House Call with Carol Hughes

Canadians can learn from American experience instead of copying it

Most of us are wired to believe that we aren’t biased which may be the biggest roadblock to respectful public discourse. But there are numerous factors at play and many fronts on which to challenge ourselves if we desire productive public discussions on important issues along with orderly and meaningful elections. A glance at our southern neighbour shows us what partisanship on steroids can look like. While it is tempting to pat ourselves on the back for remaining a bit above that fray, it is important to remember we often follow the lead of American politics.

There is usually a lag before we begin to exhibit the signs, but the flow of ideas and tactics in recent years has shown that American political trends routinely reach into Canada. There is little doubt the growth of communications platforms, social media and the sheer volume of news outlets drives this at an accelerated rate. Add to that the fact that media outlets—especially in the US, but also within Canada—have become partisan cheerleaders. While this may be most obvious on stations like Fox or CNN, it would be foolish to assume some Canadian media outlets aren’t biased.

Here, federal Conservatives accuse the CBC of bias, framing the news department as pro-Liberal Party and anti-Conservative Party. This has created a toxicity towards our public broadcaster from many on the right. While the accusation may have a ring of truth to it, it is important to separate political bruises from actual bias. More importantly, if our public broadcaster is biased to any one party it is better to root that out and maintain a viable public option rather than starve it for resources, which the Conservatives have done in the past and clearly state they would do again.

There are many ways the election in the US has been illustrative; voter suppression tactics are one example we should do our best to avoid. In America, each state is responsible for running the federal election in their jurisdiction which is why suppression tactics vary from place to place. The tactics range from fewer polling stations in areas with the potential to deliver blocks of voters who may oppose the governing party which makes it difficult to vote because of the time commitment, to calling into question the validity of mail-in ballots. With the vote taking place under a pandemic, partisans have gone out of their way to make it more difficult to vote and to believe in the results.

This happened in Canada when Stephen Harper went out of his way to make it more difficult for some people to vote. To do that, his government changed how voters can register. When defending the moves, members of his caucus were caught in outright lies and confabulations. Fictional ballots in garbage cans were cited as one excuse, but the fact remains the new rules made it more difficult for many students, aboriginals, the homeless, as well as disabled and elderly people living in care to establish proof of residency so they could vote. Prior to this the Conservatives were caught in the robo-calls scandal that saw party operatives mislead people they believed would not support their candidates with inaccurate directions to polling locations.

It’s clear that hyper-partnership, voter suppression, and a more partisan media have all found their way into Canada. While we often sooth ourselves with declarations that things are much worse for our southern neighbours, that may not remain the case if we aren’t careful about guarding our democratic institutions and demanding better of our media. Canada has unique elements to our political system that mean copying American examples isn’t always possible and if we want to maintain a vibrancy in our democratic processes, it isn’t always advisable either.