Is Canada a Democracy?

Is Canada a Democracy? © David Watts 14 July 2000


Let’s not be in too much of a hurry to answer this question. Let’s go beyond the slogans we learned in school, or the arguments we hear from the disaffected.

If we take the classic definition of democracy as “government of the people, for the people, and by the people”, we could probably give a Yes to the first past of this three-fold standard.

Look at those we elect as municipal councilors, MLA’s and federal Members of Parliament. In age, gender and ethnicity, they’re becoming a pretty good sampling of our population.

With the significant exception of the poor—who are non-participants in more than government—and children, there are no major omissions, no groups barred from holding office on the basis of externals. If democracy means “government of the people”, Canada qualifies on this score.

On the second part “government for the people”, we have to pause longer. Representatives of the people they may be. But in whose interest do they govern once they’re elected” That has been the issue of governments swept out of office.

You may say “Doesn’t there being a a vote prove we have democracy” If a once-every-four-year visit to the ballot box is enough to qualify, we’d have to say Yes. But we’d also have to include a a number of military regimes, not to mention Nazi Germany, as they qualified there too.

Between elections, we may come to a different answer. Increasingly our country’s agenda is being set by bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

When our elected politicians take up their slogans to “think globally” and use them to dismantle the society we’ve carefully crafted over the years—“for our own good, so we can be competitive” —it seems doubtful that we have government for the people.

Those we elect have a limited influence on events. Yes, we choose a Parliament, but we do not choose Cabinet. Yet it’s in Cabinet, behind closed doors, that the real discussion takes place.

When it comes to “government by the people”, we’re on even shakier ground. Unlike our southern neighbour, where sheriff, dogcatcher and district attorney are elected, we do not choose most of those who carry out the administration of government.

In Canada these officials are chosen by the government itself—by the winners at election time, the same people who will be making the laws and policies the officials are expected to carry out.

Sometimes those they choose are distinguished in their own right such as the justices of the Supreme Court or Governor General. But often these appointments are simply rewards given out by the government to those who helped it get elected.

In earlier times a king who won a military campaign would reward his officers by making one a duke, others earls, barons and knights. Our electoral campaigns have grown out of military ones.

Both the timing and turf of an election campaign are set by those in power. Voting day is set by the incumbent government, with a view to its best chances for re-election. The government can use public funds to buy its way back into office. In the spate of giveaways and programs announced during a campaign voters often forget the things they disliked over the past four years.

This decision of whether and when to call an election is the Prime Minister’s. This gives him or her tremendous leverage over members of Parliament. If any caucus members are getting a little too freethinking on matters of policy, the PM need only whisper “election” to bring them to heel.

Our electoral process, then, serves oligarchy—those in power–more than it serves democracy.

Before we dismiss Canadian democracy out of hand, we need to look at three measures that limit a government’s power. Though we do not divide our government into legislative, executive and judicial branches at arm’s length, we do have our own three-part system of checks and balances.

One of these—federalism—is written into our constitution. The second—the role of the courts—is partly written. The third—the role of the representative of the Crown—comes from tradition. Together these make up three lines of defense against misuse of power.

The division of powers between federal and provincial governments is Canada’s strongest bulwark against arbitrariness at either level. Repressive provincial laws have been stopped by federal intervention. And when the federal government tried to patriate the constitution unilaterally in 1981, it was provincial opposition that forced it back to the bargaining table.

Politicians’ self-interest at one government level is checked by self-interest at the other level.

Second, our courts have struck down or modified laws that give too much power to governments. They base their findings on the Canadian Constitution Act and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The courts’ decisions, too, can be overruled by a legislature’s using the ““notwithstanding”” clause. These measures create a two-way check.

Third, the representatives of the Crown, the Governor General and Lieutenant Governors, are a defence of the integrity of our system. As the ones by who a measure finally becomes law—Royal Assent—they retain a slender power to stop any actions that violate democratic rights. This could be used against a government’s acting in contempt of due process or public good.

Is Canada democratic? Not in the direct, knee jerk form of some societies, where half-thought out measures can easily be enacted into law. Canada’s Fathers of Confederation were suspicious of this type of volatility. They opted for “Peace, Order and Good Government” ahead of the “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” championed by our American neighbours.

Canada was conceived not as a democracy that spreads power widely through the system, but a consensus—a coming together around shared interests. In this way, ancient enemies—French, English, Scottish and Irish—were able to collaborate in a new society. There were elements of democracy, but democracy itself was not unlimited.

Sometimes it’s been necessary to curb populist impulses of one part of the body politic till there’s sufficient agreement within the body as a whole. Canada’s most successful federal governments have embodied this, drawing their mandate from coalitions rather rather than an ideological base.

It is this pluralism that makes Canada a distinct society. As long as there are significant differences in the ways Canadians think and relate to each other, direct democracy at the federal level may be muted to protect the underlying consensus on which Canada depends.