Democracy for whom?

How equity in public engagement can strengthen the democratic process.

By Claudia Goodine
December 01, 2020

Joel Harnest boarded the plane from Vancouver not knowing what to expect for the next few days. The QMUNITY facilitator was hired by the Yukon government to lead a widespread public engagement with LGBTQ2S+ people on needed policy improvements.

He knew what motel he’d be staying at, and knew he had a contact in each of the rural or remote Yukon communities he’d be visiting, but that was about it.

Just show up, he was told, with no agenda, no script, no pointed questions on policy, no scheduled meetings.

It felt a little jarring against the familiar professional norms that included back to back meetings geared at specific outcomes, but he reminded himself that step one of his mission was to meet people and to listen.

“It just melted a lot of the professional standards that I have in my head that actually don't serve a community very well,” he says, “because you know, they're not professional advocates, they're not professional activists, they're not professional community engagement facilitators: they're people.”

At lunch breaks and informal gatherings at schools and restaurants he spoke with youth and adults about what it was like being an LGBTQ2S+ person living in a small rural community. The time he spent hearing their stories meant they showed up when he returned a year later to hold formal discussions at community centres about what the territorial government needed to do to better protect LGBTQ2S+ people from discrimination and help them thrive in their communities.

“Being able to kind of meet them where they're at and not put any expectation or burden on them to serve x, y, z purpose, but just to be in relationship proved a powerful act, and paid dividends when we needed to roll up our sleeves, get to work and start to lobby the government to make some changes.”

The six-month pre-engagement and relationship-building formed a key step in QMUNITY’s successful outreach - one of several case studies that informed the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s Beyond Inclusion: Equity in Public Engagement guide. Co-created with people and community groups typically under-represented in political decision-making, the guide highlights real-world case studies and eight principles to support meaningful public engagement grounded in equity.

Our own consultation and engagement process to create the guide provided learning opportunities to check biases we didn’t even know we had. Through feedback on our first draft, we heard strongly that focusing on the need for better inclusion in public engagements wasn’t enough and overlooked an important question: who is including whom?

Beyond inclusion: the need for equity

Canada’s legacy of colonialism, racism, ableism and discrimination against a range of marginalized groups continues to generate devastating social and economic impacts today, creating barriers to participating in important conversations and policy decisions.

Black and Indigenous people face higher rates of food insecurity in Canada, which impacts 12.7% of the general population but as high as 28.2% of Indigenous Peoples and 28.9% of Black Canadians, according to new research by the non-profit Community Food Centres Canada. People of colour face higher rates of unemployment, earning less than white Canadians, with women of colour earning just 59 cents for every dollar earned by white men, according to the most recent Census data outlined in a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“Social inequities impede participation in democracy: it’s nice to have freedom of expression, but if you don't have access to clean water or food there can be no adequate participation,” explains a participant in one of seven focus groups that informed the Beyond Inclusion guide.

Equity in public engagement requires designing a process that distributes resources and opportunities for participation in a way that responds to historic and ongoing disadvantages faced by marginalized groups. That can mean hiring more staff to do successful outreach and putting time, money and resources into finding out what’s needed by the community to make engagement accessible through honorariums, food, travel subsidies or childcare.

Ginger Gosnell-Myers, Indigenous Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue, has decades of experience as a public engagement consultant with a focus on decolonization and urban Indigenous planning. She says organizations that don’t put equity at the heart of an engagement process end up running into the same problems, with unusable outcomes that don’t have community buy-in.

“What we have in the absence of an equity lens is a generic process that will only engage privileged voices,” says Gosnell-Myers, who helped create the Beyond Inclusion guide.

“A system designed based on only privileged voices creates deep inequities and harms for everyone else.”

Take housing policy in Canada’s largest city, the metropolis of Toronto, for example. The city acknowledges homeowners over 55 tend to dominate conversations about city planning, leaving out the voices of 18-30 year olds, the fastest-growing demographic in some parts of the city. Toronto urban planner Cheryl Case argues lack of representation has meant a history of housing policy that is geared towards homeowners and makes it challenging for lower-income single women to find homes.

Only 10 per cent of Canadians felt they were provided with opportunities to participate in government-led public consultations in 2017, according to the Privy Council Office.

Strengthening democracy in Canada requires more than encouraging greater inclusion and creating more seats at the table of power. It requires people having the power to rearrange the table and to feel and be treated like they belong.

Belonging strengthens democracy

Marginalized people have a long history of being treated as though they don’t belong in Canada. Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, women, people of colour, people who identify as LGBTQ2S+ and people with disabilities have had to fight for basic rights and to even be considered “persons'' in the eyes of the law. Many have experienced harm at the hands of governments that were meant to protect them, but instead broke their trust.

“Uprisings that we see across North America in regards to Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights and Indigenous land back movements, stem from the fact that these are two populations that have always been pushed outside of any decision-making process and were seen as disposable communities,” says Gosnell-Myers.

