Institute on Governance: “Democracy, Accountability and Citizenship in the Digital Age”


Remarks for the Honourable Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions.

Ottawa, March 9, 2017.

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Thank you all very much for having me; it is a pleasure to be here.

I would like to thank the Institute on Governance for inviting me to speak to you today and for organizing the 2016-17 series of talks on digital governance. I would have liked to be able to join you for all the activities on the program and I hope you will enjoy all the planned sessions. I especially hope you like what your colleagues and friends have to say, including Greg Fergus, Member of Parliament for Hull-Aylmer, and Seamus O'Regan, Member of Parliament for St. John's South - Mount Pearl.

Seamus, Greg, and I have a unique perspective when it comes to democracy. We have the great honour of representing Canadians in the House of Commons. To us, and to any other past candidates or elected officials in this room, democracy has a very personal meaning – of asking others for their support, for their vote, for their confidence to represent them. But the fact is, everyone in this room likely has a story about how they participate in our democracy. Maybe it’s knocking on doors for a candidate, attending a rally, writing their elected official, or that powerful act of casting a ballot on Election Day.

It’s a ritual and rite of passage in this country. I am sure many of you can remember going with your parents to a polling station, or bringing your own children with you into the booth to cast a ballot. In bitter swirling snowstorms and sweltering summer heat, generations of Canadians have followed the same tradition. In many ways, Election Day is one of the truly public civic rituals Canadians enjoy. It’s a day where we are united, where we all join the same lines, follow the same rules, and exercise the same freedoms.

The biggest changes we have faced over time are not related to technological advancements but to the barriers we have created between Canadians and voting.

The generations that preceded us worked hard and did what was needed to broaden horizons and give the right to vote to Canadians who did not previously have it.

As Minister of Democratic Institutions, I am currently pursuing this important initiative. Our government introduced Bill C-33 to repeal the undemocratic elements of the so-called "Fair Elections Act" adopted by the previous government. If the bill passes, our legislation will remove barriers to voting and strengthen the integrity of our electoral system. For example, we will restore a voter's ability to vouch for another person at a polling station. In addition, we will restore the mandate of the Chief Electoral Officer to conduct extensive public awareness campaigns.

There are other important steps I could mention, but my point is that when it comes to democracy, we can always do more to improve, strengthen and protect it. We can build a more inclusive Canadian democracy – but not if we are complacent, satisfied, or cavalier.

But I believe the kinds of people attracted to an event about democracy in the digital age are curious, not complacent. They are searching, not satisfied. You are optimistic people who ask questions and are open to new ideas, while rooted in practical matters and dedicated to only building up, never jeopardizing, the progress already made.

I can tell you that I am optimistic about our democracy in Canada. I believe we have great potential and that the digital age offers great opportunities for Canadians.

In a practical sense, our digital age will facilitate much of that information sharing, and our digital culture in part is driving this desire for information. We can share this information online for all Canadians in the blink of an eye. And a digital age that offers Canadians so many opportunities to engage and learn has conditioned people to seek out these opportunities. It’s a very modest example perhaps of what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said we form our tools and then they form us.

In our digital world, these tools can be used to bring people together and unite Canadians for a democratic debate. However, in the wrong hands, they can also divide us and harm democracy. We all know that there are those who seek to undermine or damage democracy itself. I can assure you that our government will do whatever it takes to prevent this from happening.

The security and protection of Canadians is one of our government's priorities and this must include the protection of our democratic system. Yes, Canadians are voting today with a pencil and a piece of paper, and the votes are counted by hand. But think about the importance of email, social networks, the websites we rely on, and the information we save online.

For example, if one of Canada’s major political parties were to be hacked, the damage could be severe. It could lead Canadians to question the integrity of our elections. We owe it to Canadians to be proactive on this, and to consider what can be done to prepare for and prevent a cyber threat.

We will ask the Communications Security Establishment to analyze and make public an assessment of the current risk of cyber hacking to Canada’s political parties.

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is a world leader in cybersecurity, and its men and women work hard every day to protect our country. We believe that the CSE can share its expertise to help political parties help themselves.

With the right information, political parties can make decisions that they consider are appropriate for them.

The CSE will reach out to political parties with best practices and information they can use. This is important new work, but in today’s digital world, we cannot afford to ignore the risks. You will hear more from our government about this soon.

Democracy in the digital age exposes Canadians to potential threats as well as potential opportunities. I am increasingly convinced that we can do more -- whether in government, in the private sector, as a civil society or as individuals - to look at these complex issues together. In the digital age, I believe we need to ask ourselves what we can do to ensure that voters, and all citizens, have the tools, the capacity and the opportunities to participate fully in democratic life.

