Three modest reforms can restore Canada's democratic architecture

How independently minded parliamentarians, more powerful e-petitions and a strengthened Library of Parliament could revitalize our democracy

(Fred Chartrand/CP)

(Fred Chartrand/CP)

This is the final part in a series on institutional transformation at Canada’s sesquicentennial. Parts one and two looked at revitalizing Canadian federalism and legal institutions, while this concluding instalment explores the future of Parliament.

On the heels of Canada’s 150th birthday, our most iconic public building—Parliament’s Centre Block in Ottawa—will close for its most substantial structural overhaul since it burned to the ground in 1916. The project is meant to restore and preserve the building’s best heritage features, while equipping it to house our electoral democracy into the federation’s next 150 years.

But at this sesquicentennial, Parliament’s frailties are not only physical but institutional. The agenda in the House of Commons is driven almost exclusively by party leaders, its members are drastically under-resourced, and beyond emails and phone calls to their representatives—which tend to yield boilerplate responses—citizens rarely see the issues that matter to them shaping parliamentary debate.

As architects and engineers strengthen and modernize the building, citizens and parliamentarians should be asking what work they can do to address these issues and reshape the place for the future.

READ MORE: Why Canadian federalism is bigger than Ottawa and the provinces

First, with the legislative launching of a handful of bills over the prime minister’s head, the independence of parliamentarians could still stir from its deepest disciplinary slumber.

In recent decades, Canada has borne the dubious mantle of one of the most top-down democracies in the world; the average government-side MP, for example, votes with her party leadership 99 per cent of the time. The combination of a powerful prime minister’s office and a huge number of cabinet posts, parliamentary secretary positions, and committee chairs means that it’s both easier and more lucrative for government-side MPs—and those who hope to become so—to colour inside leader-drawn lines.

In the case of this spring’s Bill S-201 vote, though, 105 Liberal MPs united with the opposition parties to make it illegal for insurance companies to require Canadians to undergo genetic testing. While it was a free vote in name, cabinet stood up in the House unanimously against it, doing more to protect the health insurance industry’s bottom line than the welfare of Canadians.

While it’s naive to think this one instance establishes a new democratic norm, it’s cynical in equal measure to think such a constellation of MPs arrayed in the service of Canadians at large can’t dot the sky again; as the bill’s sponsor and Liberal MP Rob Oliphant put it, the vote should not be seen as a push back against cabinet, but rather “a push forward” to the role parliamentarians ought to play.

Similar action is necessary on other issues. Whether finally adequately funding Indigenous primary education, requiring renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement, or reengaging with electoral reform, Parliament can and should correct the executive’s most cynical intransigence.

S-201 suggests that when MPs wriggle even momentarily loose from party leadership, Parliament can enact law based on good policy—but another recent vote offers a way for MPs with backbone to make more democracy for the rest of us as well.

In the last Parliament, political-scientist-turned-NDP-MP Kennedy Stewart undertook a classic parliamentary consensus-building campaign to pass a private member’s motion for electronic petitions, an initiative to give all Canadians a more direct way to speak to the House of Commons. Stewart engaged civil society organizations like LeadNow and Samara Canada and rallied Green, Liberal, Bloc Québécois and Conservative backbench MPs to squeak out a 142-140 victory over the then-Conservative government.

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Stewart recounts watching with bated breath as his years of work came to fruition and the votes were tallied—and then spotting former prime minister Stephen Harper react to the vote, leaning over to the his chief whip and spitting out, “What the f–k happened?”

Since its inception after the 2015 election, Stewart’s institutional brainchild has generated more than 700 e-petitions on topics as diverse as animal welfare, Indigenous band membership, employment in the oil and gas sector and the ballooning housing market. The medium allows Canadians to coalesce around matters of national import, transcending geographical boundaries and traditional partisan affiliations to collectively voice ideas and concerns. Like the vote to institute e-petitions in the first place, these electronic submissions by ordinary Canadians could gradually reshape how our MPs make laws and represent Canadians.

The next step in the e-petition saga is a scheduled review by the procedural and House affairs committee in early 2018. The review could lead to a strengthened and enhanced e-petitions system, including automatic triggering of debate in the House on petitions that reach a certain threshold of popular support.

A third source of inspiration is the inconspicuous Library of Parliament. While this institution receives funding on a scale similar to the Senate, many Canadians don’t even know it exists—and those who do likely remember it simply as the beautiful finale of their tour of Parliament Hill.

In reality, the role of the Library is as striking as its architecture. It is charged with providing parliamentarians, their staff and the Parliamentary Press Gallery with timely, non-partisan research and information. A fleet of about 70 capable analysts work out of the Library’s central enquiries section on Sparks Street, handling thousands of research requests each year and suggesting witnesses and study topics to parliamentary committees.

At this moment in our history, when hyper-partisanship, so-called “alternative facts”, and an emaciated press have become the new normal, a beefed up and reimagined Library of Parliament could play a significant role.

A large measure of the party discipline of backbench MPs flows from superior research capacities of leaders’ offices and the public service—the latter of which serves the executive exclusively. If senators and MPs want to be better equipped to speak intelligently and independently on issues but feel reluctant to increase the budgets of their own offices, they could do worse than voting to increase the Library’s research resources instead.

What’s more, the Library houses diverse and vital programs like the parliamentary budget office, parliamentary tour guides and the parliamentary poet laureate. If the Library were given the mandate and capacity for more ambitious public education and civic literacy projects, it could spur engagement with parliamentary democracy in novel ways, providing the popular fuel for the fire of institutional transformation.

Through interventions by an empowered, non-partisan Library, Canadians would come to better understand the power MPs and Senators wield and would be more likely to seize upon levers of power like e-petitions.

Institutional creations are never merely of their moment, and each of these three reforms taps into different relations to past and future. Oliphant and his allies channel a Westminster tradition of independently minded parliamentary representation. E-petitions harness new technologies to reach for a more democratic future. And a new prominence for the Library—the only part of Centre Block still standing after the inferno of 1916—would act as a bulwark against the worst deficiencies and irrationalities of our political moment.

Over this series, we have tried to paint a picture of the adjacent possibilities for Canada’s public institutions; each prescription builds on traditional strengths of Canadian federalism, law or democracy while also heading off in new directions.

These reforms may sound modest. But as Harvard law professor Roberto Unger puts it, “change can be structural and nevertheless piecemeal, fragmentary, gradual and experimental. We should not associate radical change with wholesale change and gradual change with inconsequential change.” Indeed, what makes these changes exciting is that they demonstrate that a better democracy is possible within our actual institutions if the actors animating them draw out the latent potential already there.

The physical rehabilitation of Parliament’s Centre Block is projected to cost at least $1 billion and is slated to begin in the coming months. But the transformation of our federal architecture, our legal system and our democracy can begin right here and now, with the contributions of Canadians measured in empathy, action and imagination.

And for that much more modest price, we just might get back infinitely more: a better country.

Fraser Harland and Mark Dance are alumni of the non-partisan Parliamentary Internship Programme and law students at McGill University. Read parts one and two of their Canada 150 series here and here.