Entry #15 – Friday June 12th, 2015 — “Never Before Has a Boy Wanted More… Canadians to get Politically Engaged”

You all must be pretty fired up about the Government of Canada’s 2015 federal budget – sure know I am. The Conservative’s budget entitled, “Strong Leadership: A Balanced-Budget, Low-Tax Plan for Jobs, Growth, and Security was tabled in the House of Commons on April 21st, 2015 by the Honourable Minister of Finance, Joe Oliver, P.C., M.P (his friends just call him “Oliver”). And never before has a boy wanted more… of your tax dollars to spend on things you do not really need. Shall we take a look at what Oliver plans to spend your money on during this financial year?

Well, as you know, Canada is a pretty big military power. After all, given our vulnerable geographic position – surrounded by three oceans and closely aligned with the world’s biggest military authority directly to the south – we have a lot to enemies to fend off. Thankfully, our government is committed to enhancing national security to protect us Canadians from renegade Polar Bears and angry dairy farmers in Minot, ND. So committed, in fact, that they are going to spend more than $20 BILLION (more than 3% of the total budget) of your hard-earned tax dollars on defence. Additionally, 11.8 BILLION will go towards “strengthening the Canadian Armed Forces” over the next 10 years; $360.3 million in 2015–16 to keep ISIL off our streets; $452 million over two years to improve military infrastructure; and $296 million over the next five years to fight terrorism. Further $60.4 million is going to enhance security on Parliament Hill alone. Boy do I feel safe!

If you are a patriot, fear not. Oliver has committed to spending $210 million on activities and events to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. Nothing says “Oh, Canada” like crippling debt.

But worry not, unimportant things like the environment, health, post-secondary education, and First Nations People will not be a burden on Canada’s public purse. For instance, a whapping $75 million over the next five years is being allocated to implement a “Species at Risk Act”; just over $30 billion will be divided up among all the provinces and territories to fund healthcare; $10 billion (less than half of what the Armed Forces get) will be spent on post-secondary education; and a generous $30.3 million will be spent over the next five years to foster economic development on First Nation’s Reserves.

Now, don’t worry if you are a little bit upset about how Oliver wants to spend your money. The budget does have a lot of ‘goodies’ in it. For example, if you are patron of the arts in Toronto, you can expect $25 million towards promoting arts and culture – but there’s a catch. In order to get this treat, you have to elect Oliver and his boy Steve this October, as funding for the arts in Toronto (a strategic group of ridings for the Conservatives) comes into effect in the 2016 budget. The act of withholding attractive portions of the budget until after the federal election is kind of like your mom telling you that you have to clean your room before you can go out for ice cream: coercive and unfair.

I don’t know about you, but this budget leaves me saying to Oliver, “Please sir, I want some more… funding towards sectors other than the Armed Forces.” Here is a PDF version of Oliver’s budget for you to peruse at your leisure: http://www.budget.gc.ca/2015/docs/plan/budget2015-eng.pdf

If you haven’t already realized, I have spent a lot of time thinking about government budgets lately. My guess is that about half of you probably are rolling your eyes right now thinking, “what a pretentious donkey fart” while the other half are already asleep – but the fact remains, this is important shit. After all, it is YOUR money being spent by the people YOU elected. The sad truth, however, is that Canadians are apathetic and acquiescent when it comes to politics. For example, by show of hands how many of you actually plan to take five minutes to check out the PDF I posted; to see the budget for yourself? More, how many of you even knew the name of our Minister of Finance before reading this post? Well… I see my Dad’s hand up but he is old and listens to the CBC…. Anybody else? Anybody?

You see, the problem with Canadians is that we take our democracy for granted. That is, we mindlessly toss away all of the opportunities we have to influence the way our country is governed. When it comes to politics, our core assumption is that we are powerless in a complex system and that our voices do not matter. As a result, young people do not vote because they are apathetic and old people do not vote because they are cynical. If a law is passed that we do not like, we simply share an article on facebook, shrug it off, and move on with our lives. Unfortunately a hashtag is not a movement and a like does not replace a vote.

