Overcoming Canada's Democratic Deficit

Rebuilding the Foundation with a Citizens’ Assembly

Our country is living through unprecedented changes. As we steady ourselves to confront a variety of challenges – the climate emergency, global pandemics, workplace automation, artificial intelligence, inequality, and racism – we need to make sure that we are equipped with the best tools. This requires ensuring that the foundations of our democracy are as healthy as possible.

If we imagine our democracy as a house, we need to recognise that it is in need of serious renovation. The foundation of our democracy dates from the 19th century and, as such, requires updating. The building blocks of our Canadian democracy are no longer fit for purpose in terms of the ways we should be governed, how we should elect our leaders, and how crucial policy decisions should be made.

Signs of Democratic Deficit

The signs of the problem are everywhere: outdated and outmoded election systems, weak campaign finance rules, chronic distrust, “paper” candidates, overly partisan political parties, lack of government accountability and transparency, a basic lack of civic education, decreased public engagement, overreliance on political action committees, and more. Together, these produce a democratic deficit in which institutional practices are no longer aligned with the founding principles.

These are some of the most frequently observed concerns:

Disengagement - During the 2019 federal election, one-third of eligible voters failed to vote: a clear a sign that a great many Canadians regard Parliament as irrelevant to their lives. They feel that their voices are not being heard; that their efforts to influence government policy are ignored or inconsequential; and that the decisions of their elected representatives reflect neither their values nor their concerns.

Low Youth Engagement - Young Canadians are especially uninspired to vote. Despite recent improvements, turnout among youth aged 18-24 is about 10% lower than general voter turnout. Among other things, researchers point out that young Canadians do not have enough information to incentivise them to vote and face structural barriers, such as moving jurisdictions, lacking a fixed address, and limited outreach from political parties.

Lack of Representation - Our representative democracy is anything but. In the last 50 years, of the thousands of people that have been elected to City Halls, Provincial or Territorial Legislatures and the House of Commons, only about two handfuls of elected officials have had the support of a majority of eligible voters.

Lack of Diversity - There are still significant disparities in political participation among visible minority and immigrant groups. While the proportion of Members of Parliament emanating from racialised groups increased in the 2019 federal election, it remains well below the proportion in the general population. Parties often field diverse slates of candidates without fielding those candidates in winnable ridings.

So what can we do to overcome our democratic deficit? Well, since the problem is structural, so must be the solution.

An Action Plan for Democratic Renewal

STEP 1: Convene a National Citizens’ Assembly

We believe that a National Citizens’ Assembly should be convened by Parliament and tasked with recommending how to reduce our democratic deficit. The Assembly would be a diverse and randomly selected body of citizens brought together with a mandate to deliberate on matters of democratic renewal in Canada and provide a set of recommendations to our Parliament.

The Assembly would consider four inter-related issues:

  • Proportional Representation
  • Lowering the Voting Age to 16
  • Online Voting
  • Mandatory Voting

Each issue would be considered separately and in an order set out by Parliament.

The process would be facilitated by an independent and non-partisan organisation. In order to enhance the Assembly’s deliberations, the organisation would bring in experts from a wide range of disciplines, as well as individuals and groups directly affected by the issue in question. A public service secretariat would also be created.

STEP 2: Parliament Considers the Recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly

Upon receipt of the Assembly’s recommendations and report on each of the four issues, the House of Commons would refer them for consideration to a Committee composed of members of the House and the Senate..

STEP 3: Adoption

When the debates conclude in the House of Commons and the Senate, the government would provide Parliament with a response to the recommendations of the National Citizens’ Assembly on the issue under consideration. The government would be required to set out the timeline for introducing the necessary legislation for bringing the recommendations of the Assembly into effect with minimal delay.

Democratic Renewal is in reach

In proposing the idea of National Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Renewal, we act on the evidence. Properly constituted, Citizens’ Assemblies are broadly viewed as equitable, free from political interference, and acting in the public interest. Their composition can be more reflective of Canada’s diversity than Parliament; their procedures can be more deliberative and consensus-driven; and they can make recommendations on sensitive foundational questions that elected officials seldom take on and that can bring value to Parliament as a whole. Acting in this way, Citizens’ Assemblies can help renew the trust and confidence of Canadians in government.

