Democracy for whom?

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

How equity in public engagement can strengthen the democratic process.

By Claudia Goodine

Joel Harnest boarded the plane from Vancouver not knowing what to expect for the next few days. The QMUNITY facilitator was hired by the Yukon government to lead a widespread public engagement with LGBTQ2S+ people on needed policy improvements.

He knew what motel he’d be staying at, and knew he had a contact in each of the rural or remote Yukon communities he’d be visiting, but that was about it.

Just show up, he was told, with no agenda, no script, no pointed questions on policy, no scheduled meetings.

It felt a little jarring against familiar professional norms he was used to that included back to back meetings geared at specific outcomes, but he reminded himself step one of his mission was to meet people and to listen.

“It just melted a lot of the professional standards that I have in my head that actually don't serve a community very well,” he says, “because you know, they're not professional advocates, they're not professional activists, they're not professional community engagement facilitators: they're people.”

At lunch breaks and informal gatherings at schools and restaurants he spoke with youth and adults about what it was like being an LGBTQ2S+ person living in a small rural community. The time he spent hearing their stories meant they showed up when he returned a year later to hold formal discussions at community centres about what the territorial government needed to do to better protect LGBTQ2S+ people from discrimination and help them thrive in their communities.

“Being able to kind of meet them where they're at and not put any expectation or burden on them to serve x, y, z purpose, but just to be in relationship proved a powerful act, and paid dividends when we needed to roll up our sleeves, get to work and start to lobby the government to make some changes.”

The six-month pre-engagement and relationship-building formed a key step in QMUNITY’s successful outreach - one of several case studies that informed the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s Beyond Inclusion: Equity in Public Engagement guide. Co-created with people and community groups typically under-represented in political decision-making, the guide highlights real-world case studies and eight principles to support meaningful public engagement grounded in equity.

Our own consultation and engagement process to create the guide provided learning opportunities to check biases we didn’t even know we had. Through feedback on our first draft, we heard strongly that focusing on the need for better inclusion in public engagements wasn’t enough and overlooked an important question: who is including whom?

Beyond inclusion: the need for equity

Canada’s legacy of colonialism, racism, ableism and discrimination against a range of marginalized groups continues to generate devastating social and economic impacts today, creating barriers to participating in important conversations and policy decisions.

Black and Indigenous people face higher rates of food insecurity in Canada, which impacts 12.7% of the general population but as high as 28.2% of Indigenous Peoples and 28.9% of Black Canadians, according to new research by the non-profit Community Food Centres Canada. People of colour face higher rates of unemployment, earning less than white Canadians, with women of colour earning just 59 cents for every dollar earned by white men, according to the most recent Census data outlined in a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“Social inequities impede participation in democracy: it’s nice to have freedom of expression, but if you don't have access to clean water or food there can be no adequate participation,” describes a participant in one of seven focus groups that informed the Beyond Inclusion guide.

Equity in public engagement requires designing a process that distributes resources and opportunities for participation in a way that responds to historic and ongoing disadvantages faced by marginalized groups. That can mean hiring more staff to do successful outreach and putting time, money and resources into finding out what’s needed by the community to make engagement accessible through honorariums, food, travel subsidies or childcare.

Ginger Gosnell-Myers, Indigenous Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue, has decades of experience as a public engagement consultant with a focus on Decolonization and Urban Indigenous Planning. She says organizations that don’t put equity at the heart of an engagement process end up running into the same problems with unusable outcomes that don’t have community buy-in.

“What we have in the absence of an equity lens is a generic process that will only engage privileged voices,” says Gosnell-Myers, who helped create the Beyond Inclusion guide.

“A system designed based on only privileged voices creates deep inequities and harms for everyone else.”

Take housing policy in Canada’s largest city, the metropolis of Toronto, for example. The city acknowledges homeowners over 55 tend to dominate conversations about city planning leaving the voices of 18-30 year olds, the fastest-growing demographic in some parts of the city, drowned out. Toronto urban planner Cheryl Case argues lack of representation has meant a history of housing policy that’s geared towards homeowners and made it challenging for lower-income single women to find homes.

Only 10 per cent of Canadians felt they were provided with opportunities to participate in government-led public consultations in 2017, according to the Privy Council Office.

Strengthening democracy in Canada requires more than encouraging greater inclusion and creating more seats at the table of power. It requires people having the power to rearrange the table and to feel, and be treated, like they belong.

Belonging strengthens democracy

Marginalized people have a long history of being treated as though they don’t belong in Canada. Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, women, people of colour, people who identify as LGBTQ2S+ and people with disabilities have had to fight for basic rights and to even be considered “persons'' in the eyes of the law. Many have experienced harms at the hands of governments that were meant to protect them, but instead broke their trust.

“Uprisings that we see across North America in regards to Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights and Indigenous land back movements, stem from the fact that these are two populations that have always been pushed outside of any decision-making process and were seen as disposable communities,” says Gosnell-Myers.

QMUNITY’s work in the Yukon highlights the importance of relationship-building as a first step for engaging with communities that have faced harm by governments, institutions and people in positions of power. Harnest describes how in this case it helped to have a third-party be taking the lead on building trust. The first six months of pre-engagement with LGBTQ2S+ people was necessary because people needed time and space to feel heard.

“When we think about community engagements and making them equitable spaces, you need to know the history of what's happened in that room before you've entered into that room,” he says.

Some of the principles highlighted in our guide that help build trust and ensure equitable engagement include forgoing a predetermined goal or outcome, early proactive planning, dedicating time and resources to relationship-building and establishing respectful relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

Acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ ancestral ties to the land, their inherent rights and the impact of past and present-day colonialism when engaging with Indigenous Peoples or communities living on Indigenous territories is especially important to an equity-based approach in Canada given a history of systemic oppression and our country’s moral obligation to move toward reconciliation.

To meet a true commitment to equity means an engagement process often needs an extra six months at the start, says Gosnell-Myers.

“A project where an equity lens is absolutely vital is often seen as a difficult project or as a project that doesn't deserve resources or time,” she says, “but in the larger scheme of government priorities or institutional priorities, when we're talking about economic projects they're given whatever they want or whatever they need in order to get off the ground. So we do have a history of providing additional time and resources to projects in this country.”