Citizenship light: Canadians seem less than enthusiastic about discharging their civic responsibilities but they sure like those rights.
Beyond what Canadians are obliged to do by law, Ottawa has a few suggestions for things it thinks citizens ought to do:
* Express opinions freely while respecting the fights and freedoms of others;
* Help others in the community;
* Care for and protect our heritage and environment; and,
* Eliminate discrimination and injustice.
How well are Canadians doing in these "ought to dos?" One measure is volunteering. According to Statistics Canada, almost 12 million Canadians volunteered their time to charities or other nonprofit organizations in 2004. That's 45 percent of the population aged 15 and over. These involved citizens contributed two billion hours of unpaid work. That sounds impressive until you dig a little deeper into the data. A small number of people are responsible for most of volunteering; 25 percent of volunteers contributed 77 percent of the hours.
The same imbalance applied to financial donations to charity. More than 22 million Canadians--85 percent of the population aged 15 and over--gave money to a charity in 2004. As with giving time, a quarter of those who made charitable contributions accounted for 82 percent of the total.
Another gauge of how well we discharge our duties as citizens is engagement in civic affairs. The performance of Canadian citizens is not very good here either.
Routinely, one in four of us can't be bothered turning out to vote in federal elections. Local elections get an even more dismal showing; typically, in municipal ballots two out of three voters stay home. The groups with the lowest turnouts are young people and the poor.
Canada is not alone in this. Voter turnout in established democracies has been declining steadily since the 1960s. Study after study has revealed no single cause for this; it's a combination of loss of trust in politicians, economic contentment, lack of time, and simple laziness.
Some countries have an answer for this--compulsory voting. In Australia, there is a fine of $20 for not voting and possibly jail if you don't pay the fine. Ninety-five out of every 100 people show up to vote down under. About 20 other countries have some form of forced voting, among them Argentina, Belgium, and the Philippines.
That's the stick approach. Others suggest using a carrot. Giving each person who votes a lottery ticket might encourage some more people to turn out on election day.
But, just getting the bodies to the polls might not be enough. What about the quality of the vote? Some people have no interest in politics and government at all. How valuable is it to force them to put a cross against a candidate's name? It isn't possible to strong-arm citizens into civic awareness.
British Columbians headed blindly into a referendum in 2005. They were asked to vote on whether or not to change the electoral system to one of proportional representation using something called the Single Transferable Vote. A week before the ballot Strategic Counsel carried out a public opinion poll on the issue. An amazing 82 percent of those surveyed admitted they knew little or nothing at all about the proposed single transferable vote system. However, 1.7 million people voted on the issue and narrowly turned down the change. But, with so many people apparently uninformed about the topic, how valid was the outcome?
What about some of those other civic "ought to dos?" Doing a good job of looking after the environment are we? A recent study carried out by B.C.'s Simon Fraser University places Canada 28th out of 29 countries on environmental protection. Among developed countries Canada is 29th in water consumption, 27th in sulphur oxides pollution, and 26th in greenhouse gas emissions.
The story's the same in protecting the country's heritage. In the fall of 2006, the Conservative government slashed its grants to Canada's museums. The Canadian Museums Association says many small museums, already struggling financially, will be forced to close. This at a time when survey after survey finds Canadians to be woefully uninformed about their country's history.
A Dominion Institute survey for Canada Day 2005 came up with the usual embarrassing findings. "The average Canadian" says the Institute, "could correctly answer only eight of the 20 questions (or 40 percent) contained in a quiz on the country's economic history."
Two years earlier, the Dominion Institute wanted to find out how much Canadians knew about their country's role in world organizations and events since 1945. Half of those surveyed got a failing grade of 'F.' One in 20 Canadians "were unable to provide a single correct response."
Surely we're eliminating discrimination and injustice. Not if you consult Statistics Canada's Ethnic Diversity Survey. According to the 2002 study, about 20 percent of members of visible minorities reported being discriminated against or receiving unfair treatment sometimes or often. Blacks (32 percent) were the most likely to report feeling that they had been discriminated against or treated unfairly. They were closely followed by Muslims (30 percent). Jews, South Asians, and Chinese were likely to experience discrimination at about the average rate for all visible minorities.