There is strong evidence that our democratic house needs structural renovation. The National Citizens’ Assembly we are proposing offers a viable, positive and practical step in that direction.


6 comments

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  • Carolyn Herbert
    While I appreciate that Citizen Assemblies are democratic, in Canada they have been disregarded/voted out when it came to ordinary citizens voting to accept their recommendations. With our severely partisan Parliament and Senate, I fear this process will be an expensive failure, as was the ERRE Committee. However, I believe that the government received sufficient information to simply move forward with one of the systems which has been successful in, for example, New Zealand, have the Chief Electoral Officer provide the basic information to show voters the way the ballot will look like and leave it to the electoral system to work out the details if they are complicated. Trialing an urban/rural system, an MMP system or STV system for the next election would be a start. Then evaluate after with a referendum on whether to keep that system or trial another. Very simple question so no one gets lost in the weeds and parties do not have a chance to try to sway people against any system.
  • John VanderVlist
    To me, electoral reform is the key to almost every issue. Without fair representation we will continue the yo yo of endless Liberal and Conservative government I am not partisan at all, but I do want my vote to count regardless of whom I vote for and where I live. Too many ridings are safe ridings for either of tye 2 large parties. The FPTP system is becoming more proportionate as Canada becomes more diverse. We need local and federal resentation where 15% of the popular vote results in 15% of the seats, where local representatives or from party lists or both. A mixed-member proportional system could split the seat based on half local and half federal representation. The Bloc Quebecois should not have 30 seats with the same % of the popular vote as the GPC that only gets 3 seats. With MMPR every vote will count and there would be no wasted vptes. This is coming from a person who has voted mainly Liberal and Conservative (the old PC party, not the Reformed version). I want all parties and politicians to find common ground and to work together like adults. That will not happen until we have true electoral reform. Not ranked ballot only, which only distorts representation further with an even larger majority for the winner, which would likely be the Liberal Party and which would effectively make us a one party country. Annamie, you will get my vote and I hope you can make yourself heard in Ottawa and across Canada to make true change happen. Enough of the back and forth swings we have had for years. I hope that the GPC has a broad enough tent that can accommodate not just those who are left of centre. I feel discouraged by our current system and overhaling it and replacing it with a fair system should be our main priority. From there, massive change will happen as people become more interested and engaged. Thank you!
  • Kyle H
    Thinking Canadian youth are ill-informed being the dominant force driving low voter turnouts is completely out of touch. The youth are uninspired to vote based on the candidates that are being presented to them by the parties. The youth have been raised on the fear of how the Earth will change as a consequence of Climate Change, without seeing the anxiety they face in their daily lives being mirrored by government officials. The Canadian youth knows these issues better than any other demographic in this country. This party fails to present the sweeping legislation in our forms of government both federally and provincially that will be needed to fulfill our national end of the bargain when it comes to the global temperature increase come 2030. Along with a systematic failure perpetrated in this party to recognize the failings of capitalism that aside from the implementation of renewable energy production. “Lacking a fixed address” young voters 18-24 as you claim are facing an economy and a housing market that has been decimated by the remnants of the 2008 recession, from which some voters were 10 years old at the time of the collapse, a moderate recession as per the natural path of the late-stage economic capitalism that the Canadian government so adamantly pushes on its citizens despite general disapproval of our current economic existence of 2018, and now, currently a induceed recession due to COVID, these “youth voters” are facing an economy and housing market as unstable as the addresses you seem to be reporting. Blows my mind as to why their addresses keep changing. Imagine critisizing anyone 18-24 for not being able to not have a stable address in a country with out federal rent control or a public (not “afforable”) housing program. As for limited outreach, definity, and this party seem to have a plan for that, even on this page. But can the outreach be please met with the same anger that the Canadian youth vote has fostered against our respose to the climate crisis, our current economic crisis, along with the solutions to said crises, while acknowledging the socioeconomic systems that the government and large corporations of Canada have refused to face in the past twenty years.
  • Paul Parkinson
    Until we become a Republic, we are a Parliamentary system, and therefore NOT a democratic system. There is a difference. Don’t let her words fool you.
  • Matthew Casselman
  • Lyndsey Lewis