Worse, most of us do not even take the time to see what our government is doing because most of us simply do not care.  And why do we not care? Because we are spoiled brats who have forgotten what it is like to live under the tyranny of an absolute dictator. We have forgotten the millions of people that died throughout history just so we could check off a name on a ballot box; just so we could protest on the street; just so we could see how OUR government spends OUR money. Further, our carelessness stems from a false sense of comfort that, no matter what happens, we will continue to live a happy and comfortable life. But that is simply not true. As you read this, our Prime Minister is consolidating power in the PMO, attempting to pass legislation that allows for Canadian citizenship to be revoked without a federal trial, and creating attack adds to stomp out political opposition. Not to sound like the guy who parks his Winnebago outside 7-11 and wears tinfoil on his head, but if Canadians continue to shrug off politics, the “true north strong and free” will soon become Mike Duffy’s personal pocket book… oh wait that already happened.

The more I think about it the more I realize that most Canadians are strangers in their own country, living carelessly under the veil of a forgotten political history. 1867 was so long ago that we cannot remember what it was like before we had a constitution; 1918 was so long ago that women and girls forget the struggles of suffrage movement; heck, most of us today assume that we are naturally entitled to certain rights and freedoms without realizing how hard our politicians fought for them in 1982.

Here is the thing. The dominant idea among people my age (at least) is that politics is an inaccessible creature controlled by a select few. Young Canadians are not apathetic because we are stupid or lazy; quite the opposite. We are apathetic because we feel alienated from a system that does not represent our needs. But why should the political system represent the needs of young Canadians? After all, less than a fifth of us vote, less than 1% of us run for office, and a small handful take the time to read up on current issues. When tuition goes up, we march for a day in front of an empty building and then call it quits. We do not dare take the time to understand how the Canada Social Transfer impacts our school fess – that would be far too difficult. So is it that young Canadians are really alienated from politics, or is it that politics is alienated from youth? I have a feeling it’s the latter.

Democracies only remain democracies when people participate and engage. A democracy without citizen participation is a dictatorship. Remember, we are all legally endowed with constituent power, and if we fail to use it then somebody (Oliver) will be happy to use it on our behalf.

Things are quite different here in Uganda. The 2015/16 Financial Year budget was read the other day and people cared. Unlike Canada, the budget was read by the Honourable Minister of Finance and President to a convention centre full of civil society representatives. I even watched the budget read on a projector alongside other NGO workers and relevant stakeholders. It was amazing. People were laughing, booing, cheering, and furiously taking notes throughout the reading. My boda driver and I had a good chat about it after as we drove past groups of people huddled around TVs – all, of course, watching the budget being presented.

I will not get into the details of Uganda’s budget this entry, but let’s just say Ugandans are far more fired up about their budget than I am about Canada’s. Why? Because Ugandans are still fighting for the open and accountable democracy that Canada is lucky enough to have. Canadians carelessly shrug off important legislation or openly launch ad hominem attacks at cabinet ministers (Oliver) because we can without dangerous repercussions. Ugandans, on the other hand, live in a much different political climate. Without saying too much, after a month here it is quite evident that Ugandan citizens are fighting an uphill battle against some very powerful people.

Democratically Yours,

Jeremy

p.s. if you want to know more about the ins and outs of Ugandan ‘democracy’, feel free to send me a private message via email or facebook.

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5 thoughts on “Entry #15 – Friday June 12th, 2015 — “Never Before Has a Boy Wanted More… Canadians to get Politically Engaged”

  1. While your enthusiasm is almost contagious, politics and government are… Politics and government! Uganda has a rich history of political absience. The oh so wonderful government of Idi Amin Dada gives one a bad taste in the mouth! Impoverished third world countries naturally strive for political activism in an attempt to overcome the oppression of an horrible past and a shaky future. Perhaps Canadians have become complacent in their warm and fuzzy democracy. Meanwhile, keep posting, keep learning, and keep on trucking!

