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Elizabeth May.
Elizabeth May.

Elizabeth May on our elected representatives: ‘We are a democracy only in theory’ Add to ...

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with renewing our democratic institutions.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada and member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, was interviewed on Sept. 8 by Monica Pohlmann, a consultant with Reos Partners.

Pohlmann: What keeps you up at night?

May: We are a democracy only in theory. In practice, we’re an elected dictatorship. Canadians no longer feel empowered; they are passive consumers. They have abandoned the notion that they have rights and responsibilities in running the country. It’s very hard to wake people back up to the fact that they have power. Forty per cent of Canadians don’t vote. In the by-election in Fort McMurray-Athabasca last June, only 15 per cent voted. Unless we change the system, the next elected dictator could be [Justin] Trudeau or [Thomas] Mulcair, and we might like the decisions better, but it’s still not a democracy.

Today, democratically elected governments have little sense of sovereign power and are beholden to transnationals through things like investor-state agreements. We need to re-establish that democracies – and citizens – can choose what they want to do, whether it’s saying no to something like the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines or weighing in on the Canada-China investor treaty. For many years, we’ve gone through deregulation, privatization and trade liberalization. Taxes and anything collective are demonized. Our kids have been raised in an era in which the message has been “government is bad.” When I talk to young people, they say, “I don’t want the government doing this or that.” But in a democracy, you should feel as though your government extends from the end of your fingertips to do collectively what you can’t do as an individual.

Our capacity to know what’s actually going on has been diminished. The Internet has opened up the possibility for massive amounts of disinformation, masquerading as information. Social media has amplified the voices of the intolerant, the racists, the misogynists, the homophobic. I am on Twitter, and the stuff I get sent sometimes is horrific. There were always elements of our society that were intolerant, but one of the great things about Canada has been our respect for different viewpoints and the idea that we can come to consensus. We’ve always had this notion that we could disagree without being disagreeable. Today, the polite Canadian is disappearing. Conversations are no longer allowed. You’re only allowed to yell slogans at each other across the aisle.

Pohlmann: What lessons do we need to learn from our past failures?

May: The 2015 election is a chance to restore the Canada many of us want, but we have to be able to talk about what’s gone wrong. Getting rid of an elected dictatorship requires reducing the power of political parties and amplifying the role of individual members of Parliament. Members of Parliament have to get back to actually representing their constituents. We need to say it over and over again: All MPs are equal, and the Prime Minister is simply supposed to be first among equals.

We’re like a little Popsicle stand. If you’re ruthless, you can knock us over. Our constitution is based on the premise that those with power will not abuse it. There are no rules against the abuse of power; it’s just not done. Stephen Harper doesn’t have any real respect for Westminster parliamentary democracy. I don’t think he is working in the interest of Canada. He is not in the pocket of all big corporations; he seems to be specifically ruling in the interest of Texas oil.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca

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