Democracy 250 is a non-profit, non-partisan body created by an Act of the
Nova Scotia Legislature with the unanimous support of all parties to plan
celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of the first representative
government in Nova Scotia and Canadas first parliamentary democracy. This
article looks at how and why Nova Scotia is marking the event.
When Canadas first parliamentary assembly met on October 2, 1758 in a
small wooden building in Halifax it was a modest beginning to Canadian
democracy. The first elected assembly consisted of 19 men all white,
all Protestant, all property owners. The significance of the event was
captured in a 1912 editorial in the Times of London. The Nova Scotia Assembly
was the beginning of that great development which has given us the free
nations of the Commonwealth. And as Author Archibald MacMechen wrote View
it in whatever light you will that meeting of 19 men was a memorable
event. It meant the planting of free political institutions in what is
It was democracy in its infancy. Something that would grow and evolve into
something much bigger as Nova Scotia later adopted responsible government
and freedom of the press, two hallmarks of modern democracy and two more
proud firsts for Nova Scotia.
We were also the first province in Canada to establish a Supreme Court.
In fact, we established the first Supreme Court in North America. So the
four pillars of Canadian freedom, the executive and legislative branches
of government, the judiciary and freedom of the press were all Nova Scotia
firsts. Nova Scotia is THE place in Canada that shaped the course of Canadian
We mark the anniversary of representative government with a celebration
every 50 years. Let me read what Lieutenant Governor Fraser wrote on the
Here first in the great Kingdom now forming the homeland and beyond the
seas men met to deliberate as a parliament on questions affecting the land
in which they lived. Not, it is true, with the same power, freedom and
responsibility as now, but still a meeting of free men representing free
men. That they and all who came after them played their parts honourably,
unselfishly and patriotically till the fullest responsible government became
ours, none will now deny. In the future our children, our grandchildren,
will certainly again celebrate this great epoch in our history.
Just as Lieutenant Governor Fraser predicted we are once again celebrating
this important milestone in our nations history.
Is it necessary to celebrate democracy? I think so and so do many others.
As Joseph Howe, a proud Nova Scotian, great Canadian and father of the
free press in Canada once said ....a wise nation preserves its records,
gathers up its muniments, decorates the tombs of its illustrious dead,
repairs its great public structures and fosters national pride and love
of country by perpetual reference to the sacrifices and glories of the
Beyond simply recognizing a significant national milestone, there is another
important reason for celebrating democracy. We need to remind ourselves,
and young people in particular, that democracy is important that voting
and civic engagement are important and that together they are at the
core of our Canadian freedoms?
Why do we need to remind Canadians of something so obvious? Because the
numbers tell us we should. Voter participation in national, provincial
and municipal general elections has been on a steady decline since our
soldiers returned home after World War II. Look at voter turnout in the
most recent Ontario general election. Even though the pundits had predicted
a close race barely 50 percent of eligible voters turned out at the polls.
In a recent by-election in my home province the newspapers were happily
reporting that there was a 44 percent turnout. And in a recent municipal
council by-election again in Nova Scotia less than 12 percent of voters
turned out in an election with four candidates vying for the job.
When you think about these numbers, you get an appreciation for how few
people actually determine who will represent them and who will speak for
Statistics show and studies conclude that the main reason for this is young
people are shunning the ballot box in huge numbers. In fact, in most elections,
there is less than a 25 percent turnout rate for youth under 25. In the
last federal election more than 1.2 million young Canadians between the
ages of 18 to 25 years of age did not vote.
I have no doubt that young people cherish their freedoms as much as anyone
else. And I have no doubt they believe in free enterprise and are grateful
for the rule of law which protects all of us.
What is puzzling as well as troubling is that while I know todays
youth care deeply about the issues issues such as the environment, education,
human rights, social justice, poverty more and more of them are choosing
not to exercise the one right that guarantees all others the right to vote.
Many are not connecting all they have with democracy.
Instead they use other means to make their political views known purchasing
power being one example. Youth have no hesitation in expressing themselves
practically every day on the internet, through You-tube, blogs and on Facebook.
They know what they believe in and, perhaps more so than any other generation
before them, express it freely yet they are still not voting. So what
is the answer? How do we stop or reverse declining youth participation?
Democracy 250 believes it starts with getting more young people actively
involved in their communities. And when more people get involved...when
more people vote the stronger our democracy will be the stronger our
province and country will be. Two Hundred and Fifty years ago, Nova Scotia
won the right to shape its destiny and with that victory we helped shape
the destiny of others.
Freedom exists here because Canadians believe in democracy. We believe
in the power and potential of every individual to use their talents, strengthens
and abilities in a way that will make things better for everyone.
I do not think anyone better described what it means to be a Canadian with
the power of the vote than John George Diefenbaker. Mr. Diefenbaker said
this in the House of Commons on July 1st, 1960 the day the bill was tabled
to establish the Bill of Rights.
I am a Canadian. A free Canadian. Free to speak without fear. Free to worship
God in my own way. Free to stand for what I think is right. Free to choose
those who shall govern my country.
I wonder what Mr. Diefenbaker would think about the state of democracy
in Canada today. I am sure he would agree that by most standards it is
strong. I also think that by past standards it is showing signs of distress.