Similarly, a Dominion Institute poll in 2005 found racism to be a problem. The survey revealed that one in six Canadian adults (17 percent or about 4,000,000 people) said they have personally been the victims of racism. "Approximately one in ten (seven percent or 1,680,000 Canadian adults) would not welcome people from another race as next-door neighbours, 13 percent (3,120,000 Canadians) would never marry or have a relationship with someone of another race, and 15 percent (3,360,000 Canadians) say skin colour makes a difference in their workplace."
If Canadians are falling down in their responsibilities to make the country a better place, they can take comfort in the knowledge that they enjoy fights and protections that are second to none in the world.
These are bound up in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is the first section of Canada's Constitution, which came into force in 1982 after many decades of debate and wrangling.
Among its many provisions, Canadian citizens are guaranteed:
* Democratic rights (being able to vote and stand for office);
* Legal rights (access to a fair trial and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty);
* Equality rights (protection against discrimination based 'on race, gender, religious faith, etc.);
* Mobility rights (the right to live and work in Canada and to enter and leave the country); and,
* Basic freedoms (freedom of thought, speech, peaceful assembly, etc.).
All of these rights are what would normally be found in any liberal democracy. They represent what society believes to be ideals to live up to. They are the work of citizens through their elected representatives.
If enough citizens feel a wrong needs to be corrected they take action. Canada and other countries are currently dealing with the issue of sexual orientation. In Canada, the issue has largely been handled through the courts. Activists asked that discrimination against gays and lesbians be banned even though it is not specifically mentioned in the Charter. For the most part, the courts have agreed with those who seek to ban all forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The courts have reflected what seems to be the majority opinion of Canadians. They are also following the tradition of generous interpretations of the Charter; this is known in legal circles as the living-tree doctrine. It means that constitutions are not static documents, but they are alive and can be adapted to fit changing times.
A famous example is the socalled "Persons Case." In the late 1920s, a group of women were pushing for females to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. The Constitution at the time said that Senate seats could only be given to "qualified persons," and that the legal definition of "a person" did not include women.
All five Justices of the Supreme Court (men, of course) decided that women were not "persons." Canada's Constitution (the British North America Act) back then was an act of the British Parliament. So the women went there for a ruling and found a more enlightened audience.
Lord Sankey handed down his ruling in October 1929, saying that women were indeed persons. His lordship stated: "The British North America Act planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits."
There is, of course, an opposing view. Its followers say a constitution must follow the "Framer's Intent." This means that in changing a constitution the beliefs of those who originally wrote it must be honoured. The followers of this doctrine are the ones who today criticize what they call "activist judges." They say that unelected judges should not be allowed to make law in Canada; that's the exclusive job of elected politicians.
But Canadians, even though they may not put much effort
into their civic duties, are a tolerant lot. They will push for extending their rights and those of others whether the politicians like it or not.
Canadian citizens have the right to be given: preference over non-citizens for jobs with the federal government.
Some countries have rules that render an election invalid if not enough people vote. In Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, for example, the results of three presidential votes were cancelled because too few people cast a ballot.
During 2000-01, Canada refused entry to 644 because of allegations they were involved in war crimes in another country.
THE EDUCATED CITIZEN
Many countries have experienced a decline in citizenship participation in public life. Fewer people are bothering to cast a vote in elections. The number of volunteers is going down. Litter and graffiti are becoming a growing problem. Road rage, the use of foul language, and bad manners are on the increase. The development of home-grown terrorist cells is seen as part of the same pattern.
Enter "active citizenship." This is a growing movement, particularly in Europe, that is trying to nurture the acceptance of greater responsibilities among citizens. In the United Kingdom they are tackling this in the school system.
Since 2002, Citizenship Education has been a compulsory part of the national school curriculum.
All students between 11 and 16 years of age must study the subject. It covers a very wide range that includes: the legal system, the media, human rights, global issues, the electoral system, government, religious and ethnic diversity in the U.K., conflict resolution, and the roles of such organizations as the European Union, the Commonwealth, and the United Nations.
Ahmed Said Khadr came to Canada from Egypt in 1977. He met and married Maha Elsamnah who had come to Canada from Palestine. Both held strong Muslim fundamentalist beliefs and appear to have been hostile to Canadian values. Maha Khadr is frequently quoted as having called Canada a haven for "homosexuals and infidels (non-Muslims)."
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980 the call went out to Muslims around the world to join the fight. Ahmed Said Khadr answered the call and then sent for his family to join him. Eventually, Ahmed and Maha had six children.