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  2. Without giving undue credit to the budget, is it not a little unfair to compare spending between sectors such as education and national defence? Education is the responsibility of each province, and as such is funded mostly through the provincial budgets. National defence is solely funded through the federal. Education receives about 5% of GDP — vastly more than DND’s 3% of the Federal budget. Similar arguments could be made about healthcare, although it has more federal involvement. And SARA is the continuation of long-standing and unchanged commitment at $25million a year (and only a small part of the prov/fed environmental regulatory symbiotic/mutualistic relationship). I’m not touching First Nations issues — let’s leave it at the insufficiency of any payment.

    But questions of budget priorities aside, I’m wondering why you believe young people must engage in the ‘political system’ in Canada? Our demographics are such that one in two Canadians are over the age of forty. Roughly speaking, that means people under age 40 compose only about 25% of the eligible voters. Not a particularly powerful voting block. Further, the political system is dominated by the mostly old, the mostly white, and the mostly men. Even with an unrealistic 100% voter turnout from the under-40s, (when compared to last elections turnout) the moderately engaged 40+’s would crush them in numbers. A politician running on pensions over education will win every time. So when you have little chance as a cohort to be represented politically within the system, why should you?

    Compare, as you did, Uganda: nearly 50% of the population under age 15, and essentially all of it under 65. While I don’t have matching figures for the under-40 category, based on demographic structure and mortality rates, I’d say the Ugandan under-40s are vastly more influential. In fact, if their cohort didn’t choose to engage and make policy choices, there would be essentially no one who would. From the sounds of it, in Uganda, criticisms from young people are taken seriously because they matter. In Canada, they don’t.

    Activism and political engagement in Canada is shifting. Young people here aren’t voting like other generations, but I don’t think they are less political. Some young people are getting out at grassroots initiatives they care about. Others, with consolidating globalism, are becoming engaged on national and international levels in issues and in ways that previous generations never thought possible. COP15 was probably the best example — coalitions of young people going to another country to demand global accountability. The spillover of radical feminism from twitter to mainstream culture and politics is another.

    If Canada had proportional representation and all of the woes it entails, this would be a different discussion. But in the FPTP system, young votes don’t matter. So young people don’t vote. But I hesitate to think this means young people aren’t political and don’t care; instead, I’d rather hope that many of our generation are still searching, trying to make an impact in their own way.

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  3. Reblogged this on World of Wounds and commented:
    A very interesting read on Ugandan political engagement. Jeremy has been travelling and working in Uganda, and offers his thoughts on how Canada measures up. A great insight into the political debate we lack in our nation, and the shape it could take.

    That being said, I had a few words of critique:

    Without giving undue credit to the budget, is it not a little unfair to compare spending between sectors such as education and national defence? Education is the responsibility of each province, and as such is funded mostly through the provincial budgets. National defence is solely funded through the federal. Education receives about 5% of GDP — vastly more than DND’s 3% of the Federal budget. Similar arguments could be made about healthcare, although it has more federal involvement. And SARA is the continuation of long-standing and unchanged commitment at $25million a year (and only a small part of the prov/fed environmental regulatory symbiotic/mutualistic relationship). I’m not touching First Nations issues — let’s leave it at the insufficiency of any payment.

    But questions of budget priorities aside, I’m wondering why you believe young people must engage in the ‘political system’ in Canada? Our demographics are such that one in two Canadians are over the age of forty. Roughly speaking, that means people under age 40 compose only about 25% of the eligible voters. Not a particularly powerful voting block. Further, the political system is dominated by the mostly old, the mostly white, and the mostly men. Even with an unrealistic 100% voter turnout from the under-40s, (when compared to last elections turnout) the moderately engaged 40+’s would crush them in numbers. A politician running on pensions over education will win every time. So when you have little chance as a cohort to be represented politically within the system, why should you?

