Jean-Pierre Kingsley was Canada’s chief electoral officer from 1990 to 2007.
In 1991, I was in Hungary, taking part in an important project that Canadians don’t often think about when they think about Elections Canada’s work: assisting a country in establishing its nascent democracy.
It’s a job that the agency has performed in countries all over the world; in my term as chief electoral officer, we offered expertise to various nations in Eastern Europe and Africa, as well as to Mexico. And in Hungary – a socialist republic for four decades before the fall of the Soviet Union – people were eager for the representative, empowering change that a new age of democracy, birthed correctly, could bring.
When I was there, I met a woman who was part of the group that had sought out our expertise. She reflected the broader movement that had peacefully achieved democracy: young, energetic and brimming with hope. I ran into her again in 2007, at a summit in Washington, D.C.; by that point, Hungary had held five general elections.
I asked her how things were going. Her response has stayed with me ever since.
“You know, Jean-Pierre," she replied, "I wake up every morning and listen to the radio.”
“What for?” I asked.
“I listen to see if they’ve come back.”
They. More than a decade after the Communists left, in one of the smoothest transitions to democracy among any of the countries in the former Soviet bloc, she was still uncertain about whether it could all fall apart.
It was a moving reminder that democracy is fragile and needs time to set in – a fact that’s easy to forget here. Canada is hurtling to the end of its 43rd federal election campaign, and while there are worthy conversations to be had over how it has played out, how the processes can be improved and how elections should be fought, we are bearing witness again to a strong, much-admired system that allows the public to consider and select the people that represent them. We don’t tune into the CBC to see if tanks are rolling through Ottawa. Democracy has set in here.
But it is not perfect. If we lose sight of that, bad things can happen to one of our most precious resources – from interference by foreign actors to a loss of faith among the electorate in the very foundations of our society and institutions.
So what can serve as our democracy’s best shield? Firm knowledge of our history, a commitment to reason, and a constant scrutiny over a truly accessible and equitable franchise. In short, we must make every effort to ensure the legitimacy of our elections.
Indeed, our commitment to a full-fledged democracy premised on truly equal rights remains a somewhat novel concept. After Confederation, elections were a Wild West affair: Canadians outside of New Brunswick, which adopted the secret ballot in 1855, voted orally, making them particularly susceptible to intimidation; different ridings held elections on different dates, allowing for chicanery. By the time the courts got involved, it was clear there was plenty of work to do in building this fledgling democracy; between 1874 and 1878, 75 per cent of contested elections were rendered void, and nearly one third of MPs were forced to resign as a result.
Even the Greeks – often held up as the ultimate democrats – only really experimented with the idea of truly representative people power. A small percentage of the Greeks could actually vote, and they were the only ones that were considered to be people in the first place. Unknowingly or not, we too have denied the vote to myriad groups on racial or religious grounds, or because they did not have the required income level. Women, for instance, could not vote federally until 1918; it took until 1960 for Status Indians to be granted the unconditional right to vote. The Doukhobors – Russian Christians accused of “disgusting indecency” – were disenfranchised, on-and-off, until 1955.
And in one of our democracy’s blackest marks, the 1920 Dominion Elections Act allowed the federal government to strip the vote from those who lost their provincial franchise “for reasons of race.” So when B.C. took away the vote from people of Japanese and Chinese origin, as well as “Hindus” – which at the time referred to any non-white person from India – they lost their federal rights, too. When a delegation of Japanese Canadians asked the House of Commons to recognize their franchise in 1936, they were rejected, amid fears stoked by the Second World War that they were spies. Their efforts were even dismissed by MPs as “sob stuff” and “claptrap.” The rights were not fully restored until 1948.
How our representative democracy got to where it is now, though, is through the hard, careful work of constructing sturdy institutions. We established the role of the auditor-general in 1880, and in 1920, we became the first country to have a chief electoral officer. We have established faith in our Supreme Court, in the freedom of our press to denounce problems that they see, and in ensuring a functioning Parliament that has a loyal official opposition. And we have strengthened democracy by making it easier for its lifeblood – voter turnout – to flow, having safely liberated the vote through mail-in votes and advance polls. These have measurably improved turnout.
But it’s still up to individual Canadians to understand what you get by voting: a buy-in to the results, a re-commitment to participating in a broader society, a progressive regime of rights and freedoms, and at its core, the right to self-actualize under optimal conditions. In places such as Russia or China, where authority has wide-ranging repressive powers and is not accountable, people are ultimately prevented from freely achieving their full potential. These things are so much more vital than a scrap of paper might otherwise seem, and individuals must communicate them just as much as they must use them.
Through these core pillars, and a free, fair and well-run process, we’re able to achieve something elemental: that our electoral process and our democracy are legitimate, and so is the government that results. It allows us to consent and buy into whatever happens, ensuring the fabric of our country persists.
But things can easily tear away. One way is through declining voter turnout. After all, if you don’t vote, you don’t fundamentally understand that you’re part of a society. You become a bit of a leech: You get all the attractive benefits of a democracy, but do none of the work required to maintain the institutions that support them. Right now, we simply have too many people not voting; in the 2015 federal election, turnout among eligible voters was 66.1 per cent.
We also slip if we see our representation become limited. I was a lowly Treasury Board secretariat official during Lester B. Pearson’s time as prime minister, and he would struggle with ministers suddenly announcing bills without his office’s foreknowledge. So when Pierre Elliott Trudeau succeeded him as PM, he took aim at the discord, ensuring everything ran through his office so he knew what was going on. This was born from noble intentions. But those who gain power are not eager to voluntarily give it up, nor do they tend to resist the temptation to acquire more. It was one small step from knowing what’s going on to controlling what’s going on, and ever since, federal MPs and their provincial counterparts have been defanged across party lines, told to toe the leaders’ line or risk not having their nomination papers signed in the next election. These local representatives become bound by the position of the party. Our MPs must be further empowered.
Technology and social media have also made it easier for foreign countries to interfere with our elections – an issue since time immemorial. But if social-media companies insist on disrupting or circumventing laws that are on the books, we cannot allow them to run roughshod. These companies must be subject to the law, no matter the pain. Corporations exist to serve our purposes, not the other way around; we invented them and they cannot invent us.
Unaddressed, these three issues threaten our democracy and make it easier to forget how quickly it can fall apart. They can make us forget that, fundamentally, democracy must be based in the reasonableness of people.
I remember that, when Elections Canada would return to a country to assist with an election, diplomats worldwide, even from established democracies, would wonder why that was necessary. By helping with the first election, hadn’t we already finished the job?
The answer lies in what the woman I met in Hungary knew in her bones: Democracy requires a few generations to take root, so that the supporting pillars can become sturdy and turn a golden idea into a standing temple. Tragically, Hungary didn’t get the time it needed. Viktor Orban – a prominent pro-democracy advocate from that 1989 revolution – has been Prime Minister for nearly a decade, and has turned the country toward authoritarianism using propagandist state-run outlets, legislation that undermines opposition parties, and attacks on the rule of law. In 2018, the Orban government overturned Hungary’s Supreme Court so it could get the judgments it wanted. The tanks may not be rolling in, but brick-by-brick, the institutions supporting Hungary’s once-optimistic democracy have crumbled.
Even well-mortared brick can succumb to attacks, especially when we remember that a full right to vote is less than a century old here. So when you vote on Oct. 21, remind yourself – and others – that every trip to the ballot box is a necessary repair to the walls we have in place, and a powerful testament to what we’re defending.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said that Jean-Pierre Kingsley served as chief electoral officer from 1990 to 2016. He served from 1990 to 2007.
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