Canada seems to have a problem with civic engagement as of late—or, at least, it did. The strange events of the past week, while our country mourned over a fallen politician, seemed to have stirred a shift in our national psyche. People, it turns out, have not abandoned their commitment to being involved in politics or other elements of Canada’s social fabric.
The word cynicism has repeatedly come up in Canadian political discourse in recent years, referring to a general malaise and antipathy towards civic participation. The ever-falling voter turnout rates and often-aired sentiment that politicians are crooked or power-hungry testify to this trend. The reasons for dwindling participation are numerous: politics isn’t as civil as it once was, negative attitudes are turning people off, global problems are preoccupying minds, etc. In a time when news headlines seem to advertise a world going off the rails, it hasn’t been entirely unsurprising to hear talk of a Canadian “decline,” of a loss of interest in public life. Yet, as we are now seeing, the rise of Jack Layton and the New Democrats may have defied or even altered that trend, particularly in the wake of the May 2nd election and then Layton’s death this past week. The people, it seems, are not so uninterested after all.
Under Layton, the NDP aggressively targeted young, idealistic Canadians and advocated for their participation in our political process. The party’s progressive attitudes toward social rights and equality for women, immigrants, and gay and lesbian people have created a bedrock of support amongst the under-30 demographic. The active engagement of that group has, of course, helped the party reach new heights and begun, arguably, a movement toward a more socially conscious Canada. Whether such a social democratic movement is truly taking shape or is just politicking of the party’s policy lines is up for debate. It is only in the years to come will we see if such declarations have any merit.
It is evident, however, that the party and its late leader’s attempts to foster a more engaged Canada have struck a chord. Not a person who walked through Nathan Phillips Square outside Toronto City Hall this week was unmoved by what they witnessed. Spontaneously, chalk messages began to appear on the cold concrete of the square and buildings. Each time it rained, they re-appeared; the current collection is in fact the third such iteration. The most striking aspect of the messages, however, is the optimism and unity they profess. Many speak of hope, optimism, listening to other voices, respecting opinions that are different from one’s own—traits that endeared Layton himself to the masses. Many implore a desire for cooperative change, without partisan rhetoric. Such a spontaneous display of civic engagement is extraordinary. Hopefully Canadian politics will continue to foster and elicit such activity.
Yes, Jack Layton’s death has left Canada in a state of grief, one so emotive and unprecedented that it has amazed historical and political experts. The response, the outpouring of affection and the desire for common people to become part of the mourning process needs to continue now. The energy being released to celebrate the ideals that Mr. Layton professed, if sustained, may be the driving force to actually bring his vision for a more fair, just and democratic Canada into being. People elected to legislative chambers can’t build great nations by themselves; great nations must be born out of cooperation and a motivation towards a common good.
Encouraging civic engagement isn’t a partisan issue. The New Democrats certainly are in the spotlight as of late, and the charismatic appeal for an active and engaged political life that Jack Layton brought to the national stage have made it an NDP hallmark. That being said, the Liberal and Conservative parties of this country have hordes of supporters with great ideas about how to connect with the general population and encourage greater civic participation. The frequent assertions that Canadians are disconnected with our political system and have a blanket mistrust of any politician don’t hold as much weight as we think. Clearly, when graced with an optimistic and trusting attitude, we quickly re-engage into public discourse, pay attention to our politics, and most importantly, participate in the social structure of the nation.
Being part of Canadian society is about more than just voting. If we do indeed want to strive for a “better Canada,” more needs to change. We need to see optimism and encouragement for everyone, young and old, to get involved in their own way. Advocating greater discussion and expressing more ideas needs to happen at every level of our society, from federal politics to community meetings.
It’s noble for people to say they want to pick up the work that Jack Layton left behind to do his memory justice, but really, we should want to do it for ourselves. As we have seen this week, the desire is under the surface and we just need to let it out. To quote Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Let’s pick up the chalk and help create that world.