It's not every day that on Parliament Hill you'll hear four people making a genuine attempt to engage with Canadians rather than dubious pitches for our votes.
Tuesday's events were different, largely because the usual suspects had left the building for another electoral traipse, leaving behind a little space for other voices to be heard. The four that spoke up, on behalf of over 200 organizations representing tens of thousands of members across Canada, had one idea.
And they weren't talking about the limited notion of returning to the ballot box now and again. They were talking about the process by which empowered citizens engage in an ongoing dialogue about what's really best for our country.
"For democracy to work, our voices need to be heard, informed, able to speak, and respected," says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada (English branch). "Though previous governments have sometimes failed to respect our rights in these regards, the government that just fell went to lengths we haven't seen before."
Neve was one of four people speaking on behalf of Voices-Voix, a non-partisan coalition defending democracy, free speech and transparency in Canada. The others were Gerry Barr, president-CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation; Leilani Farha, executive director of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation; and John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
They were usual suspects themselves, no doubt. But, unusually, they united in their concern for the current state of affairs: attacks against organizations or individuals who speak up against government decisions or policies; unprecedented levels of government secrecy; silencing, muzzling, and bullying of civil servants; disrespect for Parliament; contempt for women's equality; avoidance of the press; and more. The four cite all of this as a call to action.
And, even more unusual for a coalition that includes everything from churches to students, from environmentalists and community organizations to unions and raging grannies, they had a common plan -- an eight-part proposal for initial steps to help get our democracy back on track. The eight pledges call on our political leaders to:
1. Launch a credible, independent and public process that will examine and make recommendations regarding the state of democracy and human rights in Canada.
2. Launch a process of reforming Canada's Access to Information Act, with an eye to significantly improving transparency in government.
3. Review and strengthen the measures that are in place to protect watchdogs, civil servants and other bodies and individuals with similar responsibilities from recriminations when they criticize government policies.
4. Restore funding for research and advocacy related to women's equality rights.
5. Put in place a system that will ensure that decisions about funding civil society. organizations in Canada are done transparently and without discrimination; and reflect a variety of policy perspectives.
6. Restore the mandatory long-form census.
7. Launch a comprehensive public inquiry, jointly with the government of Ontario, into all aspects of security at the G8/G20 Summits and its impact on freedom of expression.
8. Implement the recommendations laid out in the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs' report, Rights & Democracy: Moving towards a Stronger Future.
Two weeks ago the coalition asked all of Canada's political parties to make these eight proposed pledges. Four out of five parties responded and generally agreed with Voices' recommendations. Sadly, the Conservative Party has remained silent.
Taking action on these pledges shouldn't actually be that difficult. That's the good news.
But hold on: we're still talking about politicians. And just because the current government is mired in multiple scandals such as the unprecedented disgrace of being found in contempt of Parliament, doesn't mean other parties would necessarily do a whole lot better. We aren't naive. We know we have to take all political pledges with a grain of salt. And perhaps the Conservatives -- by not responding -- will prove, ironically, to have been the most honest of all.
However, irrespective of whether these pledges are kept, what has already emerged is increased democratic space for voices other than those that we'd normally find on the Hill, and a new sense of self-confidence among citizens and civil society that apathy is indeed boring, that we are NOT obliged to accept undemocratic or unaccountable government, and that our voices must be heard.
The emergence of the Voices-Voix coalition marks the first time that such a diverse range of civil society groups has organized to discuss these shared concerns. And, ironically again, it might not have happened had not so many people from so many walks of Canadian life been so disillusioned by the government's blatant disregard for democracy.
So the question now is less about whether we can unite, and more about what we can do while united. Yes, we can be vigilant and hold four of five parties to pledges they've now made in writing -- and the fifth party too, for that matter, since these pledges are good common sense. But more importantly, how do we diversify our strategy, both during this election and beyond?
From the Voices-Voix perspective, if democracy truly is our way of life, the answer begins with YOU.
That's why today, April 6, in a number of cities and towns across the country, we are asking Canadians to come share their thoughts in a nation-wide Day for Democracy. From town hall meetings in Nova Scotia to a rally in Ottawa and strategy sessions in Vancouver, we are challenging Canadians to discuss with us, to share with us, to raise their voices with us, and plan common action to restore our democracy.
There has never been a better time to put pressure on those we elect to represent us. And no matter what action they pledge to take for democracy, the extent of their action will remain in proportion to the extent that we hold them to account.
Darren Shore is communications coordinator for the Voices-Voix Coalition. For more information about the Day for Democracy in your city, click here.
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