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Katherine Fierlbeck is Professor of Political Science at Dalhousie University. She is the author of The Development of Political Thought in Canada (2005) and Political Thought in Canada: An Intellectual History (2006). Her book Globalizing Democracy will be re-issued as a second edition in 2008.
What is democracy, and what, if anything, is distinctive about Canadian democracy? Modern democracy has evolved too far to be explained in terms of an engaged rule by the citizenry; few voters are convinced that their individual actions are particularly important except in a symbolic sense. Democracy is, more ephemerally, the desire of a citizenry to prevent or to limit any overarching coercive authority; to protect or improve their material living conditions through stability, transparency, and a sense of mutual dependence; and to elicit from government and fellow citizen alike the recognition that each of us are important in ways that ought to be acknowledged by all. Canadian democracy is a particularly precarious attempt to balance popular sovereignty, social diversity, and political stability; and to do so within an increasingly complex world.
The first problem of democracy arises from its success: as democracy increasingly becomes the accepted criterion of legitimate governance, there is less agreement on what democracy does, or ought to, mean. It is simple to observe that there are many workable forms of democracy: they can be based upon the principle of responsible government (Britain, Canada) or the separation of powers (United States); first-past-the-post or proportional representation; unitary or federal systems; and the supremacy of constitutional or parliamentary sovereignty. The best political systems, as the French philosopher Montesquieu observed, are those which embrace the distinctive cultural features of the nation; and yet not all social norms (such as paternal authority or caste systems) can or ought to be amiably accepted by democratic states.
The second problem of democracy lies in our desire to see it as a means of eliminating conflict. To the contrary, democracy by definition must always be the subject of political disagreement and even discord. That is its function: to seek out the most strident conflicts within a polity in order to try to contain them. Even in the most stringently-defined understanding of what a democratic state must be, the purpose of democracy is not to de-politicize society, but to promote a political awareness and maturity that, ideally, will ensure that the citizenry can prevent the establishment of coercive authority upon it. The very point of democracy is to achieve a balance between political apathy, which can lead to the concentration of power by a few, and open conflict, which undermines any coherent form of political authority altogether. It must impart on citizens a sense of political empowerment, yet it must also limit and restrain them from acting too enthusiastically on their sense of political entitlement. All this assumes, too, that democratic values form the ground-rules of political engagement for all citizens; yet when particular social or religious values are given more import than democratic ones, political frictions increase accordingly. Modern democracy, from the grand experiments of eighteenth-century France and America, has been the attempt to turn passive subjects into active citizens. Given the exponential growth in the sheer number of voices demanding to be heard, the issue upon us now is whether they can be contained in a form of democratic dialogue, or simply erode into cacaphony.