Can Canadian democracy catch the deliberative wave?

From polarized public opinion to informed citizen judgement: how deliberative processes have the potential to transform our democratic landscape.

By Claudia Goodine
October 30, 2020

Voices filled the gymnasium at Maywood Elementary and echoed throughout the day as dozens of Burnaby residents discussed solutions to the region’s housing crisis.

After seven hours of deliberating and coming to a consensus, each table of randomly selected citizens presented their policy recommendations to Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley and an expert task force. When they finished, the room erupted into a spontaneous standing ovation.

“You could tell that this was a group of people that suddenly felt empowered,” recalls Robin Prest, co-lead for the Your Voice, Your Home deliberative dialogue in Burnaby. “They were so proud of having spent that time working together to try and come up with solutions that everybody could agree upon. It was a really touching moment.”

This was the culmination of the largest public engagement exercise in Burnaby’s history. The city, in partnership with SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, surveyed more than 2,600 residents online and in-person over a six month period last year. What they heard informed the deliberative dialogue at Maywood Elementary, where a representative body of residents produced concrete recommendations for their local government.

Around the world, governments are increasingly experimenting with deliberative processes like these as a way to strengthen democracy. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calls this a “deliberative wave” in a report that shows Canada is a world leader in trying citizen deliberations to address tough issues. Experts argue that the next step should be embedding deliberative processes as regular rather than ad hoc tools for democratic innovation, and there are compelling reasons to do so now.

The need for democratic innovation

Our national survey of 3,524 Canadians reveals that over two thirds (68 per cent) believe that elected officials don’t care what people like them think.

The more disempowered people feel and the less trust they have in the democratic process, the more susceptible they are to misinformation, polarization, and populist messaging. On the surface, this messaging can reflect legitimate frustrations over inequality but in practice is often manipulated and can become “a trail of breadcrumbs that lead people towards xenophobia and other anti-democratic viewpoints,” says Prest, who co-leads the Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative.

Catching the Deliberative Wave provides OECD analysis of 289 citizen deliberations around the world used to tackle complex policy issues like urban planning, climate change and healthcare. Designed for consensus-building, these processes work best for tough, values-based issues. They give public servants the legitimacy to make hard decisions based on informed citizen judgements rather than on polarized public opinion.

In Ireland, a Citizens' Assembly made up of 99 citizens tasked with advising politicians on social dilemmas spent ten days vigorously deliberating before voting 64% in favour of repealing the country’s restrictive abortion law. Those results pushed elected officials to hold a referendum on the issue, and on May 25, 2018, the Irish people voted 66.4% in favour of legalizing abortion.

Deliberative processes vary in size and scope - from Citizens’ Assemblies where 100 or more people meet multiple times over a period of months, to Citizens’ Juries where roughly 12 to 34 people deliberate over a few days. Regardless of size and scope, they are all randomly selected groups of citizens that represent the true diversity of a community. They spend time learning and discussing a particular issue, whether it be climate change, housing, transportation or electoral reform, and co-create recommendations for policy-makers.

In Montreal, the Institut du Nouveau Monde runs at least one Citizens’ Jury each year - one of the most popular forms of deliberative processes used around the world, according to the OECD. They’ve helped the government in Quebec tap into evidence-based discussions on issues like vaccines and money in politics.

“Citizens’ Juries can help bring a legitimate answer to something very complicated,” says Julie Caron-Malenfant, the Institut's Executive Director, who adds that exit surveys show participants leave with more empathy towards decision-makers.

Citizens empowered to influence policy

As groups of eight gathered to deliberate at the Your Voice, Your Home dialogue in Burnaby, Arthur Liao took his seat at one of the round tables in the Maywood Elementary gymnasium, not expecting to find much common ground with older generations about the housing crisis and assuming they would blame young people.

“I was thinking it was going to be a tense environment,” says the twenty-three-year-old, “but I didn't get that feeling.”

