Democracy: The Digital Age, Civic Literacy, and the Future We Want


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

Runnymede, England, November 17, 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.

Good evening everyone.

Thank you for the warm welcome.

Before I begin my remarks, I would like to acknowledge my fellow Canadians who are here actively working to strengthen and protect Canada’s democratic institutions. I have had the privilege of meeting with many of you in Canada, and I look forward to getting to know those whom I haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet.

I would also like to acknowledge my colleague, Senator Peter Harder, who is here representing the Senate of Canada. It is a privilege to work with you in Ottawa.

I would also like to acknowledge the organizers of the 2017 Colloquium. Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication to making this event such a success.

The topic of this year’s Colloquium, The Dilemmas of Democracy: Challenges to the International Order is timely, and I am honoured to participate.  

Since my appointment last January to the position of Canada’s Minister of Democratic Institutions, I've had the honour of speaking with Canadians about many of the values that unite us as a country.

In addition to being a Minister, I am also the Member of Parliament for the riding of Burlington. While this means I spend a fair amount of time in our nation’s capital, representing my constituents, as the Minister responsible for strengthening the openness and fairness of Canada’s public institutions, I find it useful to get out of Ottawa to hear from Canadians.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel across the country and listen to the diverse perspectives of Canadians: from newcomers to Canada, university students, LGBTQ activists and First Nations people, disability groups and civil society. There was one common theme: as a nation, we must work together to do more to strengthen Canadian democracy, improve citizen literacy, and increase democratic participation.

What I want to discuss with you today is democracy, the digital age, civic literacy and the future we want. We have some big challenges to confront. I'm an optimist: I believe we cannot only confront some of the challenges we're facing, but we can overcome them. But we must all work together. Like anything, a solution cannot be imposed by government. It will take government, civil society, academia, industry, media, and all citizens working together.

To represent all Canadians, we need a government that recognizes the importance of diversity and inclusion. When people see themselves reflected in government, when they are represented by people to whom they can relate, they feel more connected to their democracy.

A Parliament that represents its citizens’ lived experiences is better able to advocate for the issues important to their community, generation, or demographic.

I'm often reminded that I'm a young woman in politics. While there are times when I simply want to be seen as a politician – hopefully for the merits I bring to the job – I've also come to appreciate exactly what I represent. I am a 30 year old female cabinet minister, the youngest in Canadian history and the first to be expecting while in office. While many of my colleagues are feminists and support women of all ages, I can speak specifically to the experiences of my generation ‎in the House of Commons, at the Cabinet table and in public. That matters.

Sometimes people lament that Millennials are not politically engaged. I would vehemently disagree with that sentiment. What we're seeing, in fact, is a generation making politics its own. It might not be what older generations expect when they think about political participation, but like each generation that came before, Millennials are using their lived experiences to shape the future. This can be, like any disruption, both encouraging and concerning.

Let me explain. One of my core mandates is to restore the trust that Canadians have in our democratic processes and institutions. Democracy is based on trust. It is the trust of the people in the process and the outcome. Without that trust, democracy fails.

Young people today are growing up in a time of clashes, both cultural and technological.

We want more young people to vote. In 2015, youth voter turnout in Canada increased by 18% from the previous federal election. 57% of young people aged 18-24 cast a ballot, compared to just 38.8% in 2011.  This was a positive development, but casting a ballot is not the only means of democratic participation and civic engagement.

A June 2017 Abacus poll found that young Canadians were more likely to engage in regular political conversations than any other age group in Canada.

However, 51% of Canadians aged 18-29 stated they only followed what interested them. I'll get to the filter bubble issue in a moment. Clearly there is more to be done to ensure we promote youth participation in our democratic process.

The Government of Canada has undertaken to address this through proposed amendments to the Canada Elections Act.

If passed, this legislation will break down barriers to voting and build greater integrity in our voting system. It will restore the Chief Electoral Officer’s ability to educate and inform Canadians about voting, elections and related issues. It will reinstate the practice of vouching for those who do not have the adequate identity documents. This will make it easier for Canadians to vote and make participating in our democratic process more accessible.

