Abbie Hoffman of the famous Chicago Seven said, “democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.”
The International Day of Democracy is held annually on September 15 to review the state of democracy across the world and promote democratic principles globally. Here in Canada, democracy is held up as a cornerstone of our country, crucial to the freedom and well-being of our citizens. Yet, in our country, our province and our cities, our democracy could use a good deal of work—a renovation, if you will.
At its essence, democracy places power in the hands of the people—all the people—and upholds their human rights. However, the power dynamics, marginalization and unequal access pervasive in society also extend to our institutions and governance, making it much more difficult for some to participate in democracy than others.
For a democracy to be truly healthy, every member must feel an equal right to be heard and involved.
There are many metrics to consider as we measure the health of our democracy, and some are more easily measured than others. Those that are often missed are measures of democratic culture that are difficult to document through numbers, described by Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue (the Centre) Program Director Robin Prest as “those beliefs, norms and behaviours that animate democracy in practice, and in doing so, help to sustain the resilience of our institutions and the democratic system more broadly.” The element of belonging is one of these important pieces of democracy that is sometimes overlooked.
A national opinion survey conducted by the Centre in the summer of 2019 showed that Canadians who have a stronger sense of belonging overwhelmingly hold more positive views of democracy. They are more likely to trust democratic institutions and actors, more engaged in democratic and community activities, and more likely to believe that their actions can make a difference. The survey results also suggested that attachment to the local community has even more impact than feelings of belonging at the national level.
Belonging is “an important metric for us when measuring the health of our democracies, and the continued resilience of our democratic institutions will depend upon us finding new ways to nurture a positive democratic culture that we all feel part of,” says Prest.
Many of our democratic models need renovation to better support a culture of belonging, and the public hearing is an excellent case study for this concept. Feedback from the Innovators Forum held by the Renovate the Public Hearing Initiative told a story of community members who feel intimidated and alienated by the public hearing process as it currently exists, making it incredibly difficult for people to be involved in land use decisions happening in their own neighbourhoods. Public hearings have become a place where those who already hold a good deal of social and political power—such as older homeowners with greater access to wealth, predominantly racialized as white, who understand how to navigate local government processes and other systems—are the only ones who feel a sense of belonging in the space. On the other hand, community members who are racialized, economically disadvantaged, uncomfortable with the English language or otherwise marginalized feel unwelcome in the space and lack the sense of belonging that supports a desire and ability to speak freely and advocate for themselves.
The good news is that with new changes to the laws regarding British Columbia’s public hearing process, we have a unique and timely opportunity to make important changes to public hearings—to repair and renew one crucial piece of our democracy. The Renovate the Public Hearing Initiative is working with local governments to pilot changes to the public hearing process to create a more accessible, safe and comfortable space where community members of all identities and backgrounds can engage equally. A space where the message is that everyone here belongs and therefore everyone’s voice matters.
The way we make those changes matters too, because it has implications for other potential changes, or renovations, to our democracy. Collaboration and dialogue are the tools we choose to use for our renovation because we believe the only way to make changes that strengthen our democracy is to identify the problems and come up with the solutions together—democratically.
We want everyone to believe they belong in this process and to see themselves in the outcome.
Our hope is that the Renovate the Public Hearing Initiative can be a model for change in our democracy that not only reforms the democratic process but fosters a sense of belonging in our communities and democratic institutions.