Democracy is Developing: a Canadian Look at Politics and U.S. Celebrity
by Isabel Donald
This piece is a part of our Wizard Rock the Vote series, exploring some of the issues on the ballot and the systemic problems that keep people from going to the polls. To find out more about how to get involved and support WRTV, visitthehpalliance.org/wrockthevote.
Growing up Canadian, I didn’t pay too much mind to politics. The topic didn’t seem relevant and it slipped away from everyday conversation, only briefly appearing on the news or in textbooks. It seemed like a communal decision had been made to pay attention to other things, even politics of other countries. To this day, the only debate I’ve watched with my whole family was the third US presidential debate in the 2008 election. I was twelve at the time, which hopefully excuses the embarrassing fact that I have little to no recollection of the election on our side of the border that happened just a month earlier.
I’m now far more interested in the politics of my government. Somewhere between there and here I learned to appreciate the tedious task of decision-making that gets us the policies that affect my everyday life. Still, my friends and I debate the current US election far more than we ever discuss Canadian politics.
I think our fascination with US politics has a lot to do with the celebrity culture that has entrenched US politicians. While we don’t have that to the same extent in Canada, we’re gravitating a little too close to it for comfort. We’ve started to take on the same norms as America: politicians are expected to always be likeable, relevant, and charismatic. When we elected now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, other countries turned their eyes toward Canada, compelled by his looks and charisma. Buzzfeed even made a video in which Trudeau rates memes about himself. And while I thought it was cool for a time, I’ve since realized that narrowing the focus to a single person ignores the broad scope of the policies they control.
Americans tend to look at Canada as a kind of utopia, but our political system is still growing and changing. While the US has existed for 238 years, our country is less than 150. In many ways, we are continue to struggle with how to best represent our population to maintain an effective democracy.
Where do we go from here? While turning politicians into meme-worthy celebrities can be a tool to start the conversation about politics and big issues, it may do more harm than good. Media tactics and money are major influences in U.S. politics — more so than in Canada, at least for now. When governing our country turns into the business of making money, those with the most money have the most influence. The people receive warped perceptions of who our politicians are and what is best for the country. When that happens, our democracy dwindles.
When we lose interest or give up on politics, the power shifts from the hands of the citizens to the hands of those with the most money, and there are too many issues within Canada to let that happen.
Centralized focus and a sense of celebrity around one political figure in Canada is particularly strange because we don’t actually vote for the prime minister. Canadians vote for members of Parliament (MPs), and the party with the most MPs holds office. In the most recent election that saw Trudeau elected, many people placed more emphasis on voting the incumbents out of office than on educating themselves about the other options. Although many resources existed to inform voters of the differences between the major parties, a significant amount of Canadians felt that the only option was to vote against the incumbents, and they felt that their votes did not count in a way that truly represented them.
We’re currently working on reforming our electoral system to better serve the people. To put a complex issue simply, our current system is doing a poor job at representing the population. The Liberal Party holds more than half the seats in the House of Commons, but under 40% of voters in the last federal election actually voted for that party.
Canada is a very diverse nation. Most of our population is densely packed into large city centres — Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver — all hovering around the southern border. But we still have important and distinct populations, such as First Nations people, who tend to live in smaller groups in more isolated areas. They may be a small percentage of the population, but their unique circumstances deserve to be taken into consideration when policy is developed.
It has become an increasing issue of how to take into account all of Canada’s diversity when our population is so complex. We don’t have distinct “blue and red” provinces and regions, which makes it hard when an MP wins by 51%; it means that a significant portion of a region’s voters are not represented. With a population like Canada’s, how do we accommodate the diversities within city centres and the unique interests of isolated communities within one government?
We don’t know have the answer to how to make Canada a perfect democracy. In every one of my classes last year, we had a conversation about this very issue, and it was just that: a conversation. No student or professor could come to a definitive best option. Neither can our politicians. When we put the focus on them instead of the policies, this conversation and many other questions of policy get simplified, when they’re in actuality complicated issues of values and goals.
These decisions start with a vote. The way that the vote represents us is important in shaping the government, and in shaping people’s attitudes towards politics. That vote is about more than just the politicians, it’s about the people we choose to represent us and the policies they enact that will affect our lives. Democracy in Canada isn’t without its flaws, but it gives us the right to have our voice heard. And even if the system isn’t perfect, exercising this right starts with casting a ballot.
So, to my neighbours to the south: while you go out to Wizard Rock the Vote, remember that your vote is worth more than the media spectacle and the headlines. Your vote affects every single policy that will determine how magical your country can be. Remember that. Remind yourself, remind your friends, and remind your community. Don’t forget, too, that there are other ways to have your voice heard and to make democracy more powerful, because I know that much like our broken system, yours isn’t perfect either.
And, to my Canadian friends, if you want to have a say in electoral reform so that you can get the most out of your vote, consultations are happening right now. Let’s Wizard Rock the Vote — let’s make democracy better — everywhere and every way that we can.
Isabel is a third year political science and public policy student in Toronto. She one day hopes to be the perfect combination of Leslie Knope and CJ Cregg. You can find her on twitter (@isabelrrae), where she frequently posts pictures of her dogs.