A civic lesson: Citizenship means co-operation


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The No. 1 reason — by far — that people come to Brandon University is to gain the skills they need for a career. While here, they also gain a sense of community and the importance of citizenship.

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The No. 1 reason — by far — that people come to Brandon University is to gain the skills they need for a career. While here, they also gain a sense of community and the importance of citizenship.

Our students do graduate with excellent employment prospects. They go on to meaningful careers and earn a good living. We’re proud of that, but we’re also proud that our alumni graduate to become engaged citizens and leaders in their communities.

Being a citizen means more than being a taxpayer. It means paying attention to and being involved in the democratic process. Voting, yes, but also showing up at council meetings and consultations. It means sitting on boards and volunteering for events. It means being a good neighbour.

This week, BU hosted a community engagement session for the Brandon city plan. I heard a lot of great and exciting things from the planners who showed us the plan in progress. But I was most impressed by the thoughtful, passionate, and even emotional comments from interested and engaged BU students.

They want safer spaces for queer people in Brandon. They want more options for mobility. They want jobs, and they also want meaning in their lives. Our youth want Brandon to be more than a city, they are pleading with us to build them a community where they can thrive.

That passion gives me hope, hope that I turn to when I flip through news in this paper (yes, I prefer a little ink on my finger to the glare of a screen) and read about the partisanship and polarization that’s gripping our political system. As the president of a large organization — an organization with a responsibility for leadership — and as a political scientist who researches, writes, and teaches about the Canadian political system, I think a lot about what it means to be the leader of a community.

It’s easy to look south and think that Canada is different, or better than, or somehow immune to the polarization that has gripped our neighbour. We’re not. Thursday evening, BU researchers hosted a virtual session to explore our divided world — and begin to devise strategies that will reunite us.

They found that in many cases, this polarization is personal. It divides families and friends, who are hurt when those close to them take up positions and causes that are so different from their own. Social media, once touted as having so much potential to bring us together, is becoming too often a battleground where relationships fracture and are lost. But there is also a strong desire to move forward and heal.

A second round of consultation is being scheduled for the new year. This is critical research, as political polarization only continues to drive wedges between us. We now see real anger between some provincial governments and the federal government, an anger that challenges our traditional notions of federalism and the basic tenets of our democracy.

In Ontario, the provincial government recently attempted to use the “notwithstanding clause” of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms to deny education workers their right to strike — overruling both legislation and a Supreme Court ruling. The government of Quebec hasn’t hesitated to use the same power to enforce a sheen of atheism across the public service.

Ontario also recently struck at the heart of majority rule by giving the mayors of Ottawa and Toronto “strong” powers to overrule their councillors. This new legislation allows the mayors of these two cities to rule with the support of just one third of councillors, rather than a majority. One imagines how Ontario Premier Doug Ford would react if only a third of all members of Parliament supported a Liberal budget and the prime minister shrugged, “That’s all the votes I need.” In any other jurisdiction this would be a defeat.

Here in the west, both the governments of Saskatchewan and Alberta have said they no longer feel bound by federal laws that they don’t like. They claim the federal government works only in the best interest of central Canada, at the cost of the west, so federal laws can be snubbed. The newly non-elected premier of Alberta has gone so far as to introduce an Alberta Sovereignty Act, with contentious clauses like one that permits her cabinet to amend laws without a legislative vote, and another that would seemingly allow the government to ignore Supreme Court rulings. At the time of writing, the premier has said she would clarify what her intent is, but it apparently includes disregarding two of our three branches of government.

Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia also all share a disdain for equalization payments. They feel this hurts western provinces and is essentially a western subsidy of Quebec and eastern provinces.

This provincial poutiness is now new. Recall that in 1986, Ontario premier Mike Harris announced with great fanfare (and a flatbed truck) that there would henceforth be 27 fewer MPPs. The flatbed hauled 27 chairs away from the front door of the legislature. (Less known is that they were delivered straight to the back door as they were needed the next day.)

