3 min

Democracy at the riding level

When most Canadians think of politics, they think about the end results – the House of Commons and elections with party platforms all laid out before them. The behind-the-scenes work that happens on the ground rarely gets a thought in the time between elections, and yet that is where the heavy lifting happens.
For those who read my columns and blog, you already know I’m keen on getting people to reengage with our democracy at the riding level, whatever party you support. And when the opportunity arose for me to observe the Ottawa Centre federal Liberal riding association in action, I looked forward to being able to observe our democracy at the riding level.
It was a good crowd that turned up Nov 9 at the Hintonburg Community Centre, and as the members broke off into discussion groups to start contemplating some tough and serious existential questions about their party and its future, it was an amazing thing: political discussions happening between friends and neighbours, examining and airing their beliefs about their party and country.
We often hear about political disengagement and people who don’t vote because they don’t find anything that inspires them. But whenever I hear that, I have to wonder how many of them have actually gotten involved – not just the act of voting, but getting a party membership, going to meetings, discussing the policies that they want their party to adopt, and finding a candidate in their riding that speaks to, and inspires, them. I’m guessing it’s not many.
People are also keen to talk about gimmicky ways in which we can encourage political engagement, using terms like “participatory democracy” and espousing the wonders of the internet to bring people together to do things like draft bills that could be debated in the Commons outside of the established structure, or the like. Except, of course, that these kinds of ideas ignore the original networks that exist right now, in their own neighbourhoods.
“The real value is the face-to-face discussion and getting to know the person as a person, as flesh-and-blood, and not a tweet with so many letters,” riding president Pat O’Brien says. “All of that is valuable, all of that spreads the word, but in order to really discuss and have dialogue, it really has to be eyeball-to-eyeball around a table, and with a commitment on the table.”
It’s the riding associations that develop the policies that wind up in the party platform that gets released during an election, and it’s the riding associations that nominate the candidates that appear on the ballots people cast.
“Part of the tweeting and part of the Facebook has a superficial level of communication,” O’Brien says. “It doesn’t encourage it to the same extent as getting out, meeting people, discussing with people four generations different across the board, because they all have different ways of looking at things, based on their personal experience, and you don’t get that in a tweet.”
A cross-section of the community was represented at the meeting – young and old, gay and straight, Caucasian and South Asian, all discussing with common purpose how they wanted their political party to represent them.
It’s also a process that a lot of people take for granted, not only when they turn up at the ballot box, with the platforms and candidates before them that the riding associations spent months and years organizing, but the fact that we’re allowed to have these kinds of meetings, something that is not always encouraged in other places around the world.
Ottawa Centre’s provincial MPP, Yasir Naqvi, turned up at the meeting later in the evening after attending other community events, because he wanted to ensure he took part in the discussions.
“When we got to Canada, the first thing my family did was join the Liberal Party,” Naqvi says. Naqvi was born in Pakistan at a time when it was illegal to be a member of a political party because the military regime saw it as subversive. Naqvi’s father had been imprisoned by the regime for leading a pro-democracy march.
“I carry my membership cards, federal and provincial, in my wallet all the time,” Naqvi says.
At a time when we see people occupying parks ostensibly to show us “what democracy looks like,” I think it’s important that we also remember what it looks like from the riding level, and that those very same discussions are already taking place within our established system of parliamentary democracy. All we need to do is take those couple of hours and get engaged.