Scotland, Quebec and Sovereignty

September 19th, 2014 by CIVIX

This week in school, we spoke a lot about sovereignty. It wasn’t based on the upcoming referendum in Scotland, it’s just the place from which you start when discussing politics.

Every single politics class for the last three years of my degree has discussed sovereignty in some way during the first few weeks. This week it was International Public Law, where we discussed Kosovo’s independence. During Theories of Security, we debated if sovereignty and security were the only defining goals of a State. In European Comparative Politics, we saw when the boundaries of States were definitively drawn through our outline of history since the enlightenment.

That being said, I was very nervous about yesterday’s independence referendum in Scotland. Large political events generally make me anxious. However, this sense of nervousness was more about the fact that the precedence of a nationalistic political split could have been a catalyst for more secessionist movements, including Catalonia, in Spain, and of course, Quebec, in Canada. The successful and recognized split of a nation, especially in a western democracy, could provide a domino effect for powerful nationalistic politics to come into play, and perhaps launch more campaigns focused on referendums and the separation of these nations from their States.

So, I breathed a sigh of relief when the BBC alerted me this morning to the fact that Scotland voted ‘No’ and would remain a part of the United Kingdom. Though I believe that nationhood is important, the changes needed in order to function as a sovereign State may be a farther reach than two years’ away for Scotland. Their people voted with a strong margin against separation, with 55 per cent voting ‘No,’ which seems like an incredibly safe number when compared to Quebec’s slim 50.58 per cent, which narrowly kept the province part of Canada.

This vote has been a turning point for Scotland. Prime Minister David Cameron’s remarks after the results repeated his commitment to moving towards more independence and devolution for Scotland’s politics and people. But, no matter the result, the referendum brought back the important discussion of sovereignty to the forefront of politics. It is not often discussed as a concept outside the confines of a political science lecture, but for the sake of cultural and historical nations, maybe it should be.

In many cases, nations can bridge their history, cultures, and differences through continued advocacy, awareness, and devolution. That way, perhaps the issues plaguing nations within States can come to discussion, negotiation, and solution, without having to redraw maps based on precarious margins.

Megan Beretta is a former CIVIX intern who currently studies Political Science and Communication at The University of Ottawa. She is currently studying abroad at the Euro-American Campus of Sciences Po in Reims, France. You can follow Megan on Twitter at @megberetta.

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Guest Blog: Democracy and Dictatorship 101

August 27th, 2014 by CIVIX

During my graduate degree in political science, I took a bunch of courses about international relations (now more often called “global affairs”). Talking about global governance, global affairs, or international relations unfortunately usually involves talking about war, conflict, and inequality, not peace and harmony.

People have different motivations for getting involved in academia, but my understanding is that the goal of the social sciences is to understand, and then advocate for positive change. For something like politics or the global economy, I figure that if the factors at play are difficult to understand objectively anyway (thanks to an inability, for example, to study and measure society in perfect laboratory conditions), why not use the knowledge we do have to try to achieve things that lessen the suffering in the world?

But first, the understanding part. It may not be perfect, but we have to do what we can to understand the behaviour of human beings in large groups, taking into consideration countries’ socio-economic and historical realities, leadership inclinations, and relationship with other nations with whom we share this planet.

One of the courses I took was called “Democracy and Dictatorship.” In it, we discussed the incredibly broad themes of the two ends of the modern political spectrum, with the obvious assumption that one system of government is better than the other. Either concept could easily make up several year-long courses on its own so we stuck to the basics and looked at some of the most well-known dictatorships from the last hundred years or so and asked ourselves what caused them. We looked at that more than the causes of democracy.

We analyzed different dictatorships and debated their causality. One memorable debate we had was about the success of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as that country’s chancellor-turned-dictator, which resulted in a massive global war and one of largest human death tolls in the world’s history. We split ourselves into teams and debated the causes we thought were the best explanations. Were the primary causes structural (i.e. national economy doing poorly, divisive politics, damaged public institutions, remarkably strong civil society)? What role did the stratified economic and labour class system play? Or was Hitler’s charismatic personality and individual agency the unique explanation?

One hopes that if we truly isolate and understand causes, together we can get better at recognizing and maybe even preventing the development of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the first place. How hard can it be?

Gilleen Witkowski

Gilleen has a Master’s degree in political science, specializing in international relations, from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She works in communications, doing media relations and campaign organizing in the health and human rights non-profit sector. Gilleen also blogged for us last year.

Want to learn more about democracy, dictatorships and the Canadian electoral system? Check out our series of four educational videos created for the 2014 Ontario provincial election.