The good news is it has never been easier to get engaged than it is today, as digital technologies offer us ever more opportunities to connect and empower. And yet, as we all know, these same digital tools can be used toward some not so good ends. It’s one of the great contradictions of the advent of the digital era that, despite the fact we have access to more information than ever before, we may be less informed and less willing to participate. How do we change this? How do we better leverage the gifts of the information age for good?

I myself believe that we must first obtain information that encompasses different opinions and points of view, and sometimes even a perspective that we are not used to. The digital age has generated a flood of information and has produced a variety of communication tools to share this knowledge.

Today it is said that “it's easier than ever to hear only what you want to hear.” Not only does the information age allow us to have more information than ever before about topics that interest us, but also the way some search engines work and social media sites choose ads is based on a user’s browser history. This means that the type of information we are exposed to is most often information we have self-selected – or has been curated for us.

If we consider that the strength of democracy lies in the diversity of people who together express opinions, debate and discuss them, and address important issues, not being exposed to them only limits our vision of the world, even challenging it; this, in the end, is what could undermine democracy.

The evolution of the traditional media environment is another challenge, as the diverse opinions expressed there become increasingly fragmented.

This is the Public Policy Forum’s conclusion in its report entitled The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, which examined the changes and upheavals in journalism and the world of news in Canada. This is a complex issue that is currently being addressed by the House of Commons Heritage Committee.

But let us return to the central question. How can we, as citizens, overcome this challenge?

I believe that it is up to all of us individually to question our own opinions by taking the time to find different sources of information. There is no limit to the information we can access through new technologies. With a little effort, we can access media from various countries, interest group blogs and many other sources of reliable and transparent information.

Of course, we have been hearing about "fake news" for a few months, a phenomenon that is spreading rapidly in society. It seems that no one can avoid this.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that has mushroomed through the use of social media and digital platforms. Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer of Apple, told the British Daily Telegraph that in the "clickbait" era, the rise of fake news is being driven by those determined to capture attention at any cost, with truth being the first casualty.

The appearance of fake news is symptomatic of the challenges faced by traditional journalism here in Canada and around the world. Media organizations and journalists are struggling to respond to what appears to be a shift from the information age to the age of misinformation.

It has of course long been understood that a strong and free press, holding government to account, is essential to a healthy democracy. Journalism performs a vital civic function. But the ability of reporters to perform this function is jeopardized on the one hand by media consolidation and on the other by the fact that anyone with a smartphone and a social media account can become a citizen journalist with as much, sometimes even more, popular credibility than journalists in traditional media organizations.

Every individual should not underestimate his or her own power as a citizen. Never before has information flowed so freely between people and across borders. As the French politician François Bayrou put it so well: "The citizen is not a consumer. He is a producer of ideas, of convictions, of commitment, of solidarity."

We must remember this when considering the impact of fake news on the all-important communication between citizens that is at the foundation of a healthy democracy. This reflects the influence of digital media and online information on how we perceive political reality. These recent trends show how important it is that as citizens, we do not simply consume information, but that we also generate ideas and participate in democracy and the institutions that flow from it.

A strong, vibrant, independent media is critical to a strong, vibrant, pluralistic democracy. But to fully participate, citizens need to have the right democratic vocabulary, and democratic literacy. Active citizenship in our digital age demands this, and we have to come to grips with how we can help Canadians navigate this new landscape. What does it mean to be a citizen in our democracy? What obligations do citizens have to be informed, to be accountable for their ability to hold government to account?

My colleague, Mélanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, held a consultation on the future of Canadian media, including the relationship between these media and democracy. We must challenge ourselves individually and collectively, examining these questions and our institutions.

Democracy is about engaging with sometimes uncomfortable ideas. That doesn’t happen just by clicking a link – it’s too passive and too detached. But what does this mean for holding the attention of our citizens, and how does democracy need to adapt? It’s an axiom that government moves slowly – but that is often for good reason. But today we live in an on-demand world where citizen expectations are shifting. Major League Baseball is adopting new rules this season to speed up play and change with the times. What if anything should government do to adapt to these new shifts and new expectations?

And given access to information, in an “open by default” government, how do citizens manage that wealth of data, and use it to meaningfully interact with government, elected officials and civil society?

I will just leave you with this final thought, about democracy, accountability and citizenship in this digital age. Greg, Seamus and I, and others in this room, have knocked on doors to ask people for their vote. Seniors in Burlington worried about health care, middle class families making ends meet, business owners trying to make a living and create opportunity. We know what it is like to look another person in the eye, ask them to believe in you, and ask them for their vote. I think in our digital age, that simple act, the critical human element of our democracy, won’t change. The accountability that comes from the ballot box won’t change. The deep personal connection we feel to our right to vote won’t change.

As you consider the important matters before you, I urge you to consider how people, how voters, how Canadians, can benefit from the digital age. I think this is a really valuable conversation, and one I am looking forward to continuing. Enjoy the day ahead, and thank you again for this opportunity to join you.


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