This legislation will remove limitations on non-resident voting and allow millions of Canadian citizens living abroad to vote in Canadian elections. I suspect this may be of interest to many of you in the room today.

Finally, the legislation proposes to allow Canadian youth from ages 14-17 to opt-in to a Registry for Future Electors, so when they turn 18, they will already be registered to vote. Providing a pre-registration process is an opportunity to promote democratic engagement amongst our future generations.

Young people today are active in their communities, on social media and on issues they care about. But they don't necessarily see the connection between their advocacy and voting. I remember one conversation I had with the Mayor’s Youth Council in Montréal this summer, where bright, ambitious and highly engaged youth told me outright: they don't vote - they do politics differently.

But voting is how we choose who governs us. It is the most precious and hard-won right we have. And it is powerful. I often tell my peers and those younger than me, that now, right now, is when their vote matters the most. Because it is the policies and laws we are putting in place today that will affect our generation for the majority of our adult lives.

This shift in attitudes is compounded by a persistent erosion of the public’s trust in politics and our democratic institutions. This is aided by a crisis in the fourth estate and the explosion of new forms of media and technology that change how we access, consume and use information to make political decisions and hold governments and elected officials to account.

The Chinese curse goes “May you live in interesting times.” But a curse can also be a blessing. Challenges bring about opportunity. Democracy in the west may be at one of its most critical and interesting junctions in modern times. How we manage this shift will define the future of our democracy.

The question that we are left with is how we will manage these “interesting times”.

At its core, I believe that democracy is based on three basic pillars:

  1. An informed and engaged citizenry;
  2. Trust in a fair process; and,
  3. Confidence that the results are accurate and transparent.

And in democracies around the world, we have seen each of these come under threat in recent times.

When it comes to an informed and engaged citizenry, there is good news for Canada: Canadians have a high level of trust in the media, as evidenced by the Abacus poll I mentioned earlier. The more disconcerting news: a majority would be unfazed if the newspaper industry collapsed.

Prior to 2015, few were thinking about foreign influence in our elections or public discourse. When we talked about the role social media played in civil society, it was in the context of the Green Revolution in Iran, the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, or the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

We could only see the incredible opportunities social media provided politicians and citizens to connect directly and form communities of like-minded people. And those positive uses still exist.

A lot has changed since then. High profile cases in countries like the United States, but also the UK, France and Germany, shifted our perspectives entirely. All of a sudden the tools that were used to strengthen civic engagement were being used to undermine, disrupt and destabilize democracy.

Foreign influence and interference has always existed in politics. What has changed is how direct the influence campaign has become. Social media platforms that are designed to connect directly to you are also enabling foreign actors to reach our citizens directly. As Peter Pomerantsev of the Guardian wrote of a handbook he found on disinformation campaigns, 'the deployment of information weapons, acts like an invisible radiation upon its targets: "the population doesn't even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn't switch on its self-defence mechanisms."

As technology expands and evolves, and social media makes it easier to communicate across the country and around the world, we must also keep in mind how these same technologies are being used to alter the conversation, impacting democratic discourse and civic participation.

As political activist Eli Pariser wrote, "It is easier than ever to hear only what you want to hear. That doesn't make a good citizen."

When algorithms and artificial intelligence choose what you see, there is a real threat of only consuming information that reaffirms your pre-existing convictions. Democracy flourishes when there is a clash of ideas and conflict of opinion. By listening and engaging with people of diverse opinions, peaceful compromise can occur. When we only read what we want to read and only engage with the topics of interest to us, we lose the foundation for this key pillar of democracy, an informed and engaged citizenry.

Mr. Pariser also notes, "The most serious political problem posed by filter bubbles is that they make it increasingly difficult to have a public argument. As the number of different segments and messages increases, it becomes harder and harder for the campaigns to track who's saying what to whom. How does a campaign know what its opponents are saying if ads are only targeted to white Jewish men between 28 and 34 who have expressed a fondness for U2 on Facebook?"