A firefighter at his table, with a son the same age as Liao, empathized with his concerns about younger generations being pushed out of the city because of a lack of affordable housing. Another participant described working as an advocate for people who are experiencing homelessness. Liao, a university student, says he was heartened to be with people doing interesting work in the community.

“It kind of reminded me that people of different backgrounds exist,” he says.

The mood was cooperative in the room of 97 people who spent a Saturday last summer deliberating. Twenty grants helped ensure that low-income citizens took part and that the group truly represented the community at large.

“I felt like a lot of people's voices were heard,” says Liao.

One of those voices was that of Victor Yin, eighteen years old at the time, who was nominated by his group to present recommendations to the mayor and expert task force.

“I felt very nervous because as a young, marginalized person of colour being asked to stand up and speak to this older, white, privileged person in power, it’s an uncomfortable experience because of those power dynamics. At the same time, it was empowering because I could say ‘hey, these are the problems, here are our demands, these are the things we need’,” says Yin. “I can’t really think of any other substantial ways youth or people of colour or marginalized people can gather and speak directly to organizers and politicians.”

In Burnaby, participants’ recommendations fell into eight priority themes that the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing absorbed and used to shape 18 final expert recommendations. City council has since taken a number of actions in response, including implementing a robust new Tenant Assistance Policy guaranteeing people displaced by redevelopment can keep paying the same rent. SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue will follow up with participants in early 2021 for feedback on results and next steps.

An analysis of 55 case studies by the OECD shows public authorities implemented over half of citizens’ recommendations 76 per cent of the time and all of the recommendations 36 per cent of the time. Could those statistics be even higher if citizen deliberations became a regular part of the decision-making process?

Next steps and calls to action

A proposal put forward by MASS LBP, an advisory firm in Ontario that works with governments and corporations to conduct public engagement initiatives, calls for Canada to invest $10 million annually in a Democratic Action Fund that would help spur up to 80 deliberative projects across the country each year.

“This is something that can become part of Canada's political culture, and we can give everybody, at least once in their lifetime, the opportunity to participate in a really substantive way,” says Peter MacLeod, principal of MASS LBP. "And we can do it for about five per cent of the cost of a federal election.”

The political will needed to implement this depends, he says, on a shift in the understanding of political leadership to defining great leaders as great learners and great listeners.

“Politics as practiced needs democratic innovation to sustain its relevance,” says MacLeod. “Democracy doesn’t need saving, it needs growing, and the most powerful source of energy for a democracy is the forward momentum that yields greater inclusion.”

The OECD cites 14 international examples of Citizens’ Jury or Assembly style processes institutionalized as permanent fixtures of public policy decision-making. In Belgium, the Ostbelgien Citizens’ Council, made up of 24 randomly selected citizens, has the power to set its own agenda, to put forward recommendations that must be debated by parliament, and to monitor the government’s implementation of their ideas. This models one path for embedding public deliberation into the institutional practice of democracy.

Building on two years of interviews and practical research, SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue has learned 60 per cent of Canadians want greater civic education and 44 per cent want more opportunities to participate in democracy. Politicians also want better ways to meaningfully engage with citizens, rather than relying on town hall meetings where they hear from the same constituents, according to a Samara Centre for Democracy report based on more than 100 hours of exit interviews with former Members of Parliament.

Evidence is building that deliberative processes, while not suited to absolutely every kind of question, can help policy-makers address many 21st century challenges, and revitalize our political culture and trust in democratic institutions.

As project director of six cross-country Citizen Dialogues on Canada’s Energy Future, Prest sometimes had his doubts about whether people would come together to agree on a path forward, but time and again his belief was restored.

“It re-crystallizes for me the amazing abilities of people, of everyday Canadians, to find common ground and to put their own needs aside to find solutions that are in the best interest of everyone,” he says.

“Canadians are reasonable and care, and can make a big difference if they’re given the chance.”

The Thought Pieces on innovation in democracy were written by Claudia Goodine, a Vancouver-based writer and journalist with experience covering politics, current affairs, the environment and arts and culture. Connect and engage with Claudia on Twitter or LinkedIn.