QMUNITY’s work in the Yukon highlights the importance of relationship-building as a first step for engaging with communities that have faced harm by governments, institutions and people in positions of power. Harnest describes how in this case it helped to have a third party take the lead on building trust. The first six months of pre-engagement with LGBTQ2S+ people was necessary because people needed time and space to feel heard.

“When we think about community engagements and making them equitable spaces, you need to know the history of what's happened in that room before you've entered into that room,” he says.

Some of the principles highlighted in our guide that help build trust and ensure equitable engagement include forgoing a predetermined goal or outcome, early proactive planning, dedicating time and resources to relationship-building and establishing respectful relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

Acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ ancestral ties to the land, their inherent rights and the impact of past and present-day colonialism when engaging with Indigenous Peoples or communities living on Indigenous territories is especially important to an equity-based approach in Canada, given the history of systemic oppression and our country’s moral obligation to move toward reconciliation.

To make a true commitment to equity means an engagement process often needs an extra six months at the start, says Gosnell-Myers.

“A project where an equity lens is absolutely vital is often seen as a difficult project or as a project that doesn't deserve resources or time,” she says, “but in the larger scheme of government priorities or institutional priorities, when we're talking about economic projects they're given whatever they want or whatever they need in order to get off the ground. So we do have a history of providing additional time and resources to projects in this country.”

Putting time and resources into equitable engagement strengthens our democracy by not only deepening citizens’ sense of belonging, but also by creating opportunities to learn from each other and hear innovative ideas.

Answers are in the community

Disability advocate Glenda Watson Hyatt, a woman with cerebral palsy who relies on an electronic device to speak and is pursuing her goal of becoming a motivational speaker, reminded us during the creation of the Beyond Inclusion guide that the disability community has long insisted that instead of designing for people we should be designing with people.

“Going back to the roots of what democracy really is, it is not for the people, it's with the people. It’s the will of the people,” says Elodie Jacquet, Manager of Knowledge and Practice at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and core member of the team behind the guide.

“People are fed up with being othered in different ways,” says Jacquet. “They want to be recognized for their full identities, and as part of this society and as part of this democracy. If we don't do that, it's not a functioning democracy, it's a democracy for a few.”

The Centre for Dialogue team heard over and over about the importance of replacing a transactional approach to democracy with a new focus on relationships and belonging.

Fostering relationships with youth in the Yukon, for example, allowed QMUNITY to put forward specific and tangible recommendations to the government that had community buy-in. Youth who were nervous to speak at first ended up asking for queer-positive youth spaces equipped with provincially funded mental health counsellors and pride events. Now the Yukon government is funding the creation of a queer resource centre called the Yukon Pride Centre as well as pride events and symbols in remote communities such as rainbow crosswalks, day-long festivals and parades.

“That's such a powerful, visible reflection of affirmation - knowing that your government is putting money into your community, your sense of culture, your sense of identity,” says Harnest.

Attitudes have shifted, he adds, noting when he first started engaging with people there was very little that was celebratory or hopeful for the community to focus on.

As Jacquet points out, it's hard for people to feel like they belong in this democracy and can shape it if they don’t see themselves represented in some way.

Women are less likely than men to attend a public meeting, recent immigrants experience lower rates of civic engagement and people earning under $40,000 a year are less likely than people earning $80,000 to be members of a political party or group according to Statistics Canada.

Barriers to participation in public engagement translate to exclusion from positions of power. Women make up only 18 per cent of mayors’ positions and 28 per cent of councillors’ seats in Canada, according to the Federation of Canada Municipalities. In Metro Vancouver, 90 per cent of elected officials are white in a region where visible minorities make up 49 per cent of the population, reports CBC News, with similar concerns about the lack of diversity in politics being raised in Toronto and Ottawa.

Our democratic institutions and practices require ongoing innovation to bring us toward a form of governance that is truly representative and not just for the people but by the people. The innovation we currently need - as governments, organizations and institutions across the country seek feedback on policies and projects with a growing recognition of the need for better inclusion of voices historically erased or continually marginalized - is designing public engagement processes grounded in equity.

Grace Lee, who managed the public consultation process for the Beyond Inclusion guide, says the danger of not intentionally putting equity at the heart of public engagement is reinforcing unfair power dynamics. As the Centre for Dialogue heard from focus groups and in-depth interviews with community members, inclusion is not enough because people need to be treated not like they’re lucky to be invited, but that they too have the power to set the agenda.

“I think the core of addressing systemic inequities is asking those questions about who's setting the agenda and how do we decentre public engagement?” she says. "Relationships are at the core of it because unless we check our power and our biases - and those usually happen through relationships - we are not going to get to that stage of equity and really having empathy and mutual understanding of what equitable public engagement is.”

Lee says what made the Beyond Inclusion project special was that the process itself was co-designed with community members. That allowed the Centre for Dialogue team to see first-hand that failing to constantly check assumptions and listen deeply to communities means missing a richness of ideas for how to improve our democracy.

The experience shifted Lee’s thinking on traditional definitions of what an expert is.

“This process really kind of reminded us that the engagement practitioners are people asking questions without answers, and the answers really are in the community.”

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.