One of the people Mr. Khadr fought alongside was Osama bin Laden; the two men became friends. When Osama bin Laden set up his al-Qaeda terrorist network one of the people close to him was Ahmed Khadr. He is described as someone who raised money in Canada. Mr. Khadr said the cash was for humanitarian relief--security agencies said it was to fund al-Qaeda's violent terror campaign against the West.
The family sent its four sons for training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. They have since run up quite a rap sheet. The father, Ahmed, was killed in a gun battle with Pakistani forces in 2003. The oldest son, Abdullah, was arrested in Toronto in 2005 and faces charges in the U.S. of conspiracy to murder Americans and of buying weapons for al-Qaeda. The second son, Abdurahman, was arrested in Afghanistan as a suspected al-Qaeda member in 2001, but released in 2003. In a television interview he said he was "raised to become a suicide bomber." He returned to Canada in 2003 and is fighting in court to be given a Canadian passport. The next son is Omar. He was arrested in Afghanistan in 2002 and is accused of killing a U.S. soldier in a gun battle. The youngest son is Abdul. He was paralyzed from the waist down in the same gunfight that killed his father. He was brought back to Canada by his mother in 2004 to receive medical treatment.
Not surprisingly, the Khadr family is unpopular in Canada. The family has been subjected to hate messages. A 10,000-signature petition demanded they all be kicked out of Canada. But, as Canadian citizens, the Khadrs can't be deported.
However, Canada has revoked the citizenship of about 50 people since the Citizenship Act of 1977. Some of these were war criminals who lied about their past in order to get into Canada.
Putting people to work for the good of the country was very popular in the 20th century--among young people not so much. One estimate is that 100 million people in their late teens and early 20s went through some form of "national service."
Most of these young adults did a hitch in the military. Between 1949 and 1960 every healthy male in the United Kingdom between 18 and 26 had to do two years in the armed forces. Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, Portugal, and many other countries had similar programs that were phased out in peacetime. (Canada only had a forced military service system during the two world wars.) Some states still have compulsory military service--Singapore, Greece, South Korea, Israel, and Russia are examples.
Civilian national service can be found in about 30 nations. Switzerland is one of these and it offers it as an alternative to military service. Swiss Civilian Service involves work in areas such as health care, agriculture, welfare, environmental protection, or overseas development. The first assignment is for three months and then for one month a year until 390 days are completed. Finland, Israel, and some other countries have similar programs as an alternative to compulsory military service.
There are a lot more voluntary programs, such as New Zealand,s Conservation Corps. This is funded by the government for young New Zealanders between the ages of 16 and 25. It has as its focus conservation (50 percent), education (25 percent), and challenging recreation (25 percent). Young people take part in projects that benefit not only themselves, but also local communities. Other voluntary schemes are plentiful: China's Poverty Alleviation Relay Project, Chile's Peace Service, Nigeria's National Youth Service Corps, and, of course, Canada's Katimavik.
1. In his book The World We Want (ISBN: 0742512665) Mark Kingwell has some suggestions for good citizenship: "Donate 10 percent of your income to international relief every year. Take back some public space every week. Listen to someone as unlike you as possible, including machines and animals, every day. And argue with anyone who says that this is the best of all possible worlds--or even just a world beyond changing--it is neither. "Add some of your suggestions to this list.
2. Game theory is a branch of mathematics that studies how players choose courses of action to increase their chances of winning. Some political scientists have applied game theory to voting habits. Starting from the premise that a single vote is extremely unlikely to influence the outcome of a large general election, game theory suggests the expected turnout for such a vote is zero. The individual voter might argue that because their single vote makes no difference there is no need to make the effort to become informed, make a decision, and then going out to vote. DisCUSS.
3. Let's have a show of hands. How many class members think a 12-month period of compulsory community service would produce more civic-minded citizens? Assuming at least one hand went up what kind of projects would be best suited to such a program?
Citizenship Foundation (U.K.)--http://www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk/index.php
Giving and Volunteering in Canada Report-- http://www.givingandvolunteering.ca/pdf/CSGVP_Highlights_2004_en.pdf
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|Title Annotation:||CITIZENSHIP--RESPONSIBILITIES AND RIGHTS|
|Publication:||Canada and the World Backgrounder|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2006|
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