It is showing us that voter turnout is at an all time low and voter apathy
and cynicism at an all time high. And it is showing us that in the grand
comfort of a great country where no one is dropping bombs on us and where
free enterprise abounds, the rule of law prevails and individual freedoms
are protected we might be taking things for granted.
Democracy, free enterprise and all of the other freedoms it provides us
do not exist by decree. They take the interest and active engagement of
all of our citizens. And when you consider how easy it is to participate
in the voting process in our country and compare it to elsewhere, it makes
you wonder why so many Canadians do not vote. We get the morning paper
delivered to our door. We can turn on the evening news or log on to the
internet to get the latest political news. Freedom of the press allows
us to be informed. And it takes just minutes to vote.
A former colleague of mine recently told me that he went to Africa to monitor
elections in a country that almost 250 years after we had the right to
vote was just introduced to democracy. He spoke of a woman who stood with
her four small children in the blazing sun for hours on end just to get
the chance to vote.
It is an image that brings to my mind just how fortunate and grateful I
am to live in a country where voting is easy and where the power of every
man and womans vote carries the same weight. As a former politician I
also know and understand that there is a lot of public distrust and cynicism
when it comes to politics and politicians. Many believe that voting does
not matter and that politics is a waste of time and that all politicians
are in it for themselves.
Politics is not easy. There are far more demands than there are dollars
to meet them. Far more complex issues than there are easy answers to fix
them. But, by and large, my experience has been the vast majority of those
who enter public life do so with the best interests of others at heart
and most do the best they can. Democracy is not always pretty and it is
usually quite slow, but over time, it gets the job done.
Cynicism, distrust and apathy are poor excuses for not voting. If we do
not trust, like or agree with our MP, MLA or municipal councillor the
vote is ours to change things for the better. Rest assured, the lobbyists
will vote, the special interest groups will vote and the political partisans
will vote. The future of our country should not and must not be left to
them and them alone. It should rest with all of us collectively, rich,
poor, black, white, Christian, Muslim or Jew, gay, straight, old and young.
As Aristotle said, democracy will work better when more people work for
democracy. That is why beyond the celebrations beyond the fireworks and
the floats beyond the concerts and ceilidhs we are planning for the year
ahead, Democracy 250 wants to reach out and re-engage young Canadians in
the democratic process.
In March we launched a youth campaign called D250:MakeYour Mark. Recently
we held the first of eight youth town hall meetings where high school students
gathered to participate in a mock election and to discuss issues of concern
We wanted to remind them that our freedoms, and the freedoms they enjoy
today, came at great cost. That their grandfathers and grandmothers, great
grandfathers and great grandmothers, made too often the ultimate sacrifice
for them to live in a country that embraces the freedoms that so many others
in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, Iran and Iraq are fighting for and dying
We want to remind them that even now their fathers and mothers, sisters
and brothers, aunts and uncles are putting their lives at risk to secure
the freedoms of others and to make our world and country safer.
And we want to remind them that if they want to change things for the better
for their generation they need to stand up and speak out on election day,
even better, become actively involved in the political process.
It will not be easy. I certainly do not expect to see things turn around
over night. But hopefully through this special anniversary year with its
focus on democracy we can start something in our province that just as
we did 250 years ago will evolve into something much bigger.
Can we stop or reverse declining voter participation? I think so, but not
without help. It will take the efforts of many. It will take hard work
on the part of todays parents, teachers, politicians, community, business
and religious leaders. It will take the enthusiastic support of young Canadians,
and there are many who agree that voter apathy cannot be allowed to erode,
pick away at or undermine the democratic freedoms that our forefathers
established and that our veterans stood firm to protect.
To that end, I hope that all politicians do their part to help out. Many
of you are parents most of you are brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles
to someone younger whom you can sit down with and talk about politics.
The benefits, according to a recent article in the journal PS: Political
Science and Politics published by the American Political Science Association
Evidence suggesting that the growth of civic roots in adolescence may be
crucial to the long-term development of citizenship has stimulated research
into factors that might influence civic development during this time. One
interesting finding to emerge from that exploration is the apparent importance
of discussion to the development of civic competence. Adolescents who discuss
politics with their parents, peers, or teachers tend to score higher than
other youth on measures of civic behaviour ,attitude and skills. They develop
higher levels of political knowledge, show greater intention to vote in
the future and do better on a range of civic outcomes...
Positively impacting voter turnout, particularly among youth will take
more than fireworks and floats during a special year of celebration. It
will take more than speeches from former politicians. It will take everyone
to sit down with at least one young person and remind them of all that
they have, all that has been sacrificed and all that needs to be protected.
Let me close with a quote from another former Prime Minister and a proud
Nova Scotian Sir Robert Borden, who 80 years ago, reflected on our country.
Let us never forget the solemn truth that the nation is not constituted
of the living alone. There are those as well who have passed away and those
yet to be born. So this great responsibility comes to us as heirs of the
past and trustees of the future. But with that responsibility there has
come something greater still. The responsibility of proving ourselves worthy
of it: and I pray that this may not be lost.
I share his sentiments. I hope others do as well.