Lawrence Martin is perhaps this country’s most important political writer in the last 25 years. Martin’s work in newspapers and books spans decades and shows no bias to any political stance beyond pursuit of the truth. Martin has written about presidents and the Prime Ministers of Canada, including a two-volume series on John Chretien and most recently, a detailed and damning book on Stephen Harper that remains altogether fair in its condemnation of his premiership.
That book, Harperland, won wide-spread acclaim and was listed as one of the best books on Canadian politics in the last 25 years in a recent poll.
I have yet to read a column by Martin in the Globe and Mail, where he has long worked, that I have not found fair and balanced. Many have been scathing but all have been accurate. Martin is a rare journalist who holds everyone to account for their conduct and is unrelenting in his criticism of those who abandon principle for their own gain.
‘Character is Fate’
For holding our politicians and ourselves as voters to account for the decisions we make, Lawrence Martin is a Champion of Democracy. His contributions to our national political discourse regularly improves the fabric of our collective narrative. With each new column or book comes a reminder that all hope is not lost in politics so long as there remain guardians of the truth – people like Lawrence Martin.
“Before this prime minister, many leaders paid a steep price for exceeding their bounds of authority. They would have done well to recall the adage of the philosopher Heraclitus: ‘Character is fate.’”
After a devastating loss at the federal level, local Liberal youth in Barrie, Ontario formed a brand new Young Liberal club in their city. I came to notice this group during the lead up to the Liberal Party of Canada’s 2012 Biennial Convention because of the stellar work this group did in vetting the candidates nominated for election to the National Executive Board. This newly formed youth group was able to get all candidates for National Policy Chair to visit their town and discuss their platforms with the local Young Liberal club. BYL (Barrie Young Liberals) achieved this through the sheer force of their own hunger for information in order to ensure they’d be informed delegates at the Biennial convention. Essentially, they acted as I wish every voter in this country would – they got engaged, they got involved, and they got informed. They did not wait to be noticed or to be encouraged to participate. They acted and through their fearlessness they achieved a great deal.
But they did not just inform themselves. They went a step further and filmed these valuable meetings so that they could share their experience with other delegates. They did not stop at the bare minimum or even the exceptional. They continued their outreach until they had achieved something extraordinary. This is also how I wish every voter in Canada acted – not just as engaged citizens but as engaging citizens, reaching out to those around them and encouraging others to do the same.
BYL Gives Back
What BYL has done for the internal democracy of the Liberal Party of Canada is substantial but only the beginning of why the Barrie Young Liberals are what I would consider true Champions of Democracy. They have gone beyond participating in important events dedicated to the discussion of important issues in society or volunteering on campaigns beyond their riding borders, as they did recently in Toronto-Danforth. They have done those things too, but also so much more. In the short time the club has existed, they have also participated in countless community events and supported numerous charitable causes. They have volunteered together at the Salvation Army Bayside Mission in Barrie and will soon be participating in the MS Society’s MS Walk to end multiple sclerosis. Despite being a political club, their service is to their community and it is individuals like the members of this club that give me great hope for the future of politics in this country.
The True Expression of Our Aims
The club’s relentless focus on bettering their community and by extension our society is to be commended. But just as impressive as the work the club is doing is the fact that these are young adults dedicating their free time to the causes and beliefs that led them to get involved in politics to begin with. Too often those in politics begin with good intentions and get lost along the way, distracted by other, less meaningful concerns. It is my hope that the Barrie Young Liberals are celebrated by their peers at the upcoming Ontario Young Liberal Annual General Meeting in May for the exceptional work they have done and the inspiring blueprint they have laid out for other Young Liberal clubs. They have demonstrated clearly that politics can be a fruitful, rewarding, and meaningful pursuit when your purpose is genuine and your actions are the true expression of your aims.
For it’s innovative use of social media and online technology as a tool for voter engagement in the 2011 provincial election, the Saskatchewan Party is a Champion of Democracy.
