As Brazilian revellers come down from the thrill of Lula’s victory and face the tough challenges ahead, the Workers’ Party’s example is starting to change the way we do democracy here in Canada.

For his part, Lula has to square his military and IMF compromises with his promises of reforms for the poor. To make matters worse, his own Workers’ Party (PT) contains factions with conflicting agendas.

The key may lie in what PT member Caio Galvaio said at a recent forum in Toronto. “The plurality of the PT is not a problem but a possibility of greater creativity to face our problems.”

This recognition that real democracy is a messy but creative process is what makes Lula’s victory so symbolic for the rest of the world.

In Canada, bureaucrats politicians and activists in Toronto, Guelph, Ottawa, Quebec City and beyond are starting to take action on the inspiration from the peoples’ budget and World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. A new way of doing politics just might be catching on — just look at the Coalition of Progressive Electors’ recent mayoral win in Vancouver where, despite rain and heavy winds, voter turnout was among the highest in decades.

Something may be brewing, but we still have a long way to go. City officials have to get past the idea that budget-related decisions are too complicated for people to grasp, citizens have to get past the typical not-in-my-backyard brand of public input and both have to cultivate patience with the process and strength in the face of criticism.

But as the experience in Porto Alegre and discussion with early Canadian participants shows, this new way of making political decisions may just help us get over our tax-cuttin,’ service-demandin’ ways and take responsibility for the ideas we push.

Toronto: Participatory Budget Stokes Tenant Involvement

With 164,000 tenants and 1,542 employees, the newly-amalgamated Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) is one of the largest housing providers in North America. After it was mandated to increase tenant involvement, it looked to Porto Alegre’s participatory budget.

Anne Burgess, 67, knows the resulting system well. A self-described “proud mom,” she single-handedly brought up three children in Toronto’s social housing system. As part of a tenant advisory committee, she helped design the participatory budgeting process, served as a community representative and still sits on a committee to check that money is spent as it was allocated.

Burgess says it was an unforgettable learning experience for tenants to deal with such a large sum of money and the overwhelming demand.

“The number of requests that came forward were equivalent to about $132 million,” she says. “We had $10 million to allocate.”

What impressed Burgess was how the tenants moved from thinking at a personal level to a community level, and then to a city-wide level.

Yet, the process was not without its glitches. Travel across Toronto was difficult for some people, particularly those with children or special needs. Some of the community representatives didn’t realize how big a time and energy commitment was involved.

In some cases, tenants were able to turn road blocks into positive actions.

Terrance Henry, 27, lives in social housing with his mother and sister and is on the road every day as a sales and client-support representative for a Web development company. Since his building is home to 300 children, he went to the budgeting forum on a mission to secure some funding for kids’ recreation.

The community lobbied hard but didn’t get the money. Yet the process of organizing and speaking out has sparked some creative alternatives. TCHC staff member Vidoll Regisford helped Henry approach the building’s security company to sponsor some recreation programs. Off-duty security guards, parents and community health promoter Emelda Chapman have run field trips, story readings and baking classes.

Henry said he is continuing to “hit the streets” for more sponsorships and the group has caught the attention of their local MPP.

“We had to sacrifice for greater needs in other buildings, but we may actually end up achieving more,” he said.

This civic engagement is what a participatory budget is all about, says Beatriz Tabak, TCHC manager of community-based business planning. “ People begin to learn how to participate in a democracy,” she said. “The impact, hopefully, will be that tenants start working with other organizations in the neighbourhood to make it better.”

Guelph: Getting Smarter

Guelph is a university town of 100,000 in the heart of southwestern Ontario’s farming belt. Progressive ideas often take root early here. For example, the city was one of the first in its province to implement a recycling program in the 80s and more recently received global recognition after implementing one of the first wet-dry garbage disposal systems in North America.

Now, city council, headed up by Mayor Karen Farbridge, recently launched a Smart Guelph initiative intended to develop a core group of citizens with a stronger grasp of the issues involved in creating a growth plan for the area. The process, due to wrap up early in the new year, was designed by a representative group of citizens who still sit on a steering committee to ensure it is implemented as they envisioned.

For her part, Farbridge led bus, bicycle and walking tours of the city to discuss the idea of smart planning. Ironically, she says her tours attracted many new Canadians who were more interested in a free tour of the city. This gave her a chance to engage people who wouldn’t normally show up at city hall.

