Jul 28, 2011

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American Democracy at Work Where it Matters

In March, 2011, my wife and I decided to drive to Washington D.C. for a brief 5-day get-away from the Canadian winter. We stayed near the capital in charming National Harbour, on the shores of the Potomac. It was there that we saw first hand a powerful example of American democracy at work.

It was a chilly morning (but still warmer than Toronto) when we dropped in to a local café for a latte, to get our daily dose of caffeine but also to hang around and get a feel for the community. There was the Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards meeting and talking with the patrons at the café on issues that mattered to her constituency. She spoke about the impact of the Republicans’ budget on her State of Maryland: that it would cost, according to the non-partisan analysis, 700,000 jobs through 2012; nearly 2,900 community health centre jobs would be eliminated in the State if the House passed it. She spoke about initiatives by the government that would have an impact at the grassroots level.

Then she took questions from her audience. How can the government put all those people who had lost their jobs back to work? What happened to all of those manufacturing jobs that went off-shore? While she may not have responded to the full satisfaction of the questioner, she tried to answer the question directly without passing the buck to someone else or some other political jurisdiction, She talked about the plusses and minuses of the global economy and she expressed that the manufacturing jobs, as the country knew of them, would be lost forever. However, she said that the United States was placing a new emphasis on other innovations that would hopefully create new employment opportunities and, with government funded grants for retraining, she suggested that things were bound to improve.

We waited until it was over and met with the Congresswoman and told her that we were from Canada and that the encounter with her in action was a great lesson for us to learn how the American democracy worked where it really mattered, at the constituency level.

We have lived in the Davenport electoral district of Toronto for the last 12 years and I have yet to meet my MP or MPP at any level. Frankly, I don’t even know who they are. However, during election time, we are inundated with pamphlets that show pictures of the candidates. These will have to compete for our attention alongside the usual assortment of spring flyers we receive from real estate agents, lawn care experts, and renovators.

Our democracy is based on political parties and therefore it only directly serves the political party agenda rather than the interests of constituents. Of course, we as constituents are affected by the broad-stroke issues that the party in power promotes but at the grassroots level we have no representation from our members of parliament. Issues such as government assistance to small business; internship opportunity, education and health are never discussed at the constituency level where they should and where they matter the most.

While American democracy is not free from flaws, I feel that if I was a resident of Thistlemoor Drive in Caledonia, Ontario, living in a row of houses that backed into the disputed land claim by the Six Nations of the Grand River, my rights to freedom of movement and ownership as a citizen of this great country would have been better served and protected if my town was located in the United States of America.

While the Caledonians living adjacent to the disputed land called the Douglas Creek Estate complained about being subjected to threats and violence, the Ontario Provincial Police failed to take any action to protect them. And the two governments – federal and provincial – went on playing their little game of passing the buck. This dispute dragged on for 3 years and even today, in June, 2011, the issue has not been resolved. In the meantime the people who lived in the affected area have lost the value of their homes, the most important asset holding for a middle-class Canadian family. When issues that we face in our lives that matter do not conform to the national agenda set out by the political parties, then nothing is done.

It is sad to see our Canadian democracy so far removed from its intended objective: a government by the people, for the people. Our democracy serves the political parties rather than the citizens.

While we are always ready to criticize our American cousins about the manner in which they govern themselves, there is a lot to learn from them, which we miss due to our arrogance.

In the era of electronic social network when communicating with the constituents is much more instantaneous and effective, it’s time for evolution of our political system from party based “old boys’ club” to its rightful place, the constituents. Can we really be surprised when the younger generation appears so apathetic about our politics?

  1. Dave Hutchison says:

    As a U.S. resident all my life (68 years as of a couple of days ago) I read your post with considerable interest.

    Although it is nice to see how much you admire the way our government works, it seems to me that our two governments have much more in common than they are different.

    Both governments are democracies. The way our founders set up our democracy, they intended it to be a “messy” process. Slowing things down isn’t necessarily bad.

    The recent issue in the U.S. of raising the debt limit was frustrating, aggravating, a pain in the a–, and there could be even worse descriptions. But in the end, there was compromise and a bill was signed authorizing the process.

    Although Salim was bragging up America (which I appreciate) the fact is that Canada has been more fiscally responsible in the past couple decades than the U.S.

    If I were in Congress, I probably would have voted “no” on raising the debt ceiling despite the fact that it could possibly cause a severe global economic situation.

    The reason for the “no” vote: the U.S. has to face up to its “out of control” spending and not only vote on a balanced budget amendment to our constitution, but PASS it!

    The message that would send to the global financial community would be: the U.S.is big enough to step back, get it’s financial house in order and then forge forward.

    When that happened, the world wide economy would surge and our debt would be greatly reduced with new taxes. Where would they come from? The private sector creating new jobs…people with good jobs pay lots of taxes. That’s a good thing!

  2. thanks for share!

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