This article is based on a talk held at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs that is part of a series of nine talks delving into the theme of “What should be on Canada’s policy radar?” The panel discussions are being held all through this year to mark the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, publisher of Policy Options magazine. The Munk School discussion focused on Democracy under Threat? Polarization and public policy in Canada. Panelists included Anita Li, founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Green Line; Eric Merkley, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto; Sean Speer, senior fellow at the University of Toronto; and Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos and senior fellow at the University of Toronto. The moderator was the president and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Jennifer Ditchburn. You can also watch a video recording of the discussion.

We get polarization wrong. Canadians generally are not getting more extreme in our views, and the divisions that do exist are better viewed as a feature of democracy rather than as a threat to political stability. But this perspective is often drowned out by what University of Toronto political scientist Eric Merkley describes as a tendency for media pundits and political parties to whittle down complex policy debates into binary contests: left versus right, government versus opposition; the elite versus the people.

While it may be simple and attention-grabbing, framing issues along conventional binary lines limits our political discourse and sacrifices novel viewpoints. The full scope of diversity and nuance of Canadian political preferences should be unlocked through a more direct expression of policy preferences with the introduction of citizen panels around the country.

The panelists participating in the discussion at the Munk School agree there is a collective lack of vocabulary to conceptualize the divisions within Canadian society and what drives them. It is heartening to know that Canadians are not growing more polarized along a left-right ideological spectrum, Merkley says, but the terms “left” and “right” are not enough to explain existing social discontent.

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Media consultant and educator Anita Li provided some context for understanding these concepts. Uncovering and explaining contemporary sources of frustration proves even more difficult, she says, when media columnists and political communications reach for the easy and familiar cleavages. As a result, complex values such as fluctuating social identity and tolerance of cultural change are substituted for easy binary stand-ins like rural versus urban, or old versus young.

By insisting every debate be viewed along “binary framings,” we fail to account for certain views, Li says, and therefore fail to have more nuanced and thoughtful conversations. In other words, our political discourse today does not capture the totality of values and preferences among Canadians.

By labelling the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 as standard progressive protests and the trucker convoys in early 2022 as standard conservative protests, Ipsos Reid CEO Darrell Bricker says we ignore that “the people who were most supportive of this method of protesting and of the agenda of both groups were younger, more precarious people who are having a harder time getting started in life.” He argues that discussions questioning what makes Canada a fair society are not being conducted in official circles and so they are being forced into the streets.

The political scientist Steve Patten has written about social movements and their potential for attracting the attention of policy-makers. But the preferences expressed through social movements often end up clashing with “brokerage-style” Canadian political parties, he has argued, which are more concerned with building coalitions than defining their policies based on specific issues. This failure to integrate social movements into political institutions means Canadian values are not being adequately represented in Parliament. Failing to do so carries distinct risks.

Sean Speer, senior fellow at the Munk school, touched on the question of poor representation in public discourse, saying it fosters the type of “tear it down” backlash that has manifested itself in the United States and other democracies, as populism of all ideological stripes has emerged in a manner hostile to the establishment.

A failure to account for novel viewpoints leads to the persistence of outdated policy paradigms and reduces the capacity for transformative change. A discourse committed to a conventional left-right divide also contributes to long-term political disengagement and “frustration” when people are forced to choose one of two sides, neither of which necessarily reflects their preferences.

Bricker’s analysis of frustration in part of the Canadian population perhaps explains how the only option available to moderate lockdown skeptics was to be labelled a radical protester in joining the Ottawa blockade.

People can and should hold divergent views in Canada, Jennifer Ditchburn, president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, underlines. “Really good public policy can emerge from that composition of ideas,” she says, “and we can help advocate for evidence-based decision-making and healthy disagreement between all actors within the political sphere.”

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But for good policy-making to emerge, mechanisms must be introduced to infuse nuance and diversity into our discourse. Our increasingly diverse society both demands greater pluralism in outcomes and offers the diversity of viewpoints to help us get there. We need only find a way to empower these diverse viewpoints and provide them real decision-making authority to circumvent the bottlenecking of ideas that occurs within the media and amongst political parties.

A modern democratic paradox has emerged in Canada: complexity and intractability of contemporary problems have contributed to a legitimacy crisis, and yet we continue to see apathy toward government and a deficit of participation. By relying solely on traditional forms of political expression, we only further impede the prospects for change.

The spirit of democracy should be extended to empower people to use their voice directly and contribute the novel viewpoints that will be essential in resolving future impasses.

This article is part of What Should Be on Canada’s Policy Radar? special feature series.

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Hugh Ragan
Hugh Ragan is a graduate of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, where he focused on civic engagement and social change.
Pierre Sarlieve
Pierre Sarlieve is a master of public policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs who specializes in economic policy and studies the future of government.

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