We need space for thoughtful public debate, to hear all sides, and to come up with good policy that benefits everyone.

I have to admit: my thinking on this subject has changed quite a bit since I became Minister of Democratic Institutions. I truly believe we are only beginning to scratch the surface of how the digital world is impacting real world actions.

This is crucial because our online and offline realities are becoming increasingly blurred.

I am part of the first generation that used Facebook. When Facebook launched across university campuses, I don't think any of us imagined it would play the role in people's private and public lives that it does today. And now we are confronted with a real democratic dilemma. We cannot predict how new digital communications tools will further impact and disrupt traditional democratic engagement by the time we get to Canada’s next federal election.

But this is a challenge that we cannot afford to ignore. We must ensure the principles and values of our democratic system are upheld regardless of changes in technology. As Marshall McLuhan has said, 'we shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.'

I mentioned earlier that I am an optimist. Let me share with you some of my preliminary thinking on what we can do.

First, I think it comes down to resilience amongst our people. The Government of Canada and Canadian civic organizations spend a lot of time, for good reason, promoting democracy and democratic values abroad - but we don't dedicate the same time or energy talking about democracy and citizenship at home. We take for granted that Canada has a robust democracy. But we know from examples in the Baltic states, Germany and France that the best defence against foreign influence campaigns is an active, engaged and informed citizenry.

One important area of my mandate that responds to this challenge is leading the Government of Canada’s efforts to defend the democratic process from cyber threats. As digital technologies provide us with more opportunities to connect and empower, we all know that there are those who seek to undermine or damage our democracy.  That’s why earlier this year, I asked Canada’s Communications Security Establishment to analyze and make public an assessment of the current risk of cyber threats and possible hacking of Canada’s democratic processes.

This report was the first of its kind in the world to be made public and is available to read online. It concluded that while there are no indications that nation-states have used cyber capabilities to target Canada, there are some worrisome trends and Canada is not immune. We must be vigilant.

As our Prime Minister often says, I trust Canadians. From my experience knocking on 45,000 doors during the campaign, I have confidence in the resilience of Canadians.

Second, we need to value the role of a robust media landscape. The media plays a vital role in democracy. The fourth estate is the vehicle through which citizens obtain much of the information they use to make decisions. Canadians still have high trust in our traditional media outlets, but how do we get them to see the connection between the news they trust and the need to support it? How can we help media organizations adapt to a 21st century media landscape?

Third, social media and online platforms are the new arbiters of information and therefore have a responsibility to manage their communities. They must think about their internal practices and how they are shaping political discourse and public opinion. Transparency for advertising is one step, but it is not the end game. They must work with government for greater transparency in how they conduct their business. Our democracy depends on it.

My fourth point is that government cannot do this alone. Democracy belongs to the people who form it and it is only as strong as its citizens. I firmly believe we can successfully confront this challenge, working together.

Finally, it comes down to inclusion. When citizens feel they are part of a society they are more likely to contribute. Inclusion is social, it is economic and it is political.

It is social because it means people do not feel discriminated against, it means they can fully participate without fear or shame. It is ensuring that every Canadian who has the right to vote has the possibility to vote. It is ensuring our elections are accessible to all and that there is dignity in the experience.

This is why I am currently working on amendments to make our Elections Act more accessible for people with disabilities and more dignified for citizens who do not have identification.

It is economic because if you are worried about putting food on the table, or paying for bus fare, civic engagement and voting are not on the top of your priority list. We must work to lower barriers for everyone in our society to participate.

And it is political because when people see themselves reflected in our political leadership; they see a role for themselves in the democratic process. This is why diversity is so important in representative government.

So here we are, at a crossroads globally for democracy. New technology and attitudes are disrupting business as usual. But where there are challenges, so too are there opportunities. We can confront these obstacles and succeed. But how will you contribute? What will your role be as we – as citizens – face the future of democracy in a digital world?

Thank you. Merci.

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