Harris’ main claim was that “politicians spend money” so fewer politicians would mean less money spent. It was a brilliant stunt, and many citizens were completely on board. The problem in 1986, like similar stunts today, is that these politicians are completely missing reality. Perhaps it’s time for a quick civics lesson.

Let’s start with Harris and his Fewer Politicians Act. In the U.S. congressional system, politicians do spend money. But in Canada’s Westminster system, only members of cabinet can spend money. All other members of the legislature are charged with holding the government to account for the money they spend. Harris decreased the size of this opposition much more than he reduced the size of his own cabinet. Simply put, any savings came from slashing scrutiny. Good for Mike Harris, not so good for Ontario.

It gets worse. With Ontario provincial ridings now the size of federal ridings, provincial reps demanded pay equal to their federal counterparts — and office staff to match. Within five years, the annual budget for a legislature of 103 had swollen higher than the previous budget for all 130.

As for the claim that equalization payments are simply subsidies to so called “have not” provinces, that’s also not the real story. Provinces don’t fund equalization. These payments, which support valuable programs like health care, come from taxes on wealthy Canadians and corporations. The federal government doesn’t tax provinces, but people — if you make a certain amount of money, it takes the same amount from you whether you live in Calgary or Charlottetown. This money then goes where it’s needed most.

Returning to the notwithstanding clause, which provides a warning about strong mayor powers and sovereignty acts. As a young(er) undergraduate in the early ’80s, I followed the constitutional debates closely. (Finalist: Nerd of the Year, probably explains why I didn’t date much.) The notwithstanding clause has very strict limitations: there are some rights that are completely off limits, and even when implemented it must be renewed every five years with a new bill.

But more importantly, premiers who introduced the notwithstanding clause suggested that was a measure of very last resort. No one wanted to be the first premier (or prime minister) to deny citizens their rights. Now that toothpaste has left that tube, and there is no getting it back in. The notwithstanding clause verges on being merely a procedural matter to be employed whenever premiers find it pragmatic. It will be the same with so-called provincial “sovereignty” and strong mayor powers. Using it for the first time costs political capital. But it gets easier and easier. Toronto Mayor John Tory says he has no intention of using a legislative minority to govern the city. I believe him. I’m not so sure about his successor, whomever they are and whenever they take over.

There are signs of hope. The $10 daycare program, a version of which was recently brought to Manitoba, shows that provinces can still work with the feds to enact wide-ranging and important new programs.

Many years ago, Michael Atkinson and I wrote a paper on how to measure legislative success. We argued that success for a government is not the number of laws they pass, nor are defeated or stalled laws the measure for opposition parties. Rather, success should be measured by the level of respect people have for the assembly.

I take this approach when I think of our University Senate, which acts as our academic parliament. We do not measure success in terms of new courses approved or graduation regulations added. Instead, I measure success on our level of co-operation, our accountability to each other and the level of respect we hold each other in. Such an approach signifies that the process is more important than any single outcome. It means decisions can always be revisited and all voices are heard.

This is the measure brought forward in BU’s new strategic plan, which calls on us to be recognized as Canada’s Finest Regional University. How will we get there? It’s not just about jobs. While we have some goals, including good employment for our grads, we are also focused on our process: to be agile, to be courageous, and to be inclusive. These are the lessons we instill in our graduates as well: to be thoughtful and engaged members in their communities — before, during, and after they are at work.

These processes and these lessons, which require respect, tolerance, and critical thinking, heartened me as BU students, faculty and staff contributed to the Brandon city plan consultations. But the thoughtful and authentic approach here in our local municipality also showcases a useful contrast to the cold and impersonal goals of the Strong Mayors Act, the Sovereignty Act, and use of the notwithstanding clause. How can we expect citizens to respect our governing bodies if these governing bodies won’t offer the same respect in return?

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