On civic engagement

Since the age of 16 or so, I have considered myself to be engaged in or at least well- informed about civic activities at the local level of government and at (so-called) higher levels. The adage that one gets the government that one deserves seems appropriate to me. If a citizen cannot become a participant in the political process – at least by voting – then that citizen has little right to complain about the consequences.

The concept of self-responsibility was emphasized by my parents as I was growing up. “don’t blame others when things don’t turn out as you want. Grab the bull by the horns and do something about it goddammit!” This premise was extended into the theatre of civic engagement by my Grade 13 Canadian History teacher, Mr. Paul Gray. He challenged us to, through words and actions, to challenge the conventions and that if we truly wanted to change these status quos, that a degree of active participation in the civic diorama was essential.

I have lived my life this way and am happy to have made small contributions to the democratic process.

I’ve never worried about my commitment, but the commitment of those around me has always concerned me. Most folks are at best apathetic and at worst hostile toward the democratic process and its various players. They just don’t get that they are THE player that matters and without them, the leaders who are legally entrusted with the distribution of our tax dollars, our defense, our health and well-being and our environment are free to follow whatever policy directions they deem fit. And these directions may not be in the broader interest of the country but rather to serve a small slice of the population.

This is what has happened in Canada over the last few years. The bulk of the citizenry has, for various reasons, stepped back from engaging in the political process and this has allowed the current government to make decisions for which the country will pay dearly in the medium and long term. What’s worse is that due to their own internal disarray, the only party capable of stopping them has instead engaged in a game of a political staring contest – paralyzed by their own fear of a disastrous election to do anything about it.

Yet lately I have begun to sense a change in this disinterest and disengagement. The current government has misplayed the ball so often over the past couple of years that average Canadians are beginning to take notice. Topics of discussion that were confined to boardrooms or university lecture halls are finding their way into water cooler talk. Go figger. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? I’m not sure. But I do like the discourse and maybe, just maybe this engagement will expand and continue.

What evidence do I have that this is happening? Listen to the talk around you and in the mainstream media. Newspapers and talk shows would not focus on previously thought to be mundane issues if they didn’t think there was a wide audience for these discussions.

Witness the number of candidates who have filed nomination papers to run in the Ottawa municipal elections this fall – over 100! This is a sign of dissatisfaction and a desire to somehow contribute to the process.  Facebook groups and Twitter discussions abound on every policy front. Even my teenage daughter has heard a bit of what is happening in the civic world around her.

I have heard some remark that the re-emergence of civic interest has something to do with the election of Obama. I’m not sure about that. But what I am sure about is the political establishment may be in for a rude awakening as Canadians of all political stripes seem to have found their voices again.

And, in my humble opinion, not a minute to soon.

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2 Comments to “On civic engagement”

  1. I hope that our current governmental paralysis is finally teaching people what happens when you don’t exercise your voting rights, and don’t get your opinions out to your elected representatives from time to time.

    And young people don’t engage because they don’t feel it does them any good. So how many young people are thinking, right now in Ontario, “damn I wish I had more voice in what the government does”… hmm, maybe some of those people should have voted in the last election? Maybe they should be pestering their MPP and McSquinty about this new change to the driving laws? Maybe if they didn’t vote, they should STFU and think “this is partly my own fault because I abrogated my voice when I didn’t vote.”

  2. Ken says:

    I think that apathy has been building for a lot longer than just a few years. I think it’s the current younger generation, those that are in their 20s and early 30s that are the main cause of it.

    I remember many years ago my wife (who was not my wife at the time, and we’ve been married for over 15 years now and together for almost 19) said to me “If you get involved in politics, I’ll divorce you.” I tend to have a very strong opinion when it comes to political matters – but that’s how I was raised.

    So what’s different between the generation that you and I are in, and the one coming up behind us?

    Could it be the sense of entitlement that they have? Too much reality TV? Too much instant gratification? Not having the most recent iPhone product?

    Political matters don’t address any of those “issues” for these young people, so maybe that’s why they’re not involved. I’m tempted to take a poll at work today and ask them about the long-form census controversy and see if any of them are aware of it.

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