democratic system does a better job of protecting the weak. He pointed to the current Quebec election as an example.

"Our system is dangerous for minorities because it effectively creates a dictatorship for five years," Grey said.

"Short of a Charter (of Rights) challenge the PQ can win with a 33 per cent majority and ban certain people attending CEGEP," Grey said, referring to the Parti Quebecois plan to restrict francophones and immigrants from attending English junior college.

Grey prefers a strong legal system to protect minority rights.

He also wants to see the removal of financial barriers that prevent some people from entering politics, and supports the use of more constituent assemblies.

As for Al-Saji, she said she doesn't expect democracy to be reformed in Quebec after this next election. But she embraces what success her neighbourhood assembly has brought.

"There's a greater sense of community now," Al-Saji said.

"We've changed what our neighbourhood is about."