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Kim Campbell reflects on being Canada’s first woman prime minister

November 7th, 2013 by CIVIX

The Right Honourable Kim Campbell served as the Prime Minister of Canada from June 25 to November 4, 1993. This past Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the end of her time in office. Megan Beretta, a CIVIX volunteer and University of Ottawa student, attended a panel that included Campbell this week.

On Wednesday, November 6, the University of Ottawa played host to The Right Honourable Kim Campbell, the first female Prime Minister of Canada. The event was held due to a partnership between uOttawa’s Women in Leadership Speaker Series and the national political organization Equal Voice.

The former Prime Minister spoke about a variety of topics. She discussed the benefits of having women in management roles, and how equality in leadership is not about women being “better,” but about women making the organizations better, as they bring half of the world’s talents, perspectives, and skills to the table, when given the chance to contribute. Quoting statistics and research from the field, she proved that women make a difference in breaking up the norms in societal structures, and make a difference to the monotonous “group think” that occurs in organizations lacking diversity.

Kim Campbell

Alongside Campbell on the panel were other female politicians: Penny Collenette, former National Director of the Liberal Party of Canada and current uOttawa Professor of Law, as well as the 22-year-old Member of Parliament, Laurin Liu, of the riding of Rivière-de-Mille-Îles.

Campbell praised the feminist “movers and shakers,” like Liu, who continue to pursue equality, with the assistance of their teammates: male feminists. The struggle is not about women versus men, rather between men and women who “get it” versus the ones who don’t get it, she stated emphatically. She finished her speech with an anecdote: her colleague made her get specialized stationary that used the French female form of her title, proudly stating “La Premiere Ministre” on the letter head. “It’s in some box, likely over in Langevin Block,” she said, “and before it gets too old, too yellowed, it needs to be used again.” Thunderous applause erupted across the room to that call to action.

The panel that followed her moving speech included questions from Liu and Collenette who added anecdotes, and used their experiences to ask pointed questions. The prime minister discussed her legacy, which is often forgotten amongst the discussion of her short tenure, and the immense changes for her party that were occurring before, during, and after her time in office.

Many citizens may not realize her remarkable contributions, and thusly, her legacy in Canada. Besides from being Canada’s first, and so far only, female prime minister, Campbell was the very first female leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, the first female Minister of Defence and Minister of Justice, along with having held other significant portfolios throughout her time in Parliament. In her time as prime minister, she created important and enduring ministries, like the Department of Heritage and the Department of Public Security.

During Ms. Campbell’s tenure as Prime Minister in 1993, she had an approval rate of 51 per cent, which made her the most popular leader of the country in 30 years. Campbell spoke with great candour, humour, and resilience. She discussed the infamous negative ad campaigns, and what it feels like to lose everything for herself, and her party. The setbacks never got to her, not 20 years ago, and not today. Her perspective is admirable, as she proclaimed: “I don’t pretend I was the greatest Prime Minister. But I do have a legacy. I am the first woman Prime Minister, and that is a reflection of change in Canada.”

Posted in Famous Canadians in Democracy, Guest Blogs, News | 1 Comment »

The Voting Thrill

October 3rd, 2013 by CIVIX

Fourteen and a half million ballots were cast in the 2011 federal election. Turnout was slightly higher than the 2008 election (a record low of 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots), but that isn’t saying much. For whatever reason (and there are many: apathy, ignorance, inconvenience, protest) almost half of Canadians didn’t stop by their local polling station to tick a box and participate in one of the most direct actions our democracy offers us.

Even though more of us voted in 2011, one statistic has remained steady over the past decade. As a block, young people vote less often than older people. In fact, the older you are, the more likely you are to vote, until around age 75. Presumably, as people age, we settle down a bit more, learn more about the political system, and perhaps get ideas about how we can make politics work to our advantage.

Politicians usually don’t have to fret much about the concerns and priorities of the youngest adults among us, because usually, at this century’s 18- to 24-year-old voter turnout rate, the youth vote is not the deciding factor in elections. But those running for office shouldn’t get too comfortable, because political climates change and youth can mobilize quickly. Look at how the student strike and youth protests led to the defeat of Premier Jean Charest during the 2012 Quebec provincial election!

Even though the turnout rate is lower, around 40 per cent of young people still vote. Why? Many older people hold voting in high regard, sometimes because they came from countries with corrupt or non-existing elections, and therefore appreciate now what they couldn’t have before. That feeling is hard to understand or appreciate without first-hand experience.

