Democracy, Sovereignty, and the Throne Speech That Wasn’t

We have to go back to go forward. Our power to do that is shrinking.

Foreclose. The word summarizes a feeling I have been experiencing with mounting frequency over the past several years. Another way I describe the feeling is watching a collision in slow motion. To put it in terms of my work with technology, it’s the feeling of a loss of public power every time technology takes another bite of public infrastructures, processes, and our government accountability as a whole through software, standards, or other means of corporate and commercial power. To put the word in terms of my feelings about democracy, it’s the feeling of the loss of opportunity to engage in the work of our relationships with each other, what democracy can be about, and to be explicit about it, our relationships with Indigenous Peoples. Allow me to draw a line between those two thoughts, and perhaps a line through the work that many of us do in different places towards the same end: democracy for public purpose. It’s going to be bumpy because this is new to me to try to thread this all together, so appreciate your patience and any advice on doing it better. Critique is care and I’m fully here for it on any level you have some.

Watching the throne speech last week, from the lens of a technology advocate, I was disappointed. In this moment, the disparity of internet access is acute, and commitment to resolving that issue, a future Alejandra Ruiz Vargas of ACORN imagined for us recently, would have been heartening. Beyond this, it was unfortunate to see the continued approach to technology being dreamt of in the shadows of the “web giants.” Rather than draw out and make big and beautiful the technology approach the country will take, the response was to continue to allow our digital society to be a reaction to a handful of US companies, and to mitigate their impact by looking for some of their money. Michael Geist has been a much-needed sanity check on the wrong-mindedness of what was proposed. Without a positive vision for what Canada wants to be in a digital era, it’s likely we will continue along with what we’re doing now — being on the defensive, mitigating accelerating power that appears to be institutionally poorly understood.

Each of the large technology companies is different, and as a result, their impact on policy is different. The effects of Amazon on local retail is very different from the effects of Facebook on hate speech which again is very different from the effects of Google and Apple writing requirements for public health infrastructure. Lumping them together sorely misunderstands the problem and pulls everyone further down the wrong road because they’re calling it technology instead of the various topical subcomponents being impacted. To follow on those examples: economic development, white supremacy, public health. In each of these three example domains, public power to define how policy works is being reduced week after week in small but persistent ways, many of them hard to track. It’s done through tech standards and requirements, it’s also done through products used in schools and libraries, corporate certifications, work with and funding of non-profits, higher education, and more. The influence of large technology companies on our society is persistent in ways that a tax has nothing to do with.

Now to take this thread and turn it to the word foreclose again. As with Sidewalk Toronto, the pernicious larger issue is the slide from public to corporate influence on democratic governance writ large. In the Sidewalk Toronto case, I would write often about local democracy, and the need to defend and protect it. I argued that what Sidewalk Labs was ultimately selling us was fear — fear that our governments couldn’t do their job. What I didn’t say as often out loud - but had to sit with inside my head — was how indefensible our democracy is. This is and was a major vulnerability we continue to face today.

Of course government isn’t doing its job for all of us, and we have to ask ourselves who amongst us is letting that status quo stay the way it is, for we are the government. For many of us, when we hear someone saying “but democracy” we can rightly say “this democracy supports: state violence against those seeking their treaty rights, anti-Black racism, unaccountable police, rampant poverty, environmental degradation, the list goes on”. In other words, arguments for democracy don’t resonate for many. And for good reason. This democracy wasn’t designed for everyone. Or as some like to say, it’s not broken, it was designed this way. To which I say, we can and must keep redesigning it.

My personal experience with democracy from an electoral perspective has never been comfortable. The way both federal and provincial partisan politics *and* local politics demands people participate in something that ends up like grotesque sport is a travesty given the stakes and importance. For this reason, after years of not feeling particularly moved by it, I’m backing ranked ballots in the City of Toronto. The deadlock of the current political situation is not tenable. I encourage you to support them too if you live in Toronto — you can sign this petition and learn more about why they’re a good idea at RaBIT — the Ranked Ballot Initiative for Toronto. But all up, whether local or national, the incentive to participate in this democracy from an electoral perspective isn’t only low, but our democracy itself is shaky in ways that will never be resolved unless we go back to go forward. Because sovereignties.

