Michelle Christensen-Toews was curious when she got a letter in the mail addressed to the household occupant advising that the home had been randomly selected to participate on a citizens’ assembly.
The letter contained some information about the obligation and specified dates that the participant had to commit to virtually and in person in Ottawa.
“Sure, why not?” she figured.
It turns out Christensen-Toews was one of 42 Canadians randomly selected to participate on the 2021 citizens’ assembly on democratic expression.
The assembly was charged with providing consensus recommendations on whether there should be legal penalties or other consequences for individuals and organizations that knowingly spread disinformation online with the intent to cause harm.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the assembly was conducted in a hybrid model that involved three-hour online sessions on three Saturdays and a five-day gathering in Ottawa. The assembly heard from more than a dozen experts and a senior representative from Twitter.
The national assembly’s final report describes a citizens’ assembly as “a long-form deliberative process that typically involves 36 to 48 randomly selected citizens and residents who meet to examine an issue, reach consensus and draft recommendations for public authorities.”
Residents are selected using a random selection method that prioritizes fairness and wide representation, as per the report.
In the report, 12,500 invitations were sent to randomly selected households across the country. The invites were transferable to anyone age 18 and up living in that residence. More than 650 invitees volunteered for the assembly and 42 were selected by a civic lottery to ensure random but broad representation of the demographics of Canada.
According to the report, the assembly was made up of 20 women, 20 men and two non-binary people with 12 French speakers and 30 English speakers between the ages of 18 and over 64. The members represented each province and territory. Five members identified as Indigenous and 13 members identified as being part of a racialized group. Their weekly internet usage varied from less than five hours per week to 20 hours or more.
In the report, each member contributed about 50 hours of meeting time. In the end, the assembly unanimously endorsed 27 recommendations which members believe will help to safeguard and strengthen Canada’s democracy while reducing the prevalence of disinformation online.
“This year’s assembly was asked to consider whether there should be legal penalties or other consequences for the spread of disinformation. It did not hesitate to call for aggressive public action,” chair Peter MacLeod noted in the report.
“The 2021 assembly members should be commended for their diligence and collegiality. They found themselves in the midst of a charged debate and worked to find common ground. Their recommendations represent a consensus view by Canadians working without any partisan or commercial considerations.”
Now it’s the Yukon’s turn to find out what a citizens’ assembly can achieve here.
In the spring, Yukon MLAs voted 9-7 in favour of creating a special committee on the Yukon citizens’ assembly on electoral reform, with the Yukon Party voting against the governing Yukon Liberal Party and the Yukon NDP.
The vote followed the extensive work of a three-person committee of elected territorial representatives tasked with examining electoral reform and reporting its findings and recommendations.
The committee first set out to gain an understanding of different voting systems and how they might apply in the Yukon. It took to ads, a website and pamphlets to educate Yukoners. It made its minutes, recordings, transcripts of hearings and reports and submissions received online available to the public. It heard from Yukoners through a survey on electoral reform, written submissions and public hearings in Whitehorse and communities across the territory. Then another survey on citizens’ assemblies was done.
The committee made three recommendations.
Firstly, the committee recommends that Yukoners are given the opportunity to vote on a proposed change to the Yukon’s voting system both before any such change is implemented and again after a trial period with a new voting system.
Secondly, the committee recommends that any decision on voting systems reflects the importance of balance for rural and urban representation.
Lastly, the committee supports the creation of a Yukon citizens’ assembly on electoral reform. This third recommendation was decided by the committee members in a 2-1 vote.
That work culminated in another all-party committee made up of MLAs of all three political stripes being struck up to lay out the terms of reference for a citizens’ assembly. The committee will report back to the Yukon Legislative Assembly in the fall.
In the national assembly’s final report, Christensen-Toews described herself as a “northern girl” who hikes, bikes, splits wood, hunts and snowmobiles to a friend’s trapline.
“The opportunity to participate in the assembly fit my desire to learn and play my part in making the world a place where all are safe and able to flourish,” reads her biography.
Christensen-Toews viewed her participation on the national citizens’ assembly as an opportunity to listen, learn and discuss social media and the issues arising from it. She described it as a rewarding experience.
“What an opportunity to just be informed about a possible change in the future and to know all of the ramifications and potential of it,” she said.
“It was also daunting because you can’t just be opinionated. You actually need to think about impact.”
Christensen-Toews realized her decisions could positively or negatively affect many people and it’s not an easy process to change or create a law — it takes a lot of time, consideration and debate.
“There’s a whole lot of things that have to happen for a law to go into place, and then there’s a whole lot of implications if it goes into place. And there’s rights. People have rights,” she said.
“It was informative and eye opening.”
Christensen-Toews admitted that while she is not fully informed on all the possibilities or limitations of electoral reform, she believes a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform has the “potential to work” given the process is facilitated.
“I think just getting a brochure in the mail is not sufficient information for most people on a topic such as this. So, that’s where a citizens’ assembly — bringing people from all parts of the Yukon together and having informed discussions — will bring out the best possibility for Yukoners,” she said.
“I think the time should be put into it. I don’t think we should just have our politicians debating it within themselves.”
Contact Dana Hatherly at email@example.com