Lessons in Democracy

The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Bahrain have justifiably captured the world’s attention, but it is possible that the West’s support and interest emanates partly from a conceit about our own democratic systems. Look what’s happening, we say to ourselves as these events unfold, they want to be like us. We believe that today’s Western democracies are the most open, transparent, and engaged systems of governance the world has ever seen. Why do we think this? Well, we have hundreds of years of generally positive history and experience to draw on. We’ve created the ultimate democratic tool—the Internet—where little is sacred and all is available. We’ve made real progress in the rights of women and minorities. And even when our history and technology fail us, we have groups such as WikiLeaks prying in every corner of our governments’ operations to expose malfeasance. It’s easy, in other words, to become complacent, even smugly satisfied, with our democratic success.

The evidence, however, suggests our Western commitment to democratic principles is fading—and fast. For example, we have, in the United States, the Tea Party and Birther movements, which interpret democracy only in the narrowest of senses. In Canada, the Harper government’s contempt for basic democratic processes deepens. Witness recent events such as scuppering parliamentary committees and overturning decisions made by supposedly arms-length government agencies, not to mention serial proroguing. All this highlights the fact that today’s truly profound expressions of the democratic impulse seem to be occurring in places not previously known for their egalitarian ways. In fact, Canada’s claims to high democratic ideals probably peaked a generation ago.

It took place in the fall of 1980 and winter of 1981, beginning with the publication of one of those notices that commonly appear in newspapers across the country: “Individuals and organizations are invited to forward written submissions, or requests to appear, to the Joint Clerks of the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution of Canada,” it read, so as “to consider the document entitled ‘Proposed Resolution for a Joint Address to Her Majesty the Queen respecting the Constitution of Canada.’”


In quality and quantity, the response to the Trudeau government’s plan to patriate the constitution (until then a United Kingdom statute) surpassed all expectations. The Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons heard from legions of ordinary Canadians about what they’d like to see in a new home-grown founding document. Nothing like it had been done before. It was true participatory democracy and represents an ideal of open government that hasn’t often been seen in any country at any time.

As I thumbed through hundreds of pages of transcripts, now kept in theLibrary and Archives of Canada, in Ottawa, I met some interesting characters. Two of my favourites of these respondents give an idea of the breadth of that participation. Based on its name alone, the Fane of the Psilocybe Mushroom Association could not help but pique your interest. Its manifesto began like this: “The Fane of the PMA is a legally incorporated religious society based upon the sacramental use of the psilocybin mushroom.” Then, in the respectful but slightly obsequious manner of a student seeking a professor’s opinion, the group asked the committee to elaborate on the text for religious freedom: “We would appreciate your consideration of the following principle, that ‘Everyone has the right to expand consciousness and to stimulate aesthetic, visionary and mystical experience by whatever means one considers desirable, without interference from anyone, so long as such practice does not injure another person or their property.’”

Unfortunately, its submission was never accepted (and the final formulation of the constitution was rather prosaic: “Everyone has the freedom of conscience and religion”). Which of course means that only a few—namely, devout political scientists and constitutional law professors—will ever know that it might be possible to interpret “freedom of conscience” to include the ability to “stimulate visionary experiences.”

If psychedelic mushrooms aren’t your idea of a suitable topic for constitutional debate, perhaps mathematics is more to your liking. If so, you would have appreciated the submission of Mr. K.B. of Ottawa. He focused on a made-in-Canada amending formula based on provincial representation. An obvious devotee of numbers in all their splendour, K.B. explained, in frankly alarming detail, how the provinces could combine to reach various amendment thresholds. It was based, for him, on factorials and choice theory. For one option, requiring eight provinces and eighty per cent of the population, he calculated all possible groupings of eight of the ten provinces (using a formula of ten factorial divided by eight factorial multiplied by two factorial, for those who care) which, he determined, would give us forty-five possible permutations. After listing each one of these, and then cross-referencing with the population counts of the 1971 census, he determined that twenty-eight permissible variations would reach a threshold of eighty per cent of the combined population of provinces. Not satisfied with that, he repeated the same exercise with the proposed “Victoria Formula” (based on six of ten provinces requiring fifty per cent of the population) and arrived at 210 possible groupings of which only nine satisfied the initial conditions.

