Voices - Tracking government erosion of democracy, participation, and dissent in Canada

Tim McSorley is a former co-ordinator of the Voices-Voix coalition and a current member of its strategy group, and he has a background in grassroots journalism. Scott Neigh interviews him about the work of Voices to monitor and document the ways in which space for democratic dissent, debate, advocacy, meaningful participation, and protest has been systematically eroded, initially under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but more recently under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals as well.

In Canada as in all other liberal-democratic states, rhetoric about the supposedly robust space that the state concedes for dissent, democratic participation, and so on has always exceeded the reality. There has never been a point when social movements and communities-in-struggle in Canada have not been able to point to ways that those things are in some sense lacking. That said, however, it is also true that the magnitude of deficiencies in space for dissent, debate, advocacy, and participation in public life vary considerably across different eras.

Voices was founded in 2010 when more than 230 organizations signed on to a declaration that began, “Since 2006 the Government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights.” The declaration then went on to identify some of the ways in which the Harper Conservative government had done those things.

From the initial declaration, Voices went on to become a working coalition. The group has a part-time coordinator, but most of its work is done by volunteers, particularly a volunteer editorial board. In a manner analogous to human rights groups in many parts of the world, the core work of Voices is to prepare case studies which carefully and thoroughly document measures taken by the government, their impacts, and their progression over time. These case studies are published online, and they periodically release reports that bring together specific instances and broader trends or themes.

The kinds of government actions at the centre of the case studies have covered a wide range. Some are very broad and touch many different organizations, like the targeted audits by the Canada Revenue Agency against many different charities with progressive political perspectives. Some target individuals, such as the widely publicized government surveillance of Indigenous child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock, or the de-funding and/or firing of specific officials with independent government oversight roles. Some involve vilification of and efforts to silence particular political positions, such as the multiple attacks over the years by politicians against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in support of the Palestinian people. Some are changes in legislation and policies that reduced the scope for participation in public processes, as in the case of environmental assessments. Others involve government control of information, like the suppression of research and the silencing of government scientists. Since the organization’s launch, Voices has put together around 150 case studies.

One of the major shifts in the federal political landscape during the period that Voices has been active took place in 2015. The campaign that drove the Liberal victory in that year’s general election certainly tapped into accumulated popular frustration at the very kinds of things documented by Voices, and it was accompanied by rhetoric that claimed that a very different approach to governing would be forthcoming. Unfortunately, a review by Voices in 2017 of the first two years of the Liberal government’s mandate characterized their progress on these issues as “at best, mixed.”

While there have been incremental policy improvements in specific areas, many of the cases that Voices began documenting in the Harper years remain substantively unresolved under Trudeau. When it comes to public consultation and participation, the Liberals have created many more opportunities, but the actual influence of these processes on the content of legislation and policies has often been minimal. Perhaps the most flagrant disconnection between rhetoric and substance under the Liberals has, concerningly, been in relation to Indigenous issues and peoples.

Voices is currently in the early stages of a process of reflecting on and refocusing its work. Partly, that is about adjusting their activities with respect to the federal government to better reflect the political moment. It may also include focusing for the first time on the provincial level – the new Conservative government in Ontario and the new CAQ government in Quebec have already begun doing things that are of concern to Voices, and there are disoncerting rumblings from other provinces as well. Also, though Voices technically remains a coalition, over the years the work has settled into a smaller core group, so the current process may lead to changes in the form and organization of Voices to make it more effective.

Along with his roles with Voices-Voix, McSorley is also the national co-ordinator of one of the coalition’s member organizations, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

Image: The image used in this post incorporates, with permission, the logo of Voices-Voix.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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