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The Columbia Journal
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Phone: 604-266-6552
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June 2003

    Think Democracy aims to increase citizen input

     

    Dan Keeton

     

    When a group of forum organizers invited Vancouver area residents to think about democracy, the numbers that were prepared to do just that took them by surprise.

     

    "We thought we'd have about 40 people show up," said Kennedy Stewart, an organizer of the Think Democracy Summer Series. Instead, some 200 people packed the series' kick-off event June 11.

    The Think Democracy series is organized by Think City, an independent civic organization that sponsored several forums last year on civic politics.

     

    There are three more forums over the next two months in the series aimed at enhancing participation in neighbourhoods and encouraging citizens to explore the possibilities of democracy, which is at a "low level" in Vancouver, Steward contended.

     

    Stewart said the lack of citizen input in Vancouver shocked the guest speakers at the first forum: Anne Latendresse, of the University of Quebec, speaking about participatory budget making in Brazil, and Dimtri Roussopoulos, head of Montreal's Task Force on Municipal Democracy.

     

    "We brought them out to show just how bad our local democracy is here, just what kind of poor shape our rates of participation are; not just in elections, but also in citizen participation between elections."

    Stewart blames the centralized nature of Vancouver politics, citing in particular the lack of a ward system. "It makes it really tough for candidates to get their message out to local voters."

     

    Montreal in contrast encourages citizen participation, Stewart claimed. In dealing with the amalgamation of the metro area, "they had 27 summits with thousands and thousands of participants." The result is that citizen participation has been guaranteed in the city charter.

     

    "It's not just empty words. They're starting to experiment with something called participatory budgeting. They have all the local neighbourhoods go out and decide what their needs are, and to prioritize their needs and come to city and say, 'This is what we most need in our neighbourhood.'"

     

    Other ideas include "citizens' juries," which would examine incidents such as police brutality and make public recommendations and pressure city council to act, said Stewart, who wrote some 24 suggestions for civic democracy in a book entitled, Think Democracy.

     

    Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell attended the forum and promised his council would look at "electoral and non-electoral reform," said Stewart, an assistant professor of political science at Simon Fraser University.

     

    Voter apathy is such that Vancouver considers it remarkable if more than 50 per cent of the electorate votes, as it did in last November's civic election that swept the Coalition of Progressive Electors into office. "But if they get a turnout of 50 per cent in Montreal, they can't believe it and start asking what's happened to their participation rates." And many European countries experience voter turnout in excess of 90 per cent, Stewart observed.

     

    "Democracy is like doing the dishes: it's something you have to do every day," he said.

    There are three more Think Democracy forums, on June 25, July 9 and July 23. All are free and open to the public. For locations and further information, call 604 253-4307 or go on-line at www.thinkcity.ca.

     

     





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