Belonging and democracy

Shifting perspectives after our On the Table event with the Honourable Janet Austen, Lt. Governor of British Columbia and the Tamarack Institute

October 18, 2019

In October, we welcomed The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, as well as 75 members of the Tamarack Institute, and the general public for a special conversation as part of the Vancouver Foundation’s On the Table series. We were also joined by Simon Fraser University President Andrew Petter and Vancouver Foundation President and CEO Kevin McCort. Participants and speakers explored the connection of belonging and democracy, and strategies to increase this ‘belonging’ in their own communities.

Dialogue - the sharing, listening, and responding to differing opinions - is at the core of the work we do at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. It is also an important part of the mission of our Strengthening Canadian Democracy initiative. We were excited to speak to participants about themes related to our work.

We wanted to host this special event to dive into a discussion about some of the findings from our National Opinion poll. The poll found participants who reported a very strong sense of belonging to their neighborhood were three to six times more likely to say they believe elected officials cared what they thought and/or that they could influence government. This inspired us to ask: can increasing an individual’s sense of belonging increase their participation in democracy? If so, how do we strengthen belonging?

During a fruitful two-hour conversation, we heard from attendees who supported and challenged the assumptions embedded in the questions above. We can’t assume belonging leads to democracy since authoritarian and anti-democratic populism can be very good at producing belonging. When thinking about democracy and belonging, we must also acknowledge democratic institutions have excluded certain groups throughout history and intentionally destroyed elements that produce belonging. And yet, belonging is a powerful motivator for collective action, which can be considered a core value of democracy.

A highlight of some of the themes that emerged:

1) Belonging is a basic need- it feels like home.

According to some of our participants, belonging is “feeling free to be [themselves]...feeling comfort - like being home”. They said that it meant feeling valued, respected, seen and heard. Belonging is not discrimination or exclusion; rather, it is healing and safety. Most in the room agreed it was a positive sensation.

2) Don't assume belonging creates democracy

One participant said that it is “not the gateway, but the challenge for democracy”. Others noted that perhaps feeling like democracy serves you well as an individual is what creates feelings of belonging - not the other way around. Participants also referenced historical perspectives, saying that at times, institutions of democracy have been used to actively destroy cultures and connections that create this ‘feeling of home’.

3) Belonging is still important

Regardless of whether it could be the cause or the effect, several who shared their opinions at the dialogue explained that belonging is a critical part of legitimate democracies. The act of reaching out and creating connections between groups is vital to cultivating a commitment among Canadians to democracy. This process is active and developing over time.

The Strengthening Canadian Democracy initiative would like to thank participants and speakers at the event and we look forward to deepening conversations about democracy at future events. We learned from the event that perhaps 'social connection' is a better concept than belonging and to challenge our own assumptions when doing this work.

We will look for opportunities in our evaluation work to test the causation between social connections and democracy, keeping in mind all that we learned at this dialogue.