Canada – the land of fake democracy

Glad to see the candidate with the best quality, his hair, won. Women Deliver via Wiki Media

Election 44 did nothing but show that we have learned nothing as a country

Last week, Canada had an election. Around 62 per cent of eligible Canadians cast their ballot (a number that’s somewhat low, but not the lowest we’ve seen in the past decade) in what we’re all told is a glorious display of democracy in action, or, if not a glorious display, then at least democracy. But let me be very clear: what happened last Monday was not democracy. I’m sure that there are many people who would vehemently disagree with me, who are composing furious responses in their heads, refusing to read further in disgust, or deciding that I am not someone to be taken seriously. That’s fine. I stand by it: what happened last Monday was not democracy, and Canada is not as democratic a country as it pretends to be. And the most remarkable thing about Election 44 is that somehow, remarkably, no one actually won anything.

Justin Trudeau, who thought he could wrangle a majority on the strength of his response to a pandemic that has killed 28,000 Canadians and immiserated countless others, only to gain a single seat, did not win. Erin O’Toole, whose party is down two seats after an election that was, at various points, his to win, did not win. Jagmeet Singh, who couldn’t spin his immense popularity as a leader into more than a single seat despite the fact that (or, perhaps because of the fact that) his party apparatus poured $24 million – $10 million more than they spent in 2019 – into a campaign that former candidate Jessa McLean called “not a movement [but] an ad campaign” certainly did not win. The feeble Greens, whose leader, Annamie Paul, didn’t win her own seat, did not win. Neither did Maxime Bernier, the leader of the far-right white nationalist People’s Party (although given the party’s gains in terms of votes, it is fair to say they didn’t lose). More than anyone, though, Canadians lost.

There’s a particularly pernicious thing that many Canadians (mostly, but not always, those over 40) do any time there’s an election. Which is that they share about a million memes about the power of voting (often these memes simultaneously denigrate those who exercise other forms of political agency, like protestors) or they share that one Rick Mercer quote about how you, a Young Person, must “scare the hell out of the people who run this country” by doing the thing that Young People Everywhere are “dying” to do, which is vote. And I say it’s pernicious because no one is dying to vote, and pretending that they are, pretending that the act of casting a ballot is in and of itself a significant exercise in democracy, or that voting is a radical act that can meaningfully upset the balance of power, is a dangerous fiction that only serves to further entrench the status quo.

If, every two to four years, you get the dubious opportunity to grudgingly cast your ballot for the least bad person in your riding (or possibly the second least bad person, if you live in a riding where our first-past-the-post system puts pressure on you to vote “strategically”), that’s not democracy. If parties can hold a majority of the power in Parliament without getting a majority of the votes, and if there’s no real way to hold those parties accountable for the policies they do or do not enact, if a majority of people in the country approve of certain policies, like wealth taxes or more action on climate change, but those in power don’t enact those policies or meaningfully reduce inequality, that’s not democracy. None of this is to say that Canada isn’t more democratic than, say, many of the sovereign Indigenous nations and nations of the global South whose political autonomy is continually undermined by Canadian foreign policy in order to ensure that Canadian mining corporations maintain control of natural resources. It’s just to say that when we talk about people dying for democracy, when we talk about those who have given their lives and had their lives stolen in the fight against autocracy and fascism and white nationalism, this weak, watered-down, insipid democracy was not what they were dying for.

Voting under the current system is a less-than-compelling tool for democracy because so often our votes are wasted (and I don’t buy the idea of a protest vote), and because voting, for all the campaign rallies and the Get Out the Vote teams, is a solitary act. It is something that you do on your own. And this country, because it is a capitalist country and because it is a country with a weak and fragile brand-based national identity, would have you believe that you, the individual, are the most important unit of society; and that you, the individual, have enormous power to alter your own fate and the fate of the nation – and that simply isn’t true.

You as an individual can do as much as the resources you have been given – from familial wealth to citizenship to white skin to a brain that produces the chemicals it is meant to produce in the quantities it needs to produce them in – allow you to do. To become something more, you need to be a part of a community. The “demos” in democracy means people – it means the people. Not individual persons, not you, alone, casting a ballot. My advice to you, if you have not already done this, is to find a group of like-minded people and figure out what your community needs from you. This may be community fridges, it may be shelters, it may be a union drive, it may be something else entirely, but figure out what this system is not giving to the people you are in community with and figure out a way to get it for them.

Fight like hell for them. Undermine authority for them. Build parallel power structures for them. Think critically about violence and oppression and repression and what kind of violence and oppressions and repressions you are willing to tolerate and why you are willing to tolerate some and not others. Conceive of yourself as a political subject, someone with political responsibilities and obligations far beyond the limits of a polling station. And don’t imagine that you will be able to vote in change, because you can’t. The most important work of a democracy happens in between elections (I know what some of you are thinking and you can’t change the NDP from the inside and, I promise, that party is too far gone – the humane thing to do is put it out of its misery. Stop giving to it what you could be giving directly to your community.).

Do all of these things, and then vote or don’t vote. I used to be one of those people who believed that voting was a meaningful and necessary part of participating in Canadian democracy and I no longer feel that way. We grow, we change, we watch a few elections and become cynical and disillusioned, and old people accuse us of being Maoists for bullying landlords when what we actually want is for everyone to have a warm and safe home and enough to eat and medicine and art. It’s all part of growing up, baby. Canada is not the country many of us were raised to believe it to be, and, like any toxic partner, the best thing we can do is distance ourselves.


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