    Compare, as you did, Uganda: nearly 50% of the population under age 15, and essentially all of it under 65. While I don’t have matching figures for the under-40 category, based on demographic structure and mortality rates, I’d say the Ugandan under-40s are vastly more influential. In fact, if their cohort didn’t choose to engage and make policy choices, there would be essentially no one who would. From the sounds of it, in Uganda, criticisms from young people are taken seriously because they matter. In Canada, they don’t.

    Activism and political engagement in Canada is shifting. Young people here aren’t voting like other generations, but I don’t think they are less political. Some young people are getting out at grassroots initiatives they care about. Others, with consolidating globalism, are becoming engaged on national and international levels in issues and in ways that previous generations never thought possible. COP15 was probably the best example — coalitions of young people going to another country to demand global accountability. The spillover of radical feminism from twitter to mainstream culture and politics is another.

    If Canada had proportional representation and all of the woes it entails, this would be a different discussion. But in the FPTP system, young votes don’t matter. So young people don’t vote. But I hesitate to think this means young people aren’t political and don’t care; instead, I’d rather hope that many of our generation are still searching, trying to make an impact in their own way.

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    1. Thank you for the re-blog and thank you twice for the critique! I know my posts tend to offer an unbalanced perspective (let’s face it, everybody likes a good hyperbole from time to time), so I am glad that you’ve picked up on that and called me out. Your critiques are well-founded and I think that you present a really important side of the coin – that said, I would like to respond to a few of your points to clear my name, if anything.

      Education vs. DND: when you look at the sheer numbers and combine them with some basic principles of Canadian federalism, yes, it is unfair to compare education as a whole to DND spending. After all, provinces do, indeed, fund a large part of their k-12 education by way of provincial taxes and provincial Crown Corporations. However, my post refers only to post-secondary education, and that is a whole different ball game. As you know the 1990s were full of austerity measures for DND and social services alike. Among the most notable of these measures was the restructuring of the federal grants and transfers program. In a few years the CST went from semi-conditional grants (where provinces were mandated to spend a certain amount of the federal grants on post-secondary education) to completely unconditional block grants. Under these block grants, provinces decided to divert money away from post-secondary education and put it into k-12 programs – follow the voters. The feds still love block grants because it allows them uphold provincial autonomy (which looks good at First Ministers’ Conferences, if they ever happen) while simultaneously roll back as much funding as they can get away with. Win: Win, right? Wrong. Unconditional block grants combined with less federal funding has been a big driver behind the tuition spikes since the 90s as Universities have had to fill the gap left by insufficient federal transfers. I could go on, but I’d better stop before my blood pressure gets any higher.

      Environment and SARA: intergovernmental relations in the Environment sector are, bar none, the biggest mess in Canadian federalism. Bar none. I probably should have done some more research to come up with a better example of the federal government’s apathy towards creating a robust environmental regime, but alas I am only one man. What I do know is that our poor environmental regime at the federal level has led to municipalities taking the reins in recent years. For example, the Partners for Climate Protection Program (PCP) sparked by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is one of the most robust and successful climate change programs our country has ever seen. AND THESE GUYS DON’T EVEN HAVE CONSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY! Imagine what the feds and provinces could do it they actually put their heads together.

