OTTAWA — Anger, delusion and distrust: ingredients for a troubled democracy — and you can find all three in a darkened shed behind the deconsecrated church of St. Brigid’s.
One morning in late August, Brian Derksen strode into that shed with his little dog, Eli. Derksen wore a leather jacket, and the sunglasses pushed into his grey hair had bright orange flames on the armbands.
By now, the 59-year-old with the gruff voice is recognizable as a proud holdout of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests that clogged the streets around Parliament Hill last winter. Having dubbed himself “the trucker that never left,” Derksen is a fixture of the movement’s remnants in the capital, a small but chippy group that has settled into a contested tenancy of a historic former Catholic church in Ottawa’s Lowertown.
His silver sedan is bedazzled with stickers that denounce COVID-19 vaccines and proffer declarations like “STOP VAXX DISCRIMINATION” and “THIS ENDS WHEN YOU TAKE OFF YOUR MASK.” Earlier this summer, outside the nearby provincial courthouse, he berated journalists as lying pawns of the state and hollered baseless claims of government corruption before a line of idle TV cameras. He later derailed his own court appearance, on charges of obstructing a peace officer and causing a disturbance, with the CBC reporting he repeatedly declared he was the Crown and that his lawyer was God.
Inside the shed, Derksen called to Eli and sat back against the wall. He listened while a woman knitting in a nearby camping chair launched into a homophobic rant about the recent Pride parade, and how she was so disgusted she went home and “had a good cry.” The small group talked as if the whole country has gone mad, and only they can see the truth of how far Canada, and in particular its federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has fallen.
Their sentiments may seem obscure, but such feelings have cast a long shadow across Canadian politics in 2022 — one that hangs over the capital as Parliament returns from its summer recess. Rampant misinformation propagates across social media. Pierre Poilievre, the new firebrand leader of the federal Conservatives, flirts with conspiracy theories and denounces the media. And deep-seated grievances fuelling anti-establishment angst accompany warnings about aggressive threats against public figures.
All of this is layered atop a long-term trend of declining satisfaction with democracy, a phenomenon picking up in Canada and much of the world. And it’s fuelling concerns about the health of political discourse in this country — and even of Canadian democracy itself.
“People seek community and people seek purpose — and political life is not giving much of either right now,” said Peter MacLeod, principal and founder of the pro-democracy organization Mass LBP.
Like many experts who spoke to the Star for this story, MacLeod believes there is hope deeper dialogue and citizen engagement can broaden the scope of Canadian democracy and ease concerns about its poisoned public dialogue. But he also believes the situation is grim.
“We’re wasting the gift that is this society,” he said.
Is trust in government at “a historic nadir”?
In the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, Jennifer Wolowic, an American-born academic at Simon Fraser University, penned an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun that bemoaned the decline of democracy in her home country. Wolowic also observed a “similar rise of hatred, lack of accountability and civil strife degrading Canada’s democracy.”
Looking back, Wolowic says her warning seems prescient in light of last winter’s “freedom” protests.
Out of the collective trauma of the pandemic exploded a profound if marginally held sense that government rules requiring masks in certain public settings and vaccinations against COVID-19 for some jobs and travel amounted to a gross violation of individual liberties. The more extreme version of this position fused frustration about those rules with conspiracy theories — all of them unfounded and devoid of hard evidence — about nefarious plots to crush dissent or even depopulate the country.
In late January, a cohort of truckers and their supporters descended upon Ottawa to call for the end of all pandemic-related restrictions and to denounce the Trudeau government. The protest turned into a three-week occupation in the streets around Parliament Hill, and sparked like-minded blockades of key border crossings. Citing fears of extremist violence and the economic damage of the blockades, the federal government declared a national emergency and created special powers to curtail protests and freeze the bank accounts of key participants.
Wolowic, who is the project manager at SFU’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative, sees a strong parallel between these so-called “freedom” fighters and the people who broke into the seat of American democracy one year earlier — “That sense of storming a symbol of power to take back a sense of control.”
How a significant chunk of people lost a sense of control in Canada is a deeper story, according to Wolowic and other democracy researchers.
