Introducing Deliberative Direct Democracy in Canada: Learning from the American Experience

By Mendelsohn, Matthew | American Review of Canadian Studies, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Introducing Deliberative Direct Democracy in Canada: Learning from the American Experience


Mendelsohn, Matthew, American Review of Canadian Studies


Canada's main political parties have been sceptical if not hostile towards the idea of active citizen participation in the policy-making process. Canadian political leaders have tended to ignore proposals for direct democracy and have found intellectual support for this view in the work of democratic theorists who dismiss direct democracy as incompatible with the parliamentary system, the Westminister tradition, executive federalism, a multiethnic community, and responsible government (see, for example, Bobbio 1987, 54). However, what may be disquieting to Canadian political leaders about direct democracy may not be citizen participation per se, but the form of direct democracy with which they are most familiar: citizen initiatives as practised in the U.S. states. In fact, I suggest that there is a more "Canadian" way to incorporate citizens into the policy-making process than the "California Model." I will also suggest that unless political parties actively pursue a more deliberative Canadian form of direct democracy, they will inevitably end up with that which they most abhor: the populist, majoritarian, disorganized, direct democracy of California.

Through an examination of new legislation (Bill 36, 1994) in British Columbia which permits citizens to initiate referenda and recall sitting members of the provincial legislature, (1) and a review of the literature on initiative politics as practised in the U.S. states, (2) I elaborate a theoretical typology for analyzing direct democracy. Disquieting or not, as citizen support for parties, institutions, and governments declines (Clarke and Kornberg 1992), the trend toward more active citizen participation in some form in Canada is inevitable. A change in political culture has occurred whereby citizens have more confidence in their ability to make decisions and show less deference toward elites (Inglehart 1991), though Canadian political institutions have yet to adapt to this cultural change. A response must eventually come, and I suggest that the choices made about how best to incorporate citizens into the policy-making process will have a profound influence on the texture of our politics, and that adopting U.S. models holus bolus is inappropriate for Canada.

Direct Democracy in Canada

The use of direct democracy has always been a part of the Canadian political environment, though its practice and use have been haphazard and unsystematic. There have been the highly publicized referenda on conscription in 1942, on Newfoundland's joining of Confederation in 1947, on Quebec's constitutional status in 1980 and 1995, and on the Constitutional Charlottetown Accords in 1992, but these are only a small fraction of referenda held through Canadian history. (3) As well, from 1913 to 1916, all three Prairie provinces enacted legislation to permit citizen-sponsored initiatives. And currently, there are over seventy separate statutes across Canada which provide the opportunity for citizens to participate directly in the legislative process at the municipal level (Boyer 1992, 190). (4) Despite these instances of direct democracy, Canadian political science has treated these instances as irregular and occasional additions to the representative system.

However, Canada's self-image as a parliamentary democracy that eschews citizen participation is increasingly a perverted depiction of political reality. In fact, if we hold up a mirror to Canadian political practice, we find a growing number of political spheres that expect or require citizen participation, though we have yet to acknowledge the scope or influence of this participation.

Many parties are choosing their leaders through direct election akin to American primaries (Courtney 1995). In these contests, all party members are permitted to vote, and though the major federal parties have yet to use such a procedure, many provincial parties have adopted it and many sitting premiers having been selected through direct election. …

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