Canada’s crisis of democracy

What is the point of a political system that ignores the needs of its people during a crisis?
We need bold action.

November 1, 2021

5-minute read

This country is in the midst of a crisis of democracy. Nothing made that more evident than the 2021 federal election. And no—I am not simply referring to the typical frustrations with an electoral system in which most of our votes don’t count. I am not even referring to an electorate that allows for a creeping fascist element of Canadian political culture to gain a significant portion of the vote.

What was most stunning about the snap election was how divorced it was from the reality that people were living. Here we were in the eighteenth month of a devastatingly deadly pandemic, an economic crisis, worsening violent white supremacist organizing, the worst year on record for consequences of the climate crisis, a public health crisis, a child care crisis, a houselessness crisis, an overdose crisis, an eviction crisis and a mental health crisis. The electoral campaign should have reflected the pain and urgency most people were experiencing and each party’s platform should have provided a roadmap to address it. Instead, in the beginning, the focus of the campaigns largely critiqued the fact that the election was even called. By the end of the campaign, the most important news appeared to be how angry incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at anti-vaccine protestors.

What is the point of a political system that ignores the needs of its people during a crisis?

We need bold action. But this election proved that our political system can still function while ignoring the urgent problems the pandemic exacerbated. In some cases, politicians had ready access to available policy options because activists had taken on the work of determining the solutions that were desperately needed.

Safe supply of drugs and defunding the police are two clear examples. Despite rising deaths from drug overdoses, support from Health Canada for safe supply, and a pandemic-related emergency change to the Controlled Substances Act allowing for more safe supply measures, politicians failed to offer a strategy to incentivize provinces to provide access to safe supply.

Similarly, despite continued disparate, violent treatment of Black and Indigenous people by federal, provincial and municipal police forces across Canada; the popularity of defunding the police; a summer of over 200 protests across Canada in support of Black lives; continued revelations of sexual violence within police forces; and swaths of data showing that police are remarkably ineffective at everything society expects them to do, parties failed to engage the question of policing.

This tells us that the people for whom these policies would most directly support—Black people, Indigenous people, survivors and victims of sexual violence and people who use drugs—are not valued in this system.

"If the political system cannot adequately consider, or even acknowledge, our crises when they are at their worst, that political system is failing."

In other areas, it was exceedingly obvious that, though new policies were urgently required, none were offered. We live in a world where access to communication, the internet, mobile phones and computers are absolutely necessary for our survival. Despite that truth, access to communication is entirely provided through the private sector, pricing many communities out of adequate services, leaving coverage up to service providers who are primarily concerned with expanding profit, not expanding access to remote areas. In this new pandemic world, people were required to access work, school and social experiences virtually. For house-holds that could not afford multiple devices, or without internet access, this presented a serious problem. You would think that nationalizing communications, or at least creating a platform for universal access, would be on the table given these problems. The best we got was a commitment to stop price gouging from mobile phone companies.

We are still dealing with the economic consequences of the pandemic. Many workers are no longer willing to return to jobs where they are undervalued. Health care professionals are leaving the profession after long periods of burnout. Students are receiving substandard education over virtual meeting applications. Despite all these issues, free education was never brought up as an issue worthy of discussion and debate, nor were any measures expanding access to post-secondary education and training.

These are just a few choice examples. I could say more about how the housing crisis was interpreted solely as an issue of mortgages and ownership, while houselessness and evictions were ignored. Or that the climate “debate” seemed prepared to pretend that the hottest temperatures ever recorded on this side of the planet did not contribute to the entire incineration of a western Canadian town. But my overarching point is that if the political system cannot adequately consider, or even acknowledge, our crises when they are at their worst, that political system is failing.

Politics has become entirely divorced from the experiences of average people. And some people who are desperately looking for answers will find them—even from people who are attempting to exploit and manipulate them. Fascist and white supremacist organizations that use xenophobia and other hateful concepts to explain the crises plaguing society benefit from a political system that ignores those crises. We all will suffer if these organizations continue to rise in popularity.

I refuse to believe that our society is simply out of good ideas. But I do believe that this crisis of democracy is largely driven by a capitalist system where those who hold power are primarily influenced by people seeking to amass more wealth through the existing political system. Billionaires’ profits increased significantly during the pandemic. Why would they want to use their influence to do anything other than support the status quo?

We are living in a world where there is no crisis too great, no rationale too logical to ignore if billions in profit are to be made. But this state of affairs only continues for as long as we let it.

"Our democracy is broken, and it becomes evermore so under the current increasingly inequitable profit-driven system that underpins how we are expected to provide for one another."

Progressive organizations who have been engaging in politics as usual need to move away from dutifully lobbying politicians to make change. Our power is in our collectivity and our ability to out-organize the profiteers of this system. Our political system does not deserve our support as it continues to shrink the proportion of people who matter to it.

We need to shift our approach— can we ever expect that appealing to the better nature of politicians will work if it doesn’t during one of the most serious public health crises of our time? This is a serious question to consider as we careen further into the climate crisis. It is not enough to make bold critiques on privately owned social media apps that profit off of our rage. We need to put that rage into building the world we wish to see, regardless of what political parties are doing.

This big idea is a mirror: our democracy is broken, and it becomes evermore so under the current increasingly inequitable profit-driven system that underpins how we are expected to provide for one another. As we are forced to contend with the deadly consequences of that reality, those of us fighting for change must be more insistent, more strategic and more intentional in ensuring that anti-capitalist principles inform the core of our work.

There is hope, in that abandoning traditional politics as usual in defiance of a duplicitous system is somewhat liberating. There are no limits to the creative strategies we could employ in our fight against the capitalist capture of our societies.

May the end of the pandemic bring about a populace energized in the fight against capitalism as one of the primary architects of harm in our lives, and may we organize in our refusal of a system that ignores us when we need support most.

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