      Why people must engage in the ‘political system’: I respect your position and you back it up quite well; however, I completely disagree with you in principle. Demographics change and eventually that 25% of eligible voters will grow up to be over 40. Unlike other generations that started to vote more as they got older, the trends show that our generation is not jumping on the voting train after they hit 40. You can probably counter me with stats and studies that say otherwise; but from what I understand, people who feel alienated from politics at a young age have a very difficult time becoming engaged citizens when they are older. Disengagement is a vicious cycle and I do not think the answer is to tell young people to roll over and let a more powerful demographic make the decisions on their behalf until they die off. That is not politics. Further, just because we are demographically underrepresented now does not mean we should withdrawal completely. I am not a big numbers guy, but I will try to humor you for a few brief sentences. As you know, Canada’s voter turn out has been hovering around 60% since the early 2000s. In the 25 and under demographic that stat drops to less than 20%. So even if our demographic jumps up to 80-85% that increase in voter turnout still represents a significant force. Perhaps even enough force for a politician to run on post-secondary education over pensions in student-dominated ridings like “Halifax”. FPTP isn’t so bad sometimes 😉 … but let’s not get into that one today.

      Without sounding too red, the only reason why politicians can run on pension instead of education is because we let them. The attitude that 25% not a powerful cohort is just that, an attitude – and not a very good one in my books. Numbers and numbers and you cannot argue with them; you have me there, sir. But I am of the belief that you cannot let the numbers dictate your desire to seek representation. Our democracy is set up to protect minorities, and in this case young people are just that: a minority. Our attitude today will impact our attitude tomorrow, and we cannot simply use demographic under representation as an excuse to withdrawal from formal political institutions. Not on my watch.

      Uganda vs. Canada: let me be as ambiguous as possible on this one. Ugandans – both young and old – are facing a completely different political climate than us Canadians. I do not want to say too much more about this one online, but I will be happy to discuss over many, many beers back in Halifax. Many.

      Ah yes, activism and political engagement: when Canadians engage in “smart activism” they are quite political. However, I do not call protesting for one day in front of an empty Province House smart activism as it does not use spaces of power to effectively counter hegemonic ideas (yes, I’ve been reading a lot of Gramsci). Further, a share on facebook or a re-tweet on twitter does not replace a vote. I am purest, through and through. As such, I believe that we need to exercise our legal powers to their full extent and then resort to other forms of media to spread our ideas and galvanize others. People can, and should, be political in an activist setting (online or offline), but all of that comes second. First and foremost is active engagement with formal political institutions, namely voting, formal public engagement, running for office, and directly pressuring public officials for legal reform (I suppose the latter can be done via social media in some cases). All Canadian citizens have a considerable amount of legal power (or constituent power) to create change through our formal institutions. We need to harness that and use activism to complement, rather than replace, political engagement.
      So, to answer you question: even if you do all of the great stuff you mentioned, the only way to turn social movements into legislation is to get an MP to cast a in the House of Commons. If that MP has no stake in representing you, then no matter how hard you huff and puff on twitter, your cause is dead on the table until you find someone who will represent you in the House. Sure, you can pressure public officials to fight for your cause via social media and protest – but in my view, the most power picket sign one can wield is a ballot. After all, politicians are powerless if they are not elected. Quite simply, voting is a necessary condition for being politically engaged, social media is a sufficient one.
      Young people can search out innovative ways to galvanize others around a cause, but that does not make them political in the legal sense of the word. As long as young people remain apathetic to our formal political institutions, the old white men will continue to put pension over education, and “win every time”. An activist only remains an activist when they directly engage with the system they are trying to change – and in my view, the foremost form of engagement is, in fact, voting.

      Sorry, had to get that one off my chest. I am glad we could have this dialogue though. After all, democracy is all about sharing ideas and synthesizing diverse opinions. While we diverge on a few issues, it appears we both agree that dialogue is always better than silence.

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  4. Thanks for the reply Jeremy! Not sure if I agree with all of your points, but I do appreciate your commitment to a traditional political system. I have to admit I personally invest much more hope in the potential of the small ‘p’ political system, than the big ‘P’ political (in the legal sense, as your refer to it) system — must be one of those disillusioned young persons.

    Oh Gramsci. Mind-opening stuff. If you ever are looking for something to read, try Lukes’ Three Faces of Power. I think his hypothesis about non-decision scenarios and his comments on outsiders in the third dimension have some relevance to young voters in Canada.

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