Social Media as Engagement: Some Background
I spent a large portion of this fall’s election cycle maintaining a website called Canadian Voter. The purpose of the website was to provide quick access to non-partisan policy summaries of the major parties (any that won over 1% of the vote in the previous election) running across the country in provincial and territorial elections. I did this work with some talented and dedicated friends. Together, we poured over countless pages of policy and extracted the meat of what the parties were offering voters. We tried to make it as user friendly as possible and paired it with a social media campaign so even on the go, voters could get updates over Facebook and Twitter that would help them decide their vote.
What this process allowed me to see was all the different ways parties in different areas of this country run their campaigns. A political campaign in Ontario varies greatly from one in Prince Edward Island or Manitoba. As an Ontarian I had never realized how different campaigns are run depending on where you are because my only experiences have been from federal or provincial elections within Ontario. watching the fall elections through the vantage point of Canadian Voter, it was clear Ontario elections are big budget, flashy affairs unmatched by those conducted in other provinces. The social media campaign in that province was relentless and innovative with the PC Party even creating a mobile application for their leader, Tim Hudak.
However, there was one campaign external to Ontario that showed just as much skill and innovation and that was the campaign of the Saskatchewan Party. The party had all the social media savvy of its Ontario counterparts while one-upping them by creating a truly interactive tool for voter engagement in their Saskatchewan Party mobile application. Instead of being primarily a source of information and news about the party platform and leader like the Hudak app, the Saskatchewan Party app did those things but also provided information on where to vote, how to get involved with the party or even donate to it. Unlike the Hudak app, it did not function as an electronic brochure but created ways for voters to find out about the party, interact with it, and (most importantly) move that interaction out into the real world.
It is this two-way relationship of traditional campaigning that the party was able to incorporate into its phone application, a relationship that allowed the Saskatchewan Party app to be truly groundbreaking in the 2011 provincial election.
The Social Value of Social Media
The contribution made to democracy by the Saskatchewan Party through its use of technology is a result not of the technology but in how they used it. As Saskatchewan Party Communications and New Media Manager Derek Robinson stated, “I’m particularly excited about the new Sask Party app which allows people to take an active role in the election campaign. I am confident that the Saskatchewan Party’s online and social media campaign will provide people with not only the information they need but give them the opportunity to take part in the election in a way they never have before.”
The Party has embraced new media as a way to communicate with the electorate faster and across greater distance while not abandoning the two-way discourse of previous political times. While social media is a fantastic tool, I always caution that its use is only as powerful as the connection it creates. That connection is dependent entirely on those using it and true engagement only occurs when the conversation moves offline into action.
The Saskatchewan Party mobile app, by providing voter specific information about where to vote and how to get involved in the political process, crosses the boundary of using technology to simply flood people with information in favour of providing information and then sharing ways to use it offline.
A Model to Emulate
The party was not only innovative in a technological sense but also by looking for different ways to encourage political engagement by citizens during a time when it is dwindling worldwide. The efforts by the party in engaging a changing electorate on their own terms are commendable and arguably unique among Canadian political parties. It is my hope that other political parties in Canada will follow the Saskatchewan Party’s lead and focus their energies on better engaging a modern electorate.
In the age of the internet and blogs it is sometimes hard to remember the value of books in shaping our discourse. Sometimes the release of books on controversial topics by well known authors (Peter C. Newman) shakes up our political or civic discourse. Sometimes the arrival of a new Prime Ministerial biography, like the new offering from UBC Press on John Turner called Elusive Destiny, also reminds us of what we can learn from a well-researched book that might not be on Wikipedia yet.
But UBC Press has gone a step further than the traditional (and wonderful) publishing firms like MCClelland and Stewart that have helped educate us about our civic history over the last century. UBC Press has created countless publishing series about how our society functions but one in particular deserves attention.
The Canadian Democratic Auditis deserving of very specific attention and praise for its groundbreaking work in in examining and evaluating the content and status of Canadian democracy. For this project and for others, UBC Press is a Champion of Democracy.
The books were written over a period of five years by leading thinkers in Canadian politics with the goal of not only defining how our democracy works but whether it works. Originally created as a result of a decline in voter participation, the series audits Canadian democracy much like audits are conducted in the real world, by going through the details and evaluating what has been presented. The series is concluded by the tenth volume which sums up the findings of the previous books.
