Try to strike up a conversation in Ontario about the province’s fast-approaching referendum and, recent polls show, most voters won’t know what you’re talking about. With little news coverage on the topic, few Ontarians are aware of the issues surrounding a historic referendum that will decide the future of their province’s electoral system.

For years, an electoral reform movement has been working to promote Canada’s adoption of some form of proportional representation, a voting system used in most industrial democracies. North America has long been a hold-out, sticking with the centuries-old ‘first-past-the-post’ system under which seats in the legislature rarely reflect the popular vote, often leading to widespread dissatisfaction.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the current proposal to adopt a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system comes not from politicians but from “a group of [103] randomly selected ordinary citizens who spent eight months learning and deliberating,” explains a member from the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, a group Elections Ontario created last year to review the electoral system. The citizens’ recommendation will be put to a vote October 10 in Ontario’s first referendum in nearly a century.

Whatever one thinks of the proposal, all but the most cynical among us agree that serious issues—like deciding how we elect government—deserve informed democratic debate.

Yet, “only 28 per cent of Ontario voters say they have any familiarity with this proposal,” revealed a June Environics poll, leaving 70 per cent unfamiliar with this proposed change to Ontario’s voting processes.

Admittedly, it’s hard to be informed about an issue that has been conspicuously absent from the news. While the Toronto Star—which lays claim to the greatest newspaper circulation in Canada—has recently carried a few stories on the referendum, most of its articles have lacked depth.

Instead, the Star noted the poll’s finding of “widespread public ignorance” on the issue, and more recently has suggested that people don’t care anyway. Though the Environics poll found 90 per cent of voters familiar with the matter have an opinion (with a clear majority supporting change), the Star instead emphasized the results of its own small informal survey, claiming almost no one is “interested enough to listen.” This flies in the face of the efforts of thousands of grassroots activists working everyday to raise public debate with little help from corporate media.

With even less coverage than the Star, the Globe and Mail ran just two sentences of news on the referendum in June and July, and even failed to report on related stories like the Environics poll. The Globe also chose not to highlight the support for MMP from a group of prominent women politicians—representing all the major parties—who united to encourage voters to support the proposed change, believing MMP would enhance women’s political involvement.

Through its efforts (or rather lack thereof), the Globe has made it clear it views the referendum as a non-issue. In a rare mention of the referendum in May, a regular Globe columnist placed electoral reform in a “contest” for “most boring subject.” Suggesting the Citizens’ Assembly could not have had thoughtful reasons for recommending MMP, he concluded that if there is no debate or awareness among ordinary citizens, then so be it—MMP will simply have to fail. This, with the headline, “Electoral reform? Chill the beer, pass the ketchup,” reflects the newspaper’s own dismissive attitude toward democratic debate.

The Globe‘s failure to report on the referendum reveals a problem with corporate-run media. Owned by CTVglobemedia Inc.—one of a handful of huge corporations that have divvied up most of Canada’s media—the Globe is focused upon serving business interests and advertisers before the public, and has little reason to be interested in popular democratic debate. Profit-boosting cutbacks to quality journalism are only the most notorious example of such corporate priorities.

Corporate media owners have also benefited directly from a lack of democracy. Our airwaves are public property broadcasters borrow on the condition that they serve the public interest—and specifically that the broadcasting system be used to “safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.” The CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) is supposed to regulate the industry for this purpose, working in proceedings open to public input. Too often, however, these proceedings are dominated by monied industry interests while citizens’ voices are largely shouted down or forgotten altogether.

As a result, Big Media has achieved what a Senate Committee calls “concentration of ownership [âe¦] few other countries would consider acceptable. ” In fact, most Canadians oppose concentrated control of media. It is by keeping them uninvolved that Big Media has grown and flourished.

So it is not surprising that Big Media outlets like the Globe get away with under-reporting the referendum, instead using column inches to paint pictures of citizen apathy and non-involvement.

Fortunately, while government regulators let big business dominate our media system, Canadians are mobilizing to defend democracy by actually practicing it. A variety of groups have recently emerged, ranging from loose radical grassroots activist groups, an independent public discussion forum, a new feminist group called Media Action Media, and a high-profile national coalition. This new movement is acting on the principles that Canadians deserve democratic debate, that diverse media is a cornerstone of democracy, and that everyday Canadians can and should be involved in media democracy issues.

Earlier this summer, a broad civil society coalition of academics, grassroots activists, independent media, and labour joined together to coordinate an unprecedented public action campaign. In just three weeks, Canadians for Democratic Media (CDM) mobilized almost 2,000 Canadians who filed interventions in an important CRTC proceeding on diversity of voices in media in light of concentrated ownership. Today Canadians are part of a global movement to take democracy into our own hands and away from unaccountable corporate power.

It remains to be seen whether the CRTC will listen, but what is clear is that it will take a sustained and persistent movement to achieve major change. We’ve seen it happen before: public broadcasting was, in part, a gain achieved by international popular struggle for media democracy.

Following on the heels of its first major campaign, CDM, working with MDI and, is calling attention to Ontario’s ‘missing referendum’ as a timely and exigent example of the serious consequences of an undemocratic media system where so few control the information available to so many.