Canada’s Year of Action on Democracy

by Dec 9, 2021

Photo: Elected officials seeking citizen views at public town hall meeting in Ghana.

By Tom Cormier and Maxwell A. Cameron

The Liberal Party platform in the 2021 election promised to make support for inclusive democracy a strategic priority in foreign and development policy. As part of the promise, the Liberals also said they would establish a Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government to ensure more Canadian expertise and assistance.

If implemented in alignment with the transformational Feminist Foreign Assistance Policy (FIAP), these initiatives would restore Canada to the international stage at a critical moment and make a historic contribution by defining a truly feminist approach to democracy support. Thanks to FIAP, no less than 95 percent of Canada’s bilateral international development assistance initiatives target or integrate gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. New commitments to democratic development can support the emergence of strengthened, more inclusive democratic institutions where women can have the political voice and power necessary for genuine and sustained change.

COVID interrupted similar pledges in the last parliament, but for three reasons the time may now be ripe to make good on these promises.

First, the US is challenging the world’s democracies to come to the table not only with good intentions, but with new resources. President Joe Biden has convened a Summit for Democracy, taking place (virtually) on December 9-10. The summit will kick off a year of sustained global efforts to strengthen democracy, culminating in an in-person summit at the end of 2022. On Dec. 7, Senators Chris Coons (D) and Lyndsey Graham (R) introduced the bi-partisan Democracy in the 21st Century Act, which would increase U.S. democracy funding to over $3 billion annually – a whopping 50% jump.

Second, there is a growing concern around the world about democratic backsliding. International IDEA recently released their flagship report Global State of Democracy for 2021, with the sobering observation that “the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction.” Once stable democracies like the United States, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia were singled out for worrying democratic declines.

Third, the ongoing global pandemic has exposed the dangers of disinformation and its corrosive effects on citizens’ confidence in institutions. It has diminished the role of parliament, leading to significant restrictions in our everyday lives and new spending without normal democratic accountability. The pandemic’s shift to online politics has elevated the devastating crisis of online harassment against women in politics and revealed how bad actors use gendered disinformation to undermine democracy around the world.

The dire global state of democracy has evoked memories of the inter-war period. Are we facing the demise of a system of government achieved through great sacrifice in the struggle against totalitarianism? There are reasons for alarm. The intervention of authoritarian governments in the internal affairs of democratic nations is a serious problem. But we also face the erosion of democracy from within. Democratic backsliding is often the result of democratically elected leaders who behave undemocratically.

In 1939, the great US philosopher John Dewey warned against the assumption that democracy “perpetuated itself automatically.” We think of our institutions as something external to us; he said, not as an expression and extension of our habits and dispositions. He argued that democracy was best understood as a way of life involving a set of attitudes, character and sense of collective purpose. We need that reminder today as much as in the 1930s.

For while Canadians can take pride in our democratic institutions, recent events have reminded us that our democracy is far from perfect. On the positive side, Freedom House ranks Canada 7th among 210 countries in political rights and civil liberties. Canada’s legislatures prioritize openness, citizen engagement, and rules-based free debate and deliberation at all levels. These institutions continue to evolve through innovations like a gender-parity cabinet, consensus-based decision-making in Nunavut, online legislative hearings and flexible sitting schedules to ensure that parliaments are more attractive workplaces for members and staff alike.

Canada is a multicultural country where the political integration of immigrants and visible minorities is more pronounced compared to most western countries. This results in impressive linguistic, cultural and religious diversity among our lawmakers that increasingly mirrors our society—indeed, the incoming parliament may well be the most diverse in our history. On the downside, Canada is far from achieving genuine truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and taking action to understand and address systemic racism, sexism, and colonialism in many of our institutions. The discovery of mass graves in the grounds around former Residential Schools this year was a blow to many Canadians’ self-concept and global reputation.

Knowing our democracy is flawed, yet strong relative to many other nations, is a burden and an opportunity. We need to be more active globally to defend democracy even as we strengthen and reinforce it at home. Canada’s role in the global defence of democracy should be grounded in a sustained effort to ensure that our own democratic practices and institutions evolve.

A good place to begin is building on the consensus among major parties that democracy support should be enhanced. The House of Commons has repeatedly expressed its unequivocal desire for more Canadian support for democracy, most recently in a 2019 unanimous report, Renewing Canada’s Role in International Support for Democratic Development. The report’s 15 recommendations range from putting democracy at the centre of foreign policy to creating a specialized unit within Global Affairs Canada to develop and implement a comprehensive democracy strategy to establishing an independent institution dedicated to international democratic development. While few of these recommendations have been advanced, they still are an excellent blueprint for much-needed action. Parliament needs to insist on tangible progress, and it must lead by example.

For starters, it should transform traditional “parliamentary diplomacy”, where legislators participate in periodic dialogues with their international counterparts through various parliamentary associations and friendship groups, to include a more active role in accompanying the development of legislatures, their members and staff. This can be done through long-term technical assistance and exchanges facilitated by Canadian organizations.

The defence of democracy can be a powerful tool for strengthening cross-partisanship. Despite rising partisan polarization, the US has developed a good model. Since 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives has operated the House Democracy Partnership (HDP), a bipartisan commission that has worked directly with parliaments through peer-to-peer exchange programs to support the development of effective, independent, and responsive legislatures in over 20 countries. The work of the HDP is coordinated by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). The institutes often undertake follow-on programming in participating countries, amplifying the impact and ensuring sustainability. Initiatives like the HDP strengthen legislatures and practice, increase the appreciation for development challenges and deepen personal contacts among legislators to improve bilateral relations in various tangible ways.

And all Canadians have a role in ensuring public participation in how we are governed. Many groups are working hard to support this engagement in exciting ways. The Canadian International Council (CIC) has developed Foreign Policy By Canadians in part by using deliberative democracy techniques developed by James Fishkin at Stanford University to facilitate inclusive discussions that overcome extreme partisan polarization. The Coalition for a Better Future has engaged two former Cabinet Ministers from different parties to develop a bold new economic and social vision for the country with a diverse group of Canadian leaders and organizations. The Samara Centre for Democracy, a non-profit organization, is working to strengthen democracy in Canada through monitoring research and activities that engage citizens and leaders in exploring governance reform options. And Apathy is Boring is another non-profit that focuses on supporting and educating youth (especially those marginalized) to be active in our democracy.

Biden’s Summit for Democracy will encourage participating countries to make specific commitments to advance democracy domestically and internationally in a “Year of Action” to advance the Summit’s goals. This is Canada’s moment to finally make good on long-standing promises to make democracy assistance a central priority. And for parliament–and indeed all of us–to ensure that they do.

Tom Cormier is President and CEO of the Parliamentary Centre, Canada’s Global Leader for Democracy. Established in 1967, the Parliamentary Centre has supported inclusive democracy in over 70 countries worldwide.

Maxwell A. Cameron teaches in the Department of Political Science and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. He is the Director (on leave) of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Photo Credit: Elected officials seeking citizen views at public town hall meeting in Ghana. Parliamentary Centre.