Farbridge knows her council has raised expectations by starting a participatory process. But she isn’t worried.

“We have gone out to very diverse groups and found there is a huge consistency in the values they identify,” she said. “Where you run into challenges is in the implementation. But it helps to have that base where people understand the issues you are trying to balance.”

One person who hopped onto the mayor’s bus tour was Ezequiel Villanueva-Ruiz, 29, an agriculture Ph.D. student from Mexico. He says he’s impressed with Guelph’s environment management and proud the city is engaging so many people from different parts of the community.

Ottawa: Moving toward a Participatory Budget

Smart growth also stoked interest in a participatory budget for the nation’s capital. During public consultations in 2001, a chorus of citizen voices said the city should spend more money on public transit and less on roads.

Yet, councillor Clive Doucet says, in 2002, the city will have spent more than twice as much on new and widened roads as on public transit.

After the 2002 budget was released, there was a six-week public consultation process. City councillors put in long days in public, committee and council meetings.

The result?

Out of a $1.7 billion budget, all those hours of consultations redirected only $750,000âe¦ a piddling 0.04 per cent of the total.

“Councillors from all political backgrounds said, ’This is nuts. Why did we work so hard for six weeks? What did we achieve?’” said Doucet.

Doucet, inspired after attending the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, has been talking up that city’s participatory budget ever since.

This year, Ottawa lengthened its public budget discussions from six weeks to six months. Each councillor has held meetings with constituents to discuss their tax dollar priorities. City staff will use the information to draw up some overall budget directions for city council to approve. Only then will staff create a draft budget with specific numbers attached. This document will go through public and committee consultation before it is brought to council in January.

This consultation still doesn’t give Ottawa citizens any decision-making power. And Doucet conceded that only five people showed up to his community consultation. But the potential for transformation is there.

Sue Lott, 45, a lawyer and member of the Centretown Citizens Community Association, demonstrated this when she put up her hand at one of the community sessions to ask a question.

What would be the overall impact of a very small tax increase?

She says she never felt comfortable asking that question at the larger and more-pressured city-wide budget meetings. The answer was intriguing. It turns out that a one per cent increase would let the city fund a lot more services. Lott now wonders if people would be more receptive to paying taxes if they were more involved in how their dollars are spent.

“I think our whole budgetary process, on the federal, provincial and municipal level, has been very paternalistic,” she says. “And the only way it’s going to change is if you can demystify the process.”

Quebec City: The idea continues to spread

A year-and-a-half ago anti-globalization protesters were rocking against a fence in Quebec City, demanding that their voices be heard and that high-level meetings be open to regular citizens. Perhaps their voices were heard in some quarters after all.

Quebec City’s mayor has publicly declared an openness to dedicate part of the city’s budget to a participatory process. Citizen groups are currently organizing conferences to engage people in the idea.

Marc Roland, assistant for councillor Lynda Cloutier, says staff energy is tied up in adjusting to fact that the city has been newly amalgamated. But he said the city is moving toward a participatory budget process step-by-step âe” the first being to make information available to every ward.

Quebec City’s provincial government has also called for a more open democracy. It has a minister responsible for reforming democratic institutions and he has just announced his plans to create a citizen’s committee to organize a public forum in February. Before that event, the committee will carry out a broad public consultation on the topic.

Challenges Ahead

The road to more democratic planning and budgeting is not without bumps.

A recent meeting of Toronto’s participatory budget movement illustrated this aptly when newcomers challenged the group’s “10×10” slogan — which seeks to capture the idea that Toronto’s citizens direct ten per cent of the city budget by 2010. The debate was reopened despite the fact the slogan had been conceived five months earlier at a day-long workshop.

This brings up the spectre that many fear about open, democratic processes: that people will spend long hours arguing and ultimately achieve nothing.

Chris Cavanagh, a member of Toronto’s Catalyst Centre and one of the people trying to spark public interest in a peoples’ budget, answers this by noting that participatory democracy and group decision-making are skills that people have to learn. One goal of the Toronto movement is to learn how to function in a participatory democracy. During the meeting, the group decided to implement pre-meeting education sessions to give newcomers more context.

“When people participate together, they start educating each other. It works, but it takes time,” he said.

To his credit, the meeting didn’t drag into the night, like many public consultations, but ended precisely on time.