A Human Future

Democratic Essentials at Risk: An Interview with Dr Ursula Franklin

Beth Porter: What is your vision of a well-functioning Canadian democracy?

Ursula Franklin:
The foundation of a functioning democracy is a social contract between those who rule and those who consent to be ruled—a social contract that is inclusive, fair and caring. That means that those who see themselves as governing us are bound by the same principles as those who consent to be governed. It requires reciprocity and equal respect between all parties. It puts these groups on a level of equality. In a well-functioning democracy the social contract is clear, and the reciprocal obligations are understood by all, in terms of honesty, in terms of making a commitment and staying with it. These things are non-negotiable. All contribute and all have obligations to each other, and somebody cannot run rough shod over others just because technically they can do so. Foreclosing access to education, as has been the case for some First Nations communities, would be an example. There are standards other than power. That is why it’s a social contract.

Where we now have a great democratic deficit is that while the ordinary citizen is strictly held to many of her or his obligations (down to the last cent in paying taxes, for instance), the same obligations do not seem to be binding for those who govern us. Equally important to the citizen’s obligation is that our MPs—those who won the job of representing the community in the decision making of Parliament—do so reciprocally and honestly, and that the venues for them to do so are protected.

I have said to those who represent us, “We don’t seem to be able to get certain concerns across to you. And then, it seems some issues can’t be raised in the House. You want to do a decent job… What’s standing in your way of raising these issues?” This is not a matter of good will or lack thereof. In fact, the same structural problem that pre-vents MPs from doing their part prevents us ordinary citizens from being effective in influencing government. The structural problem is a short-cutting of our democratic system. New communications technologies offer very tempting ways to get around the parliamen-tary system. A poll that asks a pseudo question of a limited number of people can be used to push through policy. We see this happening. Or press conferences are used to announce proposals that have not been debated or voted upon in the House. At the same time, party discipline prevents MPs from raising some concerns, and parliamentary processes—hearings, committees—are weakened or skirted around.

Canada has almost no foreign policy but rather is part an elaborate network of trade agreements. Nothing seems to matter but the economy. Now that is not the wish of the people, but it is the consequence of the heavy influence of new technologies and commerce, which put decision making into very different perspectives and time frames. So we deal with the demands of trade, rather than with Canada’s relationships to other states. These relationships would otherwise occur on very different moral levels. We need clarity as citizens to recognize these problems.

Are there core Canadian values that we might not want to consider changing? What values should we hold fast to?

If we understand a social contract as a reciprocal relationship, our values and hopes have to be based on reciprocal caring in the simple sense that we treat others in the way we wish to be treated and that equality is inclusive of all people. That to me is the measure of what is important. Living together means being organized so that tasks that nobody can do alone can be done collectively. You cannot create electricity nor can I, but we can together see that hydro works properly to respond to people’s needs. If our values are anchored in the reciprocity of caring, cultural differences become very secondary considerations. Is it really important whether someone wears a turban? I would think it isn’t. But it is important that they don’t only care for people who dress like them or speak like them or have the same skin colour. One is far more interested not only in what people do but in how they do it, in conduct. In a civil society, a sense of proportion can steer us away from getting overly excited or overly negligent about differences that may be differences in conduct but may also only be differences in externality.

As citizens, we want to be proud of Canada, but we recognize that apathy and cynicism is sapping energy from our democracy. How can the vision for our democracy be reignited?

The wish to let somebody else do it, to have no responsibility for the community, can be strong, and this is where the danger of fascism arises. Leaving our responsibilities to some strong person who wants to have power can be pretty tempting when the world is so ugly.
Where do we go off the rails? I think when our daily conduct does not reflect reciprocity and caring. For instance, when there is praise for people who take advantage of others. Implicit standards of behaviour are then formed in people and they don’t shake off these standards when they get into Parliament. When the daily conduct of those who hold power is nitpicking and uncaring, when helpful-ness is not rewarded, and when competition is constantly tout-ed—that somebody is better than somebody else—what do you expect? People know that if they do nasty things nicely, they are more successful. But civil society does not mean being “civil” in the sense of seeming nice. It means honesty and openness much more than political correctness and good PR.

I think that for young people, apathy and cynicism could be combatted if they could experience a little success in influencing how things are done. For this to happen, listening and acting is required on the part of those who hold elected responsibility. You can see how young people are drawn to things that give them community or virtual community, so Facebook and Twitter. They are desperate to be valued as human beings. When they see that their country has no way to recognize their contribution and that they can’t change the mind of their elders, why would they not be cynical?

The way we can reignite the vision is through our own practice, but also through holding those who govern us to standards of fairness, honesty and open-ness—not trying to micro manage what they do but being exceedingly clear about how they do it. And then their conduct has to be the best of what the community can expect and not the lowest common denominator. We have to affirm that from community to community, from country to country, all people matter. When you have honest people who do that, the vision will ignite with power.


For your information
–    Ursula M. Franklin: Ursula Franklin Speaks: Thoughts and Afterthoughts, (a collection of her speeches) co-edited by Sarah Jane Freeman, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.
–    The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map, Ursula Franklin, (Between the Lines Press, 2006).
–    The Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin, the 1989 CBC Massey Lectures, (House of Anansi Press).
–    Dialogue on Democracy, (Penguin, 2006). A collection of the first six Lafontaine Baldwin lectures.
–    Mark Kingwell: The World We Want: Restoring Citizenship in a Fractured Age, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).

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