It is my belief that every high school and library (public or home) should contain this series as an important tool for the civic-minded citizen to consult. Luckily, it is December and there is a built in excuse to purchase these books for fellow citizens.
What most citizens can only hope to help achieve Dave Meslin seems to do overnight. When he felt disappointment over a Toronto City Council made up of fairly uniform candidates with minimal electoral support he created what he called ‘City Idol‘ (modeled off of American Idol) so average and hopefully more representative candidates could come forward to receive assistance in a real campaign. He created an organization to introduce ranked balloting into municipal elections in Toronto called RaBIT. He is also a member of the Better Ballots initiative to bring various reforms to municipal government. Other projects include:
Dave’s accomplishments, even when just reading them in a simple list, sound exhausting. He is the Energizer Bunny of local civic engagement and his influence reaches all across Toronto and beyond it. For his non-stop efforts, Dave Meslin is a Champion of Democracy.
The Art of Civic Engagement
As I’ve written before, I first encountered Dave through a TEDx talk he gave on apathy. I eventually met him in person a few times, the first time allowing for a lengthy discussion on electoral reform. The conversations I have had with Dave have made me realize what many others have about him.
Dave is above all deeply committed to other people and bettering their lives by improving the civic infrastructure they face in their daily lives. Dave is incredibly eloquent not just in speech but in the ideas he brings to the table. Dave is a brilliant marketer with an incredibly strong sense about what people will respond to and therefore has an incredible knowledge of how to engage others. Dave is so persuasive that it would be terrifying if not for the fact that he uses his powers for good instead of evil. Dave is honest and kind and has spent his adult life dedicating himself to those around him sometimes at the expense of himself because he is at his core a responsible citizen.
For those who don’t yet know about Dave, be on the lookout because you will. It is my belief that he is only just warming up.
You can keep up with Dave by reading his blog or following him on Twitter.
You can also visit Dave’s Fourth Wall Exhibit, which ‘explores 36 proposals for democratic renewal at City Hall’, and on display until December 31st, 2011.
Samara is a charitable organization that studies citizen engagement with Canadian democracy. Through our projects we hope to strengthen the health of our democracy and encourage others to do the same.
This is a CoD I have been meaning to write for a while because few organizations in Canada impress me more than Samara. Samara was founded by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan. Loat is the executive director of this non-profit organization, a role she took on after ending a previous project she founded called Canada25. That project focused on involving young Canadians under 35 in the public policy process. The goals of Samara are similar in that the organization aims to involve Canadians in our civic discourse while producing top notch work on the state of our democracy. For this outstanding work, the staff at Samara and their executive Alison Loat are Champions of Democracy.
MP Exit Interview Reports
My favourite work of Samara’s so far are the reports they have released on our parliamentary system based on interviews with former MPs. When I first met Alison Loat at an event at my school I spoke to her about how great I thought her organization was. But it was not until I mentioned these great reports that she realized I had really poured over the organization’s material. They cover details about our parliamentarians, their experiences in parliament and within their political parties, and the advice they have for current and future MPs.
Prior to meeting Alison, I had told my professor that I would love to work for an organization like Samara and he responded that he would love to work for them as well. After meeting Alison, I was even more pleased that there is such a bright young woman out there doing such great work to help strengthen our democracy. I bumped into Alison again last month as she was once again making the case for civic participation at a conference I attended. She is a tireless campaigner for a more engaged electorate.
It is my hope and my expectation that with people as inspiring, hardworking and dedicated as Alison spending each day encouraging citizen engagement there might yet be hope for our democratic system.
The Toronto Star’s Speak Your Mind Community Blogger Project
“Speak Your Mind, a forum convened by The Toronto Star for commentary, conversation and debate around the key issues driving the Ontario provincial election campaign.”
