Engagement is an encouraging sign of the times

January 11, 2013

Grassroots activism can be a scary thing, especially for entrenched political leaders, lobbyists and government officials, for whom the often-chaotic means with which movements like Idle No More use as their ‘standard operating procedures’ are often seen by members of the establishment as counterproductive in trying to accomplish the very goals of those within that grassroots movement.

Although politicians of all stripes who currently find themselves on the wrong side of the reins of power may attempt to capture and utilize the grassroots movements to further their own agendas, at the end of the day they rarely are able to direct or control those expressions, the result for them being a potentially severe loss of credibility.

For the general public, grassroots movements such last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement and Canada’s current home-grown Idle No More movement can be incredibly frustrating, as the lack of a central group of spokespersons to articulate the ‘demands’ of those demonstrating often creates a vacuum of understanding and dialogue.

It can also be frustrating for the media that seeks to inform that public. While grassroots movements can create captivating news stories, collecting and articulating those stories with the degree of confidence and accuracy expected of professional news organizations can be extremely challenging, particularly when sources often lie outside the average journalist’s comfort zone. Sourcing credible spokespersons for these broad-based movements can be a challenge.

But for all of the challenges, uncertainty, discomfort and risk involved in the current grassroots movements such as Idle No More, or even the less confrontational and unconventional grassroots tide of concern rising over depleting Great Lakes water levels, there is a great deal of hope contained in these phenomena.

People are becoming engaged in the political process and many members of the public are taking time out of their busy lives to learn more about the issues and legislation that will impact upon their daily lives. Compared to a public that can be led sleepwalking through change to discover their lives radically and mysteriously upended, this is a good thing indeed.

While it may seem a stretch to compare those like Great Lakes water levels activist Mike Wilton, whose political activism arsenal contains petitions, letters to government ministers and public information sessions in community centres, with those activists manning barricades, beating drums and engaging in relatively minor acts of civil disobedience, there is little difficulty in drawing comparisons between the water activists and those who recently gathered in Spring Bay to grapple with the implications of the Idle No More movement and how to peacefully further that cause.

While each of these activities may vary in scale and approach, they all share a commonality of engagement with the issues of the day that is at its core heartening for the future of our democracy.

Democracy can be scary, it can be messy and, yes, it can sometimes be very inconvenient, but it remains one of the fundamental bastions defending our rights and freedoms. A democratic mandate, however, is not a license to practice the dictatorship of the majority or, as is too often the case in a first-past-the-post electoral system, a dictatorship of the plurality.

Too many current politicians regard a majority government as a legitimate mandate for tyranny. Parliamentary democracy is designed with quaint conventions that serve a real purpose and one of those conventions is real and meaningful debate and consultation.

The government in power in Ottawa has a substantial majority so every individual pience of proposed legislation is virtually guaranteed to eventually be passed following debate on each individual bill, were they to be presented in the usual way.

The omnibus bill that has been one of the root causes of the Idle No More movement can be seen as a government with a majority taking arrogant advantage of its ability to do what it wants by circumventing at least some of the ordinary due process put in place in a parliamentary democracy as a check upon the dictatorship of the majority.

When politicians flout such conventions of due process they risk agitating the grassroots into action, and when people start paying attention, the sun begins to set on tyranny’s reign.