Democracy dies when citizens go silent

American philosopher Benjamin Franklin said, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”  

Canadians may complain that we have a small population and are not major players on the global stage. We are certainly not a superpower, but we can be quite influential. In addition, our elected officials on the federal level represent far fewer people than those in larger democracies like the United States, so it is easier to gain their attention and have a voice. I’m extremely grateful for this and I’d like to believe I’m doing a good job of fulfilling my responsibility.

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The fact that citizen advocacy can make a significant difference came into focus during a recent conversation with my friend Juan, who came to Canada as a refugee from El Salvador 30 years ago. I shared with him that the civil war in his country was the first international issue that drew my attention in the early 1980s. I participated in demonstrations and wrote numerous letters to my MP, the late Michael Wilson, who represented my riding of Etobicoke Centre in Toronto.

I was young, very pro-immigration and had somewhat leftist leanings. Wilson was a successful businessman who eventually became the finance minister in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s cabinet.  What I really appreciated, however, was that Wilson never dismissed my views. In fact, his reply letters seemed well thought out and sincere. He assured me that the Progressive Conservatives were a party of compassion and compromise.  

When his party came to power, they did indeed address the issue in El Salvador. I don’t know the conversations that took place in Ottawa. I assume that New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent, whom I had seen speak at a rally, had some conversations with Mulroney and the members of his cabinet. I also know that there were many letter-writing campaigns on the issue. Regardless, the Progressive Conservatives demonstrated compassion and compromise, as Wilson had assured me. Tens of thousands of Salvadorian refugees, including my friend Juan, were thus granted refugee status, and Canada is better for it.

One of the most important messages I try to teach my students is that though there are many problems in our country in our world, each of us has a voice because we live in a democracy. Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, tells us, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”  

We do have tremendous influence. I also can’t begin to explain the joy that I felt when I said to Juan, “I was a part of the movement that helped to bring you to this country, and I feel so blessed and fortunate that you stand here so many years later as my friend and colleague.”

Wilson died of cancer in 2019 at the age of 81. Reading what others said about him, from his prime minister to his constituents and all who knew him, it is clear that he was highly regarded as a person of humility and integrity. He was very good at what he did and he sincerely wanted to make Canada a better country.  

I continue to be very grateful for all those who represent me at the different levels of government. I often disagree with them, but I always appreciate their dedicated effort on my behalf.  

Cynics may argue that corporatism has destroyed our democracy. I disagree. It is still we, the citizens of Canada who control the outcome of our elections and ultimately the policies of our governments.

Canadian policy, both domestic and international, is a reflection of the activism or the apathy of its people. If we want our country to reflect our diversity and compassion, it is our job as citizens to advocate for what we believe is right.

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