Convoy commission reminds us that governments need to step up on participation
One year ago, our nation’s capital was overtaken. The convoy occupation was an acute crisis, amid the ongoing crisis of the pandemic. Many people who lived in the area suffered, and some continue to feel the effects one year on.
Failures in leadership, communications, emergency responses – all of these systems failures have been examined in government inquiries, from Justice Rouleau’s report on the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act, to the Ottawa auditor general’s series of reports on the city’s response.
The Ottawa People’s Commission on the Convoy Occupation also examined this crisis. It stands out for many reasons, and here are two:
- First, the Ottawa People’s Commission was carried out entirely by the community, without a mandate or funding from any level of government. (Maytree was one of the funders of the commission.)
- Second, the Commission focused on the experiences of people who were living in the area, and specifically at how the crisis impacted their human rights.
What happened in Ottawa in 2022 was a threat that warranted the use of the Emergencies Act for the first time since it replaced the War Measures Act in 1988, and yet no government has gone to the residents of Ottawa in a significant way to find out how it affected them. None of the government-led inquiries have focused on the experiences of people living in the area.
This points to larger issues about the state of the relationship between governments and people, the widening gap between the two with fewer and fewer intentional efforts to bring them together.
It wasn’t always this way. Institutional efforts to investigate important issues facing Canada and its residents used to happen quite frequently, and not only in the face of catastrophe. As far back as Confederation, governments have held Royal Commissions and other types of inquiries into topics ranging from bilingualism to the status of women to poverty, even when the findings were likely to be critical of the government in power. These mechanisms routinely included public hearings, where individuals and community leaders could provide their viewpoints. Some of the recommendations that flowed from these commissions and inquiries were taken up and were transformative.
These big events did not stand alone. The culture of public service included more regular contact with the people who it is mandated to serve. For example, it used to be that staff involved with city planning regularly went out into the community, attended or organized community events and meetings, and generally talked to and spent time with the people who live in the city. From the 1970s-90s, Toronto had Neighbourhood Planning Offices located throughout the city, with planning staff who would focus on working with residents and businesses in that area. This influenced the ways that staff saw needs and wants, and potential solutions.
This is not to say that these past efforts by government were perfect. Our goals for participatory processes, and our understanding of how integral they are to our human rights, have grown. We recognize that large scale, institutional mechanisms are inaccessible, intimidating, or simply baffling to many people who are effectively excluded from public hearings. We look at which neighbourhoods get attention, whose voices are most likely to be heard, and which interests hold the most sway when setting the planning agenda. We ask for governments to be transparent in explaining how people’s voices were accounted for in its decision-making, and how these decisions prioritize the people who are most in need.
With commitment and continuous effort, participatory processes can also grow and improve. These efforts should be applied to both large scale institutional mechanisms, such as inquiries and commissions, and to the smaller scale ongoing efforts that influence day-to-day decision-making.
Establishing and maintaining dynamic relationships with residents is a fundamental responsibility of governing, not just electioneering. It is a responsibility of both politicians and public servants. Hearing what people have to say about the problems they face and how to solve them is a fundamental democratic practice. When people feel left out, when public processes alienate rather than bring us closer together, distrust and despair thrive.
Instead of shoring up this aspect of our democracy, we are seeing the distance between governments and people grow. With the relationship gap widening, community groups such as the Ottawa People’s Commission are stepping up their efforts to amplify and document people’s lived experience. They contribute to analysis of and recommend solutions to the problems people face. But such efforts cannot replace the scale, legitimacy, and paths to policy action that comes from governments taking ownership over participatory processes.