Institute on Governance Digital Governance Forum 2018

Speech

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

Ottawa, June 20, 2018.

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 morning!

Thank you David for that kind introduction.

I want to begin by acknowledging that we gather today on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.

I would also like to thank the Institute on Governance for this opportunity to speak with you today, and for organizing this year’s forum. I am delighted to join you again this year. I hope you will leave here with new and renewed perspectives on the importance of good governance in our ever-evolving digital world.

The focus of today’s discussion is trust. Trust is essential to a functioning democracy. But trust is a complex issue.

We know that over the longer term in Canada and around most of the world, trust in all institutions has generally declined, including trust in government.

Most worryingly, we know that while we have seen some indications of rebuilding trust, it is largely stagnating after this severe, long-term decline. As the Edelman Trust Barometer calls it, Canada is “entering a new realm in the battle for truth.”

Democracy in the West may be at its most critical junction of the post-war era. In a world of disinformation campaigns, the slow dwindling of traditional media, and with no clear monopoly on the truth, we find ourselves living in a time where the democratic model, globally, is perceived to be in decline.

I believe democracy, at its core, rests on three pillars:

  • An informed and engaged citizenry;
  • Trust in fair and transparent democratic processes; and,
  • Confidence that the results of these processes – particularly election results – are accurate.

Democracies around the world have recently seen each of these pillars come under threat.

I am an optimist. I firmly believe we can combat these challenges through an informed public with access to:

  • A variety of information sources reflecting multiple viewpoints,
  • Through a strong and supported media, and
  • With a willingness – a determination – to protect our democratic institutions and bolster the pillars of democracy.

It is important to remember our democratic institutions have withstood attacks from many sides, over many generations.

Here in Canada, I am leading efforts to ensure that we undertake a broad range of activities to address different dimensions of this multifaceted problem.

We already have the tools to fight back against those who seek to harm our democracy. Government, however, has not always been prepared to grapple with these kinds of broad, disruptive problems.

But we have seen that in times of great turmoil, Canadians rally.

Government steps up.

We already have the building blocks in place: an engaged public, a trusted media, political leadership focused on the issue, and a public desire to favour democratic decision-making over authoritarian rule.

First, it comes down to resilience amongst our people.

Building citizen resilience requires establishing a base level understanding of the threats we face. It requires educating our citizens about why our institutions are important, and why their participation is paramount.

Our security agencies do tremendous work protecting and defending Canada, Canadians, and the freedoms and values we hold dear. Last year, I asked the Communications Security Establishment – CSE – to study cyber threats to our democratic processes.

The subsequent report examined cyber threat activity against the democratic process in Canada and around the world over the past decade. We made this report public, to ensure that all Canadians could be aware of the threats we face, and have a better understanding of why government must act on this front. An updated version of this report is on track for public release in winter 2019.

Democracy is based on trust ‑ the trust of the people in the process and the outcome. When citizens feel they are part of a society, they are more likely to contribute. Inclusion is social; it is economic; it is political.

Inclusion is at the heart of Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act, which our government introduced earlier this year. This bill, if passed, will update the Canada Elections Act so it will better address the realities facing our democratic institutions in the 21st century.

By restoring voting rights to more than a million Canadian citizens living abroad, by making it easier for Canadians with disabilities to cast a ballot, and by ensuring that all Canadians who wish to do so are able to participate in our democracy, we protect, and strengthen, that trust.

This bill is now at committee, and I hope my colleagues in all parties will work swiftly to ensure it can be implemented in time for the 2019 election.

It is not just enough, however, for Canadian citizens to be resilient, if institutions do not shore up their defenses as well. Institutional resilience requires a whole-of-government – in fact, a whole-of-society – approach.

Budget 2018 allocated $500 million over five years across government departments for cyber-security efforts and enhancements, as part of the National Cyber Security Strategy announced earlier this month by my colleagues Minister Goodale and Minister Sajjan.

That amount includes funding toward the establishment and operation of the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, a cross-industry platform for the discussion of Canadian cyber-security issues at a strategic level.

Following the release of the CSE report last summer, we asked the agency to reach out to political parties to offer briefings and support, and to provide best practices to ensure data security. That outreach will continue.

The Government will continue to work with Parliament, political parties, Elections Canada, and provincial and territorial electoral officers to ensure these institutions have the resources they need to protect and defend our elections from the threats they may face.

We also must value the role of a robust media landscape.

A strong and free press, holding government to account, is essential to a healthy democracy.

Journalism performs a vital civic function.

That’s why I am so pleased our government has set aside $50 million in Budget 2018 to support local journalism here in Canada.

As social media and online platforms become the new arbiters of information, they must accept the responsibility to manage their communities. Greater transparency in advertising is a first step, but it is not the end game. Platforms must work with government toward greater transparency in how they conduct their business.

Social media platforms can no longer act as though they are without responsibility for the content on their websites.

I am calling on social media companies to address the hate speech, the fake news, the abuse, and the disinformation campaigns that take place on their platforms.

When Canadians no longer want to speak up in a public square for fear of attack – and social media is, as Cass Sunstein asserts, the new public square, the fundamental principles of our society are shaken.

Social media platforms must do better.

Our democracy depends on it.

Bullying and abuse are not the only ways social media is affecting our democracy, and Canadians’ trust in our institutions. Social media platforms designed to connect citizens directly are also enabling foreign actors to do the same.

Foreign interference has always existed in politics.

What has changed is how direct the interference campaign has become.
Earlier this month, in Charlevoix, Quebec, G7 member nations discussed the need to take action to combat such interference. The consensus was that a threat to one democracy is a threat to international peace and security and the rules-based international order.

The Charlevois Commitment on Defending Democracy From Foreign Threats notes how “Foreign actors seek to undermine our democratic societies and institutions, our electoral processes, our sovereignty and our security.”

G7 nations committed to work together toward a Rapid Response Mechanism – led by Canada – and to employ an approach “consistent with universal human rights and fundamental freedoms [and] our international commitments to peace and security, and that promotes equality.”

At home, the Elections Modernization Act, which I spoke of earlier, advances these efforts by doing what we can to combat foreign threats within our own domestic elections laws.

For example, this law will ensure third parties are subject to spending limits and not funded by foreign entities. It will compel political parties to be more transparent about their efforts to protect Canadians’ personal information and data. And it will and require corporations selling ad space to ensure they are not providing a platform for foreign interference.

Before I finish today, I want to note that it is not enough to react. We must anticipate.

The 2015 federal election was the first to see social media play such a significant role. Just in case anyone doubted this trend, the recent Ontario election shows that the impact of social media on campaigns will continue to increase.

One of my core mandates is to restore the trust Canadians have in our democratic processes and institutions.

All of the concerns I outlined today informed the proposed amendments outlined in the Elections Modernization Act, and will guide our government as we work – across federal departments – to ensure our 2019 elections are protected, defended, and secure.

But government cannot act alone. I believe we must not be mere consumers of information, but also producers of ideas. We must be engaged in finding solutions to the challenges that our democracy and its institutions face.

Democracy flourishes where there is a clash of ideas and conflict of opinion. To listen to and engage with people of diverse opinions is to facilitate peaceful compromise. When we read only what we want to read and engage only with topics of interest to us, we lose the foundation for this key pillar of democracy: an informed and engaged citizenry.

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

So here we are, 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. We can keep them at bay. We can overcome them.

Thank you.


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