Letter to the Editor

Local governments find democracy inconvenient What is democracy? According to one translation from the original Greek demos means “the people…

Local governments find

democracy inconvenient

What is democracy? According to one translation from the original Greek demos means “the people of the community” and kratos means “power” or “authority to decide.”

Joined together, demos-kratia means “a community run by all its members.” This translation does not define democracy as we know it in Canada.

Unfortunately, political frustration is widespread and many of us no longer believe or take part in the political process.

We find it increasingly pathetic to participate in the so called “democratic process” when even tools, like an Official Community Plan or the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, merely serve as guidelines and recommendations.

City councils and governments can easily ignore such vital “checks and balances” of the system.

So in reality we have countless policies, plans and recommendations produced by a considerable number of sincere citizens, government employees and even government appointed boards (Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board).

However, they essentially lack the legal authority and, in the end, have no real implications.

Governments love pretence, especially when it keeps us lulled into the sweet illusion of being able to make a difference as citizens, when really we find ourselves more on the level of a peasant when it comes to influencing political decisions.

Whitehorse city council is passing one zoning amendment after other, dismissing valid concerns of many of its residents.

While we’re kept busy with designing our new neighbourhood signs, council passes bylaws that favour a select few, enabling them to acquire cheaper residential land and turn it into valuable commercial operations, even though there’s plenty of multi-use commercially zoned land available in town.

Spot zoning will eventually kill the intention of the OCP and ruin our residential neighbourhoods.

But the democratic deficit of small town politics certainly pales in comparison to the new attack on democracy in Canada.

The Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement is supported by the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce and, if the Yukon territorial government decides to sign on, we may as well erase the term “democratic process” entirely from our vocabulary.

What TILMA does is force governments at both the provincial and local levels to surrender vast areas of their ability to govern.

TILMA is, in fact, more dangerous than NAFTA in its threat to governments.

Already, NAFTA lawsuits launched by private investors have forced Canada to pay millions of dollars in compensation because it refused to export PCBs (which would have been a violation of its international environmental commitments).

Is this what they mean by “We’re open for business”?

This debate is about the relationship between democratic values and economic values. Profit and democracy are compatible when profit is a reward for hard work, ingenuity and risk-taking.

A society that treats profit-making as a superior right is not a democracy; it is a plutocracy.

In a democracy the economy serves the needs of humanity, in a plutocracy humanity serves the needs of the economy.

The recent referendum and plebiscite in Whitehorse were courageous steps towards direct democracy on a municipal level.

Regrettably, voter turnout was low and several city councillors were quick to criticize this democratic process as too expensive and cumbersome, fully aware that it was brand new and Whitehorse citizens are not accustomed yet to voting directly on municipal issues.

City council’s reaction to citizen-initiated referendums, the looming threat of TILMA, and the Yukon territorial government’s negative position on electoral reform should be enough to set off alarm bells.

Truly democratically inclined leaders on all political levels ought to be genuinely keen on sharing the burden of decision making with the electorate. Any excuses indicating otherwise clearly disclose intentions that are purely self-serving!

As George Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language, “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

Such practices allow those entrusted with power to favour outcomes that benefit special interests at the expense of the common good.

Canadians are well-informed citizens and, in my view, readier than ever to request direct voting privileges on issues of all political levels.

Due to our colonial past and British influenced white and blue colour thinking, it will understandably take time to overcome the lack of political self-confidence of the electorate.

Despite these challenges, we already have citizens in five Canadian provinces pushing for electoral reform.

Canada, the US and the UK are the last three Western democracies that don’t have proportional representation.

As citizens, it is our responsibility to bring about change and request a referendum and vote on electoral reform from our MLAs.

At the same time we must educate ourselves about citizen-initiated referendums and the process of direct voting on issues, as opposed to merely electing politicians equipped with unlimited powers that naturally invite corruption, no matter who happens to be in office.

Growing up in Switzerland, a direct democracy with proportional representation, it didn’t take long to be convinced of direct voting on dozens of issues ranging from building roads to genetic engineering or joining the European Union.

It’s an extraordinarily empowering experience for citizens to be asked by the government to decide political issues directly.

You simply owe it to your country, province or municipality to take part in the decision-making process.

After all, who but the citizen and taxpayer should be entrusted with this responsibility in a true democracy.

Switzerland still doesn’t belong to the EU, regardless of its government’s efforts to convince the Swiss to join.

If all this sounds a bit like I’m trying to import more Swiss cheese to Canada, I have to clarify. The Swiss didn’t invent direct democracy per se.

They looked at the ideas of other countries in those post-revolutionary times and came up with their own formula, one that would keep a strong leash on government and special interest groups, leaving the citizens at the centre of power and decision making.

Even if only a dismal 10 per cent of the Whitehorse electorate participated in the referendum process, (the percentage is usually considerably higher) it still represents around a thousand citizens deciding the outcome of an issue.

Still that’s better than a decision handed down by a few council members who often seem all too concerned with the agenda of city planners and the politically well connected in this town.

So think again, next time when you sigh in relief because the batch plant or crematorium is not built in your residential neighbourhood.

Or when all the hard work of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board is pointless because its recommendations are simply ignored by our elected officials.

If spot zoning keeps happening, someday soon it might be you and me who are also faced with commercial developments of all sorts in the middle of our residential neighbourhoods.

In the meantime, all we can do as citizens is “beg” the territorial government to stay clear of TILMA and city councils to adhere to the Official Community Plan zoning and Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board recommendations.

The Official Community Plan and Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act are essential tools in community planning and really all we have as citizens for “long term insurance” to protect our towns from incompatible and irresponsible development in the future.

Perhaps though, in the near future, citizens of the Yukon will be ready for electoral reform and direct democracy.

Processes like an Official Community Plan and Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act could then neither be hastily changed without clearly asking the electorate through a binding vote (not just consulting), nor could their intentions be easily corrupted or ignored.

Extremely crucial political issues like the TILMA agreement would then be decided exclusively by the electorate with a direct vote.

No matter what political affiliations we share, we must stop the ongoing erosion of democratic citizen rights in Canada.

We have to restore trust in the democratic process. Let’s support electoral reform, proportional representation, the direct democracy movement, and most importantly, let’s participate in the referendum process!

Change won’t happen overnight, but the prospects of electoral reform and direct democracy are definitely more appealing than to stop caring and become a political cynic.

Astrid Vogt

Whitehorse