What did all this mean? Only Fermat knows. Mr. K.B. probably wanted to highlight how complicated an amending formula could be, but I fell in love with the submission simply for its mathematical elegance. Unfortunately, like the Psilocybe Mushroom Association, K.B. was not asked to appear before the Special Joint Committee to offer further insight, so we’ll never know for sure.

Still, the unalloyed messiness of democratic decision-making was ever-present throughout the Special Joint Committee’s work; nothing was censored. The intolerant were represented as equitably as the tolerant. For instance, a woman identified as A.A., whose views might have been uncommon in the salons of Ottawa at the time, began harmlessly enough, but quickly landed on the real culprit: “We have a country of races from all ends of the earth and all kinds of religious cults and witchcraft and Moonies and you name it,” she wrote, but this was “all the more reason we true Canadians, French and English, must unite as a nation.” Ms. A.A. was clearly devastated by the thought of entrenching conscience and religion in our new constitution. Why? Because, she explained, “‘Conscience’ is what we learned from our parents, conscience is what tells us right from wrong. Some people have a sensitive very learned conscience like the Pope. Others have a bad conscience learned from unmature, unqualified parents who themselves didn’t know right from wrong. How can these adulterers and homosexuals Trudeau glamourized have a good godly conscience when they brag and claim how great it is to be gay?” For A.A., the final indignity would be to make this part of our constitution because “entrenching religion in our Constitution is the best way to kill Christianity.” Though A.A. was likely unaware of the pretzel logic she was employing, she ended up supporting the very thing she tried to condemn: freedom of religion.

What does all this have to do with the Canadian polity in the twenty-first century? For one thing, it makes me believe that open public discussion can be all those things we hope for: respectful, tolerant, engaged, and generally thoughtful. The somewhat wacky, but clearly transparent Special Joint Committee seems many lifetimes away from the rushed, invective-strewn, and inflammatory political discussions that often take place in today’s Internet-fuelled, hyper-partisan public debates. At the same time, it showed that participation can take many forms, independent of technology. I wonder if we aren’t guilty of believing, as if by default, that it’s only through fancy know-how such as social networking and the Internet that openness, transparency, and true democracy can occur. Of course, we know that can’t really be true—the ancient Greeks had horrible Wi-Fi, for instance—but it’s useful to be reminded. The Special Joint Committee represented a markedly different approach to the current way of doing things; would we even need WikiLeaks if our western governments wanted to hear everything and anything we had to say and invited us to participate in an open democratic exercise, no secrets attached?

Whether you love or hate Prime Minister Harper’s government (and those seem to be the only two options), it will never be accused of embracing openness and traditional democratic ideals. The examples alluded to earlier (the proroguing, the dumping of programs and committees, the Prime Minister’s overall My Own Private Canada kind of behaviour) do not demonstrate an affection for the Platonic ideal. Expecting the current government to do something as risky, untidy, and potentially explosive as deliberating major policy through a body like a Special Joint Committee is like expecting the NHL to do something serious about fighting. It’s hard to imagine it actually happening.

And yet, to borrow the mangled phrasings of a colleague, the portents are aligned; Trudeau was also reviled and idolized, and also occasionally performed in a less than fully democratic manner (invoking the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of 1970, for example). But in the singular act of creating aSpecial Joint Committee and asking Canadians to participate in this most fundamental debate over our governance, Trudeau left an unforgettable legacy—a legacy of actually caring what citizens thought.

Our government, and we as citizens,have lost some of our passion for democracy. We are lagging behind other countries, as the events in North Africa have shown so sharply. How can we rekindle the fire? Perhaps Stephen Harper (now under no electoral threat, given his recent majority) ought to take a potentially explosive issue and open up the debate to a Special Joint Committee, much like the one Trudeau held. The Prime Minister could, for example, test-drive a new commitment to democratic principles on the death penalty (a topic we know to be close to his heart). Why not formally ask Canadians to submit their ideas, concerns, and solutions on whether we should reinstate the death penalty? And if so, whether we should go back to hanging, or use lethal injections, or some other method?

Such a debate might decide matters once and for all, and in a fully democratic context. Not only that, it may even bring Mr. K.B. and the Psilocybe Mushroom Association back. After all, if the state is going to consider putting criminals to death, it will certainly need a good mathematical analysis of the issue. It may even find that consciousness-expanding mushrooms are a better final meal than cheeseburgers.

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