The Toronto Star, in partnership with the Mark News, created an incredibly innovative platform for local discussion on election issues during the 2011 Ontario provincial election. The project, Speak Your Mind, was unlike anything seen before in an election, bringing the impact of election platform promises to the local level for citizens across the province. For the first time, voters had access to information from local races through a provincially utilized and recognized news source. Not only did the project provide easier and broader access to local electoral information, it allowed voters to more fully immerse themselves in the discussion as participants. For this groundbreaking and incredibly important work, all of those who worked on the project either as Star/Mark staff, as community bloggers, or as readers and commenters deserve recognition as Champions of Democracy.
How it worked
The staff behind the project began in the middle of the summer, figuring out how it would all work and organizing the project for use by the public. The process in its entirety is laid out here by the Canadian Journalism Project. Once the project itself was set up, applications were made available to the public to become one of two community bloggers for each of the 107 ridings in the province. Applicants had to submit standard information about themselves as well as any political affiliation they might have for the sake of transparency to the electorate. They then needed to submit writing samples and describe what the focus or angle of their blog entries would be. The successful candidates were selected and given access to their blogging accounts.
Participants were asked to submit work regularly and had specified targets to hit. They could post more than required if they wished. Editors, specifically Stacey Macleod who was the Editor of the entire project, would pour through the blog posts for partisan bias, errors in fact or text, and any other snags before the post would go live on the appropriate riding page.
The project itself deserves recognition for strengthening the fabric of our provincial democracy by encouraging more debate at the local level about the issues. But the incredible amount of work done by editors throughout the campaign was astounding. Hundreds of posts were written, edited, and put up for public consumption at a blistering pace.
While the work clearly benefited the paper and the free community journalism cost nothing beyond administrative costs, no such endeavour had previously been undertaken and the Star, the Mark News and all others involved performed a tremendous service to the electorate. It is my hope that the Star continues this project in later elections and more citizens get involved in our public discourse because of it.
In 2002 Taylor Gunn set out to do what is largely thought to be impossible: get kids interested in electoral politics in Canada. Taylor founded the organization Student Vote in order to get kids participating in democracy now so that when they are old to cast a ballot they are actually interested in showing up.
Engagement is a difficult thing to achieve but there seems to be few arenas where that is harder than in modern electoral politics. Turnout is down worldwide regardless of which system is in place or which individuals are elected. And turnout is down the most in youth voters. Taylor’s struggle to get kids interested in politics so that they become contributing members of our collective civic life in adulthood is nothing short of heroic. And that is why he is a Champion of Democracy.
Student Vote is a non-profit organization that Taylor began nearly a decade ago. The organization runs many programs but their real star is their parallel election program. Student Vote aims to offer resources to schools, teachers, and students so that they may hold elections that coincide with official elections so kids may learn what it really feels like to participate in Canadian civic life. These parallel elections are voted in by the students who elect a government based on their own views. These results can differ from those of the official elections they run alongside of which acts as a great argument for getting youth involved as their voices will generate a different consensus in our elections. One of those differences could be that it is important to vote.
The Need for Student Vote
Student Vote is essential for the health of our democracy. It was not that long ago that the voting age was decreased from 21 to 18 in an expectation that youth would become more involved if given the opportunity. But opportunity is different than encouragement. Youth are expected to suddenly become interested in voting on their 18th birthday yet we do nothing to prepare them for the gravity of their decision or the importance of making that decision.
My father is a teacher of intermediate students (grades 7 and 8 ) and every election he carries out an in-depth unit on elections. I used to construct blind surveys for him to give to his students that organized questions by policy issue and only revealed the identity of the party whose position it was after the survey was filled out. It was a neat way to get kids thinking about the issues that impact our country. My dad always tells his students that it is important they start thinking about voting because as 14 year olds, they are only four years away from doing it themselves.
Student Vote addresses the fact that young adults and children are not all that far away from voting. Especially in a situation with a majority parliament recently elected (as in this year), a 14 year old student is one election away from voting. It is of urgent importance that we get that 14 year old interested in voting.
Years ago I read a report from Elections Canada that said those who don’t vote in their first three elections tend to never cast a ballot in their life. Voting behaviour is cemented early and those who aren’t interested at 18 rarely become interested at 40. But what if we made the first three electoral experiences of a Canadian happen in a school setting where all of their friends were doing it too?
