Why Ottawa’s Power is Dwindling
Most Canadians – especially young Canadians – don’t vote, and care little about what the federal government is doing.
An article by Canada’s World Director Shauna Sylvester – written for The Mark
I’ve just returned from another trek to Ottawa. If you are from outside the golden triangle (Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto) you probably know the trek well. Generally condensed into three or four days (so that you can still get home to catch your daughter’s dance recital or soccer game), the trek involves weaving every 60 minutes between government buildings, coffee shops and Parliament Hill to meet MPs, Senators, political advisors and government officials.
As a British Columbian who has worked for 25 years on issues that fall largely within “federal jurisdiction,” I have come to know the Ottawa trek well. I’m by no means an Ottawa insider – quite the opposite in fact. I’m an Ottawa outsider, in search of the golden pen – the men and women (men mostly) who are fleshing out the words and deeds that shape this country’s policies.
As I returned from this latest trek, I wondered how much longer such visits would be necessary. I used to think that Ottawa was the major locus of power for this country, but that power has dwindled as new players and new arenas emerge.
Over the years, I have traveled from coast-to-coast-to coast consulting with Canadians on issues as varied as forestry, AIDS, charities, democracy and Canadian foreign policy. It wasn’t until my recent forays that I began to hear a shift in the tone and attitude towards our nation’s capital.
I was surprised during our Canada’s World dialogue tour this year to learn that the federal government is rather irrelevant to most Canadians we consulted. As a Vancouverite, I know that Ottawa is a quaint city east of the Rockies that is barely mentioned around a dinner table conversation – but I always thought this disregard for all things federal was a peculiarity of living on the west coast. I didn’t realize this attitude was so widely shared by fellow citizens in the rest of the country.
Over and over again, I heard Canadians express their lack of interest in federal politics, their disinterest in the federal election and their resolve that any effort to become engaged with federal political parties was frivolous. While they expressed dismay at declining national standards, confusion about Canada’s role in Afghanistan, fear about the impact of the economic crisis, concern about climate change, they did not see their federal government providing leadership in addressing these concerns. In our Canada’s World surveys, citizens ranked the federal government last – behind non-government organizations, individuals and businesses – as a positive actor in international affairs.
In some cases the views went from apathy to clear and articulate critiques of the relevance of the federal government. On my most recent trek, a young scholar I mentor from UBC said to me, “I’m glad you convinced me to do an internship in Ottawa. I always thought the federal government was something you had to work around.”
Her words mirrored what so many other young people have expressed to me: They aren’t interested in working with the federal government because they don’t believe it is a trusted or “useful” partner. They don’t vote because they don’t see the leaders addressing the issues they care about. And they don’t join political parties because they can’t find a party that speaks to them. Many young people would rather go out and “be the change” they want to see in the world and leave voting and governing to those who can bear the political mud-slinging, the empty rhetoric and the glacial speed of policy change.
At some level, I understand the criticisms of young people and of other Canadians who prefer to tune out the federal government. But, at another level, I’m deeply troubled. Not only does it show a lack of understanding of the role of the federal government, but it shows a lack of interest in (or disgust with) our form of democracy.
While I think most Canadians want a federal government that sets national standards, promotes Canadian interests, values and assets in the global arena and provides leadership in addressing the social and environmental challenges we face as a nation, these young people have willingly forfeited their role in trying to mandate the government to perform these functions.
It’s like we are caught in a negative feedback spiral.
The government is reluctant to play a strong leadership role, they aren’t engaging citizens in the policy process and they aren’t effectively communicating what policies they have developed. Add to this a fragmented media environment, provincial governments picking at national standards to advance their own interests, myriad new actors carving into activities formally stewarded by the federal government, and an apathetic or hostile voter base and what you have is the perfect recipe for a country in democratic decline.
So what are the solutions? Americans have found a Barack Obama to rekindle their interests in Washington, but can such a charismatic leader emerge in Canada? We may need to look for some made-in-Canada solutions, perhaps taking a page from Tommy Douglas, the Japanese Redress Movement, Preston Manning, environmental activists, Romeo Dallaire and others who have shown that political culture and political meaning can change when people demonstrate leadership and build movements that extend beyond Ottawa.
Perhaps it’s time to reverse the flow of traffic into Ottawa and take the government officials, MPs and Senators on a cross-Canada trek. I would be pleased to host them for a conversation around my dinner table in Vancouver. It couldn’t hurt and who knows, maybe after an hour or two of engaged conversation, my friends would be able to locate our nation’s capital on a map again.