Voting can be tough. When elections are called, we must prepare for the barrage of phone calls, emails, and door-to-door visits from political candidates and teams of volunteers. Signs are everywhere. News reports on visions and values, debates, and scandals seem never-ending. On election day we must find the time to line up at whatever church, community centre, or school is serving as the polling station. It can be exhausting!

And I love it. Voting is a thrill. I can’t help silently watching those in line with me. A sense of pride wells within me. I am grateful that we are getting through this so peacefully (there are many unfortunate millions around the world who face terrible violence and conflict at the polls).

When it’s my turn, I show my ID to receive my ballot, and nervously make my way to the curtained booth to anonymously tick the boxes for whomever I choose. I usually take a moment to myself to think about how great this is: one person, one vote. (But not too long of a moment – those lines do get long!) Then I fold my ballot, stuff it into the ballot box and briefly enjoy a sense of duty fulfillment. I highly recommend it.

Gilleen Witkowski

Gilleen has a Master’s degree in political science, specializing in international relations, from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She works in communications, doing media relations and campaign organizing in the health and human rights non-profit sector.

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Guest Blog: Student Voice Initiative

July 22nd, 2013 by CIVIX

Leah Bae is an eighteen-year old undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and a TD National Scholarship for Community Leadership recipient. 

 

What is student voice? Student voice is the “wish, choice, or opinion openly or formally expressed” by a “scholar or learner who attends a school” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Student voice is “giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts, and principles” (Wikipedia). Student voice is “the individual and collective perspectives and actions of young people within the context of learning and education” (Sound Out).

According to a 2007 Statistics Canada report, youth under 19 comprise around 24 per cent of the Canadian population. Assuming a standard 9-month school year with 8:30 am to 3 pm days, students spend an average of 1,270 hours a year, or 16,510 hours from K to 12 in school.

Now, let’s take a look at how decisions that directly affect students are made in schools. Whether it is expanding math curriculum or shortening lunchtime breaks, these decisions are made by adult administrators. At the Board of Education level, many stakeholders are consulted – associations of teachers, parents, and administrators, to name a few. Students make up 99 per cent of the education system and are its main constituents, yet they are not consulted like the other stakeholders are.

Ontario found a solution to this problem in 1998 when the provincial government legislated student trustees to sit at all Board of Education tables in all school districts across the province. These trustees are senior students who are democratically elected for a 1-2 year term by their school district’s students and responsible for representing their voices at the Board tables. New Brunswick has also had student representatives sit at each Board of Education since 2009.

The Ontario Student Trustees’ Association / l’Association des élèves conseillers et conseillères de l’Ontario (OSTA-AECO) serves as the consultative group in education decisions in the province. Over the past twelve years, student trustees have been able to implement policies that eliminated bottled water in schools, made the collection of student activity fees more transparent, urged schools to act on cyber bullying, and more. Recognizing that student trustees are a platform for success in all aspects of education, positive influences from OSTA-AECO have spread across the country to ignite a student voice movement.

In British Columbia, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) works closely with its official student stakeholder group at the Vancouver District Students’ Council (VDSC). Under the VDSC’s recommendation in May 2012, the VSB will be allocating a seat for a student trustee at its Board table this fall. The Sunshine Coast School Board followed suit and will be adding both a student trustee and a district student council for the trustee to liaise with. In Alberta, the Edmonton Public School Board awaits its fall session to motion for student trustees to join them as well.

It is exciting to watch youth voice become noticeably more recognized in policy-making tables across the country. Cities are creating municipal youth advisory councils, organizations are adding youth representatives, and governments are looking for youth consultation in their decision-making processes. We are moving towards an era of inclusion for youth. The importance of student voice is being recognized throughout the world – but are the seemingly sought out students’ voices truly being heard?

Student Voice Initiative

At Student Voice Initiative (SVI), the goal is to ensure that student voice receives tangible representation in district school boards across the nation. Student trustees help implement effective student change because they have a direct presence in the very midst of policy-making processes. They act as transmitters and barriers for social change makers and youth apathy, respectively.

Behind each student trustee is a democratically elected district student council. Similar to how student trustees represent a district council, a council represents the students of each high school in the school district. A student trustee does not act in individual pursuits but as a spokesperson for their constituents. This student voice framework demonstrates the very best of active citizenship; every student has a role to play in this hands-on civic education.

Student voice is becoming a pillar of education. It is our job to ensure that this pillar is erected resiliently so it does not fall as a consequence of hasty construction.

You can follow Student Voice Initiative on Twitter at @StudentVoiceI. Join the movement at www.studentvoicei.org.

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