Rerouting Political Representation: Is Canada's Social Infrastructure in Crisis?

By Laforest, Rachel | British Journal of Canadian Studies, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Rerouting Political Representation: Is Canada's Social Infrastructure in Crisis?


Laforest, Rachel, British Journal of Canadian Studies


The Canadian federal government has administered systematic funding cuts to voluntary organizations engaging in advocacy since the early 1990s. These funding cuts have had a profound and lasting effect on our democratic landscape. They have seriously damaged most associational networks across the voluntary sector, thereby restricting the available routes citizens can use for mobilizing claims. Despite the fact that opportunities for citizens to engage directly in policymaking have actually proliferated, overall their ability to act collectively has rapidly declined. This article examines how this rerouting of political representation has impacted democratic dynamics in Canada. It argues that the federal government in Canada needs to recognize the importance of supporting and sustaining social infrastructure and democratic participation.

Keywords: voluntary sector, advocacy, policy

Canada faces possibly one of the most daunting social infrastructure challenges of this century. A decade of systematic funding cuts administered to organizations engaging in advocacy has seriously damaged associational networks across the voluntary sector, thereby restricting available routes citizens can use for mobilizing claims. As these traditional forms of political representation are effaced, citizens are increasingly afforded opportunities to provide their direct input into policy. Taken separately these shifts have both positive and negative aspects. Yet, when examined concomitantly it becomes evident that although opportunities for citizens to engage directly in policymaking are proliferating, overall their ability to act collectively is rapidly declining and their power to influence governmental outcomes has diminished.

We have as scholars and as practitioners given very little attention to the impact of this rerouting of political representation on democratic dynamics as a whole. These trends represent a profound shiftin the way citizens access and participate in policy, and ultimately, in the forms of political expression through which claims are made. If we are to understand some of these deep transformations, and the manifold connections between notions of citizen- ship, processes of identity formation and practices of governance to which they give rise, then we need to give more thought to the state of Canada's system of representation as a whole. This means looking at the routes available for citizens to engage in policy both directly and via organized groups. Such a broad conception of representation is necessary to capture how the relationships between state and citizens are being realigned.

This article is divided into three parts. The first part examines the central theory of political representation. The second part provides a general history of the shifting nature of state intervention in political representation, before considering the specific implications for voluntary sector organizations. Using a series of interviews conducted with representatives from national voluntary organizations in Canada, it explores how organizations have been adapting to these shifting trends over the period of 1990 to 2010. The final part analyses some of the current challenges in citizen engagement in Canada and discusses how these might be addressed. It argues that a strong social infrastructure that supports democratic participation requires appropriate conditions to sustain it, which includes an institutionalized framework, governance arrangements and resources; all of which have been sorely lacking in Canada.

Conceptualizing political representation

The right to democratic participation is one of the fundamental pillars of citizenship in Canada. One way to examine how citizens exercise their right to democratic participation is through the concept of representation. The concept of representation was first articulated by Hanna Pitkin (1967). She defined representation as

primarily a public institutionalized arrangement involving many people and groups, and operating in the complex ways of large-scale social arrangements. …

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Rerouting Political Representation: Is Canada's Social Infrastructure in Crisis?
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