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Some Reflections on Democracy this Canada Day 2024

by Colleen Hardwick

Canada Day is a good opportunity to think about the hard-fought rights and freedoms we have in this country.

Democratic governance is regarded as the most refined type of government because it reflects the desires and goals of its citizens in society. But more and more, we see decisions and policies implemented by elected representatives based upon policies on which they did not campaign. As a result, governance has become increasingly corporate, autocratic, and deterministic.

Vancouver City Council’s recent vote to seek a process to abolish the elected Park Board is a glaring example of the crisis of democracy affecting all levels of government in Canada.

Here in Vancouver, Mayor Ken Sim and his ABC party not only didn’t campaign on eliminating the Park Board in the 2022 election, when people had an actual choice – Sim actually reversed his campaign position from favouring dissolution to supporting “fixing” the Board with ABC candidates.

Just over a year after the election, the sitting Park Board commissioners were told of Sim’s renewed plans to abolish the Park Board only at the last minute, and the public and stakeholders such as the community centre associations were equally blindsided.

When the motion came to council in December 2023 with just one week’s notice, successive changes to the City’s procedures bylaw had reduced the time for citizens to speak from five down to three minutes and removed the opportunity for questions from council or any kind of debate.

This entire exercise demonstrates a further erosion of democracy in the city, with more centralized control. And it’s part of a broader trend in Canada.

Fresh from unilaterally usurping local governments’ ability to adjudicate land use change in December 2023, including provisions for public hearings, the provincial NDP government has used new legislation to impose draconian measures and weaken municipal powers — without having run on this policy platform or consulting municipalities or voters. It even imposed strict non-disclosure agreements on municipalities to maintain a high level of secrecy as legislation was being written, with major input from lobbyists associated with the real estate development industry.

The same lack of democratic process is true of the federal Liberal policy on accelerated immigration to unprecedented levels, which has dramatically increased demand for housing, not to mention infrastructure, both physical and social. Using headcount to fuel the housing production industry without considering what jobs, opportunities and sectors will employ people is an inherently inflationary and unsustainable economic model. No election was won on this platform, and the Canadian people have had zero say in the matter.

We’ve come to the point where the public is able to take part in the political process only when there’s an election. (In fact, municipal elections in BC have gone from once every two years, to once every three, and now just once every four years.) Community involvement is discouraged, and anyone who gets involved in their community is put down as a NIMBY. It’s hardly surprising that trust in the government is in steep decline.

If we want to restore trust, we need to step up our game.

For starters, a healthy democracy needs a functioning and reliable feedback loop that ensures the government listens to its constituents and doesn’t simply dictate to them between elections.

It also needs an informed electorate so that feedback to the government isn’t just an emotional knee-jerk reaction. Unfortunately, a steady decline in independent and local media has led to lower voter turnout and less democratic participation.

One way to counter that is to take advantage of how the internet makes it easier for people to make their voices heard and be part of the political process.

Transparency is also vital. If people are able to see a clear relationship between their vote and policy outcomes, trust and accountability are strengthened. We also need ways to verify that people are qualified to participate in influencing decision-making and policy development.

In the news each day we can see signs of democracy under threat everywhere. It’s important for civil societies to fight to maintain and enhance democracy. There are many interesting initiatives that offer hope. The Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy meets annually and in 2024 centered its discussions on trust. Here in Canada, the Digital Governance Council is leading the way forward by developing standards for establishing trust. Another Canadian organization that’s working to restore the public’s faith in democracy is CitizenFirst, which emphasizes citizen satisfaction in public-sector service delivery.

Vancouver is the only major Canadian city to elect its Council at-large. This means ten councillors and the mayor are responsible for representing all 680,000 Vancouver residents in the 115 square kilometres between Boundary Road and the University Endowment Lands.

Council members have no connection to any specific geographic area of the city, and therefore no direct way of reflecting the will of the people living in them. The federal and provincial governments each have multiple ridings within the City’s boundaries. Civic wards could achieve the same objective. Ten councillors, each representing one of the city’s ten segments, is one practical solution. Or a hybrid model of five at-large and five ward or constituency councillors. There have been many suggestions over the decades.

We could also have neighbourhood councils, advisory bodies that advocate for their communities at City Hall on important issues like development, homelessness, and emergency preparedness. Neighbourhood councils could become part of Vancouver civic government, with annual budgets funded by tax revenues, and their members elected by their local communities, but donating their time as volunteers. Los Angeles has a neighbourhood council system, established in 1999 as a way of ensuring local government is responsive to the different needs and lifestyles of the city’s rich variety of communities.

There are currently 99 neighbourhood councils in Los Angeles, each serving about 40,000 people.

From here in Vancouver we can see Canadian democracy facing many challenges. But we can restore it to health — if we make our voices heard and ensure that government serves the people — not the special interests who have hijacked political processes.

We need more, not less, democracy in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.

The time and place to get involved and fight for it is right here right now.

Colleen Hardwick served as a Vancouver City Councillor for the 2018-2022 term, and was a mayoral candidate in the 2022 municipal election, running with a slate under TEAM for a Livable Vancouver. She serves on TEAM's board of directors.


This article has been published in CityHallWatch.


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