At the beginning of 2020, when COVID-19 was first prompting worries of a looming health crisis, researchers at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom published an extensive analysis on global satisfaction with democracy. After collating and reviewing data from more than 3,500 surveys involving more than four million people, the researchers concluded democracy was “in a state of deep malaise” around the world, and that this was “cause for deep concern.”
The report shows that, from the mid-1990s to 2020, dissatisfaction with democracy increased by around 10 percentage points, from 48 per cent to 57.5 per cent — the highest ever.
The report groups Canada with countries that are “cases of concern,” where democratic dissatisfaction was measured at around 25 per cent — lower than other high-income countries, but still about 10 percentage points higher than it was in 1995. The report suggests possible causes of this increase include unhappiness with Canada’s “winner take all” electoral system, which allows political parties to form majority governments with a minority of votes. It also cites economic inequality and regional grievances.
Overall, it concludes that, “in the West, growing political polarization, economic frustration, and the rise of populist parties have eroded the promise of democratic institutions to offer governance that is not only popularly supported, but also stable and effective.”
Frank Graves, president and founder of the polling firm, EKOS Research, says his research suggests a vast majority of Canadians support democracy in general, but that trust in government has dropped “pretty close to a historic nadir.”
He cites a poll of 1,004 people that his firm conducted in early February, during the protests in Ottawa. Respondents were asked if they support or oppose the demand from some protesters for the governor general to override government vaccination mandates across the country — an apparent breach of policy set in place by elected governments. Twenty-two per cent said they supported it.
“That’s not a good indicator that you have a robust, healthy democracy,” Graves says.
For Peter Loewen, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, there is less to be concerned about in Canada than elsewhere in the world. He points to the U.S., India and Brazil, where he says “nationalism” and “nativism” have taken root in a “deeply worrying” way that has polarized politics in those countries. Canada, on the other hand, does not have any mainstream party that demonizes immigrants for political gain, Loewen noted.
But while the country scores near the top of the list on democracy rankings by organizations like Freedom House, Canada fell on the latest Economist Intelligence “democracy index.” The report cites a “worrying trend of disaffection among Canada’s citizens with traditional democratic institutions,” and suggests American-style distrust in government could be taking deeper root.
Loewen says he is troubled by declining voter engagement in Canada, such as the historic low turnout of 43 per cent in the Ontario election this spring. But his biggest concern is that the misinformation spreading primarily online could mirror the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election in the U.S., and start propagating baseless doubts about the integrity of the vote in Canada.
“That worries me because there’s all the elements there for that to become a problem and to start to erode trust in our electoral management bodies,” Loewen said.
Diagnosing the root of the problem
For David Moscrop, author of the 2019 book “Too Dumb for Democracy?,” the crux of the problem is that modern democracy asks too little from its citizens. The most that can be expected of almost everyone is to vote occasionally. This leaves people out of practice when it comes to contemplating or deliberating political issues, and leaves them open to the allure of simplistic misinformation or spin by sophisticated political operatives in a system where partisan support can be construed as part of one’s sense of identity, Moscrop says.
“It becomes very easy to manipulate people, especially in the social media age, and set people against one another based on these identitarian divides,” he said.
Others see shortcomings in the operation of Canadian institutions. Michael Chong, a Conservative MP who has long championed reforms to how parties and politicians work in the House of Commons, argues power has become too concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and party leaders. He is proposing reforms to increase the influence of individual MPs to decide who speaks and gets appointed to parliamentary committees, and to take away the prime minister’s power to appoint a range of parliamentary officials.
“I think it needs strengthening,” Chong says of Canada’s Parliament. “If that local MP doesn’t have tools … it reduces people’s faith in their democracy.”
Another symptom of the overall problem, according to some experts, is the rage and aggression that pervades the public discussion of politics. This is especially the case online. Last year, during the federal election campaign, the Samara Centre for Democracy used an analytical tool to review millions of Twitter posts and differentiate between those that are deemed rude, threatening or sexually explicit.
The review corralled a deluge of “online toxicity” directed at political candidates. Out of 2.5 million posts, 477,000 — more than one in six — contained some form of “toxicity.” Almost 300,000 of these included threats. More than 421,000 communicated insults. About 212,000 included “identity attacks.” And 144,000 were labelled as sexually explicit.