Voting and civic awareness are not all that different from languages. The more often you use it, the more competent you are at using it and the more interested you become in actually using it. But more than that, like language, voting is easiest to learn in youth while your mind is still eagerly taking in new information and ideas.
And also like language, voting is learned most successfully and easily when one hears it at home. Student Vote provides the training at school, but is most successful when children go home and discuss voting with parents who care. And if they don’t, perhaps the idealism and concern of their own children who can’t even vote yet will re-energize these adult voters who increasingly ignore an important right they possess by not turning up on election day.
Turnout can only be increased by engaging the next generation who will in turn impart the importance of voting on the generation that follows them. It all starts with children and Taylor Gunn and Student Vote are leading the campaign.
Glen Pearson is a former Member of Parliament for London North Centre. Prior to his political career, Glen was a fire captain and firefighter for 29 years. He also helped found the London Food Bank and has been its executive director for over 20 years. Pearson has also done extensive human rights and development work with his wife in Sudan. Pearson is a recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for public service.
Champion of Democracy
Pearson is a Champion of Democracy because of his work in all of these areas but merits specific recognition for his efforts in raising the level of discourse in the House of Commons and politics in general. Pearson was respected on both sides of the aisle in the House of Commons because he championed the people he represented before all else. He would work with anyone who could deliver on behalf of the people and aid those worst off. Pearson embodied the view that public service is about just that: serving the public.
While Pearson did not win re-election in 2011 he played a major role in preserving the integrity of our legislative House. His presence in the Commons will be missed but his good work is not yet finished as he returns to the food bank, Africa and his work as an volunteer public servant. A truly inspiring leader, Pearson is a champion of humanity.
In His Own Words
But the truth is I was never comfortable in politics. I have the instincts of a public servant, not those of a partisan politician. The House no longer functions well and a government found in contempt of that place now has a majority mandate – things are deeply dysfunctional, both in the House and among the citizenry. Yet I am now free. I wish the person who defeated me every success, I really do, but I’ll be too busy walking the kids to school with my wife, assisting Africans and being bettered by them, and fighting for women’s rights, the environment and against poverty to really notice. But something about Parliament – its ideals, opportunities, history and dignity – will stay with me forever. I was there. I kept my spirit alive in difficult times. I refused to strap on the pads. And above all I refused to abide by just one colour. That’s no bad, eh?
Glen Pearson, May 6, 2011
Glen Pearson regularly publishes a blog on his thoughts about Canada and its politics. You can visit it here.
The creators of Tweet Commons founded their website with the notion that “the best ideas are born of necessity. In an age of beleaguered voter apathy, communication is a must.” Thus they created Tweet Commons as a non-profit, trans-partisan website where politicians and voters alike could participate in the civil discourse of the nation and for this the creators are Champions of Democracy.
The basic premise of the site is that in a time of great technological advancement that technology can be used to facilitate discussion and improve our democracy. The creators “believe that open information is a democratizing force” and Tweet Commons can provide a space for that to happen.
Tweet Commons uses Twitter to provide a space for politicians and citizens to engage one another in discussion about matters of societal importance (and silly things too). The site organizes politicians by province, by party, and even by position. There is also a search box if you would rather search the site that way as well as a general alphabetized directory. You can even search by tweet topic. This makes it incredibly easy for citizens to find their representatives and even for politicians to engage one another.
Beyond the organizing of Canadian MPs the site is also useful in that it functions slightly differently than Twitter. If you select a specific politician you can see their tweets, tweets in response to their tweets, or a combination of both. What this creates is a viewable Twitter conversation between politicians and their Twitter followers. This conversation allows one to have a clear picture of the discourse between a politician and the public which is much more difficult to see by just using Twitter. You can also jump in at any time by replying to any tweet.
What Tweet Commons does is push more politicians to be online, engaging their constituents because it structures the dialogue in such a useful and usable way. This in turn further engages the Canadian public because they have an avenue to contact and interact with their representatives in Parliament. Greater and more timely access increases engagement. For their role in encouraging the civil engagement of Canadian citizens, the creators of Tweet Commons are champions of democracy.