In order to be able to go back to the unresolved issues in our current democracy, we have to keep the power we have and not lose it to corporate interests. This is the crux of the foreclosure I dread. I’m not fighting to defend democracy because the status quo is defensible. It’s not. I’m fighting to not further foreclose the chance — and it’s far from guaranteed to happen — but the opportunity — to use our democracy to address our history. Because capital and corporate power have no accountability to us. No reason to go back to our domestic issues for resolution. Capital has no interest in justice.

“Paper money threads” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I go in circles often. And the one circle I go in every two years like clockwork is arriving back at the knowledge that without changes to our education system we’re not going to get to better futures. As Chelsea Vowel explains succinctly in a chapter of Indigenous Writes about The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: “This country is woefully ignorant on a grand scale, and we will never succeed in rebuilding relationships until we address this ignorance. I can’t stress this enough: without education, there can be no justice, and until there is justice, there will be no peace.” (Vowel, Chelsea, “Indigenous Rights, p 230.)

Vowel writes about a major point of the Commission’s work and I share it to stress it as a vital entry point to this education, from the 1996 report: “The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong” (Paul L. Chartrand, et al., “A Word from Commissioners,” Highlights From the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: People to People, Nation to Nation (Ottawa, 1996)).

What we’re doing through policy in Canada isn’t right. It has to change.

What you don’t see or hear often enough is leadership — the throne speech as a perfect moment — to teach about the opportunity sitting latent in our history. To take this recent history and the outcomes of this Commission’s work and act. To teach us what our roles are in treaty relationships. To take our history and start to retell it with honesty and with enthusiasm for the different paths we can all commit to walking from here. These paths aren’t known to many of us that don’t know our history. The ideas and worldviews and concept of nation to nation relations have no quick path in our minds and our mouths. There are ideas that don’t translate properly across languages, and worldviews to learn about to address this. There is much translation work to do and much broader history to correct and build from. A leader would commit to that education. The leader of a democracy called Canada could do that. But didn’t.

Consider human rights and public health. These are places we can and should assert our political will towards security and safety for all, regardless of the economics of addressing those needs. Using our political rights in such a way is an obligation of democracy if we want to make it one. When the Sidewalk ordeal started, I had the good luck to discuss some of my emotions with Molly Sauter who explained to me that the name for what was getting to me was US imperialism. I was talking to them about the strange place I was in arguing for Canada in ways my politics generally hadn’t gone. And was it ever helpful to be given words for that process. In the same track, it became easier for me to understand why sovereignty, our capacity to define and enforce what does happen within the boundaries of what we call Canada, matters. Words beyond loose democracy started to connect. It was all starting to attach sovereignty to democracy in a way I hadn’t viscerally understood before.

If we want to do better on the lands we live on, we have to hold onto the power that is public rather than private. For only then can we turn around and use it to address and do better by the shaky sovereignty we have and understand and support the sovereignties others have. Without that power, if it gets further foreclosed through technology (which is the trend we’re on), that work gets harder to do. I hope this thread — from tech to public power to sovereignty to reconciliation — is one that we can use to place work done at each part in the chain in closer relation to the next part.

There is more to be said about how funding all the necessary infrastructures in the country, from physical to social, greatly reduces the risk of corporate and state tech power — but unfortunately I don’t see that happening in the immediate term and as such this thread between what has to be protected in order to hold power for what has to be done next seems a thread worth staying on. Giving tech too much power is a big mistake, thinking the world is being remade in tech’s image and that we should define the future by it, all of this is nonsense. But we don’t appear to have to give it for them to take it. And it’s happening. So onwards in doing several things at once and hopefully seeing each other in all of the related work.

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