“We’re just taking a small slice of the political conversation, a time-bound event, and looking at it in depth … and it doesn’t look good,” said Sabreena Delhon, Samara’s executive director.
“If you’re disproportionately receiving this vitriol, it’s highly unlikely that you would want to stay in this kind role for an extended period of time. And that raises questions about who would step up to fill this role?
“There can be a chilling effect.”
How can we reinvigorate Canadian democracy?
Stephanie Tucker sees reason for hope. The 29-year-old from the Newfoundland town of Paradise was always politically engaged, and works in communications, marketing and economic development for her local municipality. But it wasn’t until she received a brown envelope in the mail one day in early 2021 that her faith in the democratic potential of Canadians deepened.
It was an invitation, one of 10,000 randomly delivered across the country, to travel to Ottawa to participate in a “Citizens’ Assembly.” It was about “the complex issue of disinformation” and what the government should do about it, she recalls.
Tucker filled out the form, and soon found out she was accepted as a participant. She arrived in Ottawa to meet other assembly members from all over the country — urban and rural dwellers, people from different backgrounds, with different political ideologies. While Tucker felt the answer to misinformation was better education, others expressed concerns about censorship or responsibilities of corporations to curb falsehoods that spread on their digital platforms.
“I definitely learned and expanded my viewpoint, and got to see different people’s perspective,” she said.
This is the type of exercise that MacLeod from Mass LBP thinks can reinvigorate Canadian democracy. MacLeod’s company has staged citizens’ assemblies on a range of policy issues in Canada and abroad for more than a decade, including the one Tucker took part in.
MacLeod argues the common assumption that citizens have grown more apathetic with time is false. He believes a more engaging political system that draws people into the democratic process is needed to prevent further erosion of trust and participation.
“The experience of a lot of people with respect to government is that they feel managed, they feel spoken down to. They feel as though it doesn’t really care, and they feel as though they’re treated as a risk rather than a resource,” MacLeod said.
By creating venues for direct participation in policy advice, such as citizen’s assemblies, MacLeod argues the sense of grievance and alienation, and the thirst for simplistic solutions that can lead people toward anti-establishment populism or misinformed rage, can be quenched.
“Democracy is an expansive project. If it isn’t expanding the rights, the agency, the voice available to people, it stalls out,” MacLeod said. “And our expansive democratic project has been fallow for some time.”
Wolowic, from SFU’s democracy initiative, says deeper engagement at a local level with people from opposing viewpoints is also key to creating a healthier political discourse. “Democracy at the local level is a muscle,” she said — one that has atrophied through two years of pandemic restrictions that have frequently kept people from interacting directly.
She also suggests better coverage from reliable media sources could change the divisive, negative tenor of politics. This could be accomplished through stories that celebrate compromise between political parties, she says, or reports that allow a “tolerance for ambiguity” in complex issues.
“Anger drives clicks. Anger also drives people to the polls,” she said. “So we’re now three decades into a process that is about activating anger to get people to the polls, and we’re seeing the results.”
“It’s not irreparable”
A few days after he appeared in the shed behind St. Brigid’s, Brian Derksen was relishing his next court appearance. Like everything else Derksen said during an hour-long conversation with the Star, he expressed no doubts about the righteousness of his beliefs. In his mind, his arrest on May 31 — he says he tried to stop a bylaw officer from dismantling his display of convoy memorabilia from the sidewalk in front of Parliament Hill — was totally unjustified, and it’s only a matter of time till he proves it.
From his standpoint, the misinformation is coming from government and other institutions of authority, such as the media. As a retired trucker, Derksen said he has “three to four million miles under my belt” — experience that means he trusts his gut more than anything else.
“I know when things don’t sit quite right,” he said. He’s skeptical that last year’s massive floods in B.C. were natural disasters, for instance. He has a vague and puzzling theory about the legal pitfalls of birth certificates. As for the Trudeau government? “These tyrannical bastards want to control us,” he said.
But if the so-called “freedom” protests to which Derksen remains devoted have elevated antipathy like that to the front of the political conversation — and, as many believe, have sickened democratic discourse in the process — at least there’s this: Canadian democracy, he said, “is definitely broken. But it’s not irreparable.”
Even now, after everything, Derksen has hope.
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