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As Middle East citizens reclaim their countries, democracy weakens at home

victoria salvas

February 4 anti-Mubarak protest in Alexandria, Egypt. Creative Commons photo by Al Jazeera English

February 4 anti-Mubarak protest in Alexandria, Egypt. Creative Commons photo by Al Jazeera English

In Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, even Italy, citizens are rising up, risking their lives to protest their corrupt governments. Egyptians, in a historical event, have proven they can be successful in overthrowing years of dictatorial leadership. Canadians were mostly cheering along (though our government wasn’t), but’s hard to put ourselves in their place—Canada, flawed though it is, is simply not Egypt. Corruption here is less pervasive; the military less present in our everyday lives; we have a functional political opposition. But since freedom, democracy, and human rights are on everyone’s mind right now, perhaps it’s time for a little self-evaluation session.

The uprisings in the Middle East should prompt Canadians to take a closer look at the state of our own politics. For just one recent example, see the recent KAIROS “not” scandal and assess how democratic our government’s behaviour truly is. Murray Dobbin on Rabble stopped just short of comparing Steven Harper to ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and called Harper’s Conservative cabinet a squad of “hit men.”

But would Canadians ever reach the point where we just couldn’t take it anymore? Could we rebel in  Egypt-like protests? Would our rants to friends or angry blog comments ever manifest as rebellion in the street?

Stereotypically, Canadians are polite and retiring; unconfrontational if you’re being nice about it, apathetic if you’re not. But there’s data to prove that we really don’t like things to get politically messy. Besides our dismal-and-getting-worse voter turnout rate, A 2000 General Social Survey by Statistics Canada found that only 9 percent of Canadians (age 15 and up) had participated in a public debate that year (things like calling radio talkback shows or writing letters to the editor). Half of those individuals researched information on political issues, and 10 percent volunteered for a political party. We also seem naturally more inclined to express our opinions with a group that we know will share or agree with our own opinions.

Historically, if Canadians take the time to understand a politcal issue, then get mad about it, we will find a way to express it. Like the time time the Conservative government decided prorogue parliament; a 63 day break while 36 government bills lay untouched. While plenty of us apparently didn’t know what the heck that meant, 200,000 Canadians got angry, logged onto Facebook and joined a group called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament. Many attended actual rallies across the country.

If you were in Toronto in the summer of 2010, you witnessed Canadians in a more traditional form of protest during the G20 conference. Over 300 people were arrested and the images of Toronto streets seemed almost unrecognizable, as if it were a different country altogether.

The erosion of Western democracy seems to be everywhere you turn lately. Paul Krugman identified the union-busting tactics of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker as just the latest example of a hemisphere-wide push by anti-democratic forces: “What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy,” Krugman wrote.

Dobbin’s Rabble column sounds the same alarm for Canada: He calls Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda’s corrections of the CIDA report “political thuggery worthy of a dictatorship.”  This seems to be just one example of our democracy moving backwards while citizens of Italy, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are actively involved in taking back control of their respective countries.

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