Canada is a country of immigrants.
"People come to Canada in search of the freedom to speak out against injustice, especially the freedom to disagree with the government," Joseph Wong, a recipient of the Order of Canada and Humanitarian of the Year Award, said recently in a meeting in Toronto.
Dr. Wong's comment could not have come at a better time!
In response to the federal government's recent assault on Canadian charities and environmental laws, the David Suzuki Foundation joined other prominent environmental organizations, former Fisheries Minister John Fraser, and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs on Monday, June 4, for Black Out Speak Out, a campaign to defend our environment as well as our democratic right to speak out.
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The one-day action was supported by at least 500 businesses and organizations and thousands of individual Canadians. Among those Canadians are seven fabulous community leaders who joined us at the Foundation on Thursday, May 31, for a roundtable discussion to examine the state of Canadian democracy and to brainstorm on how to navigate the road ahead.
"Democracies do not flourish without constant vigilance," said Jim Boothroyd, chair of the Right to Democracy Roundtable and communications director of the David Suzuki Foundation.
By trying to shut down the democratic rights of Canadians to express their concerns for the environment, the federal government has also seriously compromised the health of Canadian democracy. Judging by the outcome of Thursday's 90-minute dialogue, Canadians from all backgrounds are not willing to allow their democratic rights to be chipped away!
"I am deeply troubled by the state of democracy in Canada," said Maxwell A. Cameron, a prolific writer and political science professor at UBC. Cameron, who wrote Democracy and Authoritarianism in Peru in 1994 and co-edited The Peruvian Labyrinth in 1997, clearly knows what he is talking about. Just a few months ago, he hosted a two-day democracy brainstorming event in Vancouver called "Why don't more good people enter politics?" "We are losing control of our democracy," he said. "Our parliamentarians have become yes men and women who do what they're told by party leaders. We need to empower ordinary parliamentarians to ensure accountability and to safeguard public interest. If parliament was working the way it should, bill C35 would be unimaginable."
Other roundtable guests echoed Cameron's concerns. Ken Tung was the former chair of SUCCESS, a longstanding immigrant-services agency based in Vancouver. Tung was also the founder of Civic Education Society in Vancouver. He said new Canadians need all the help they can get in learning how to exercise their democratic rights, and public education is a perfect place to start.
Claudia Li, the youngest member of the roundtable and founder of Shark Truth, an advocacy group that promotes humane treatment of sharks, agreed. "The 'don't bother' mentality and the habit of distancing oneself from hotly contested issues leads to community apathy," Li said. "Without a doubt, apathy is a hurdle that needs to be dealt with."
The "don't bother" mentality is not unique to Chinese Canadians. Paola V. Murrilo, founder of Latincouver, has seen the same behaviour in her community. Murrilo grew up in Colombia, where free speech was not protected. "We began accepting bad things were normal," Murillo said. "When my family moved to the U.S., that was when I learned about the importance of democracy and the 'right' thing!"
In a country like Canada where diversity is a fact of life, Canadians from all walks of life can work together to make sure our right to voice concerns about the environment is maintained.
Anu Bhamra, an award-winning broadcaster from India, said complacency is rampant in Canada, unlike India. "Canadians tend not to complain," Bhamra said. "But in India, everyone is so engaged." Bhamra thinks Canadians and the environmental movement have a lot of work to do.
Businessman and a community builder Toby Barazzuol agreed. Recently, Barazzuol became a dad. "I am really disheartened by the dismantling of Canada — the values we love and the feeling of helplessness and despair," Barazzuol lamented. By joining the Right to Democracy Roundtable at the David Suzuki Foundation, Barazzuol is determined to make sure the Canada his newborn son grows up in will respect public opinion and will not dismantle longstanding policies and laws that protect our environment, our natural resources, our fisheries and, most important, our democratic rights.
For years, Henry Chau has been telling Vancouver's Chinese Canadians that democracy is important for China. This year, he is also reminding Chinese Canadians about the importance of democracy in Canada. Chau and his family settled in Vancouver more than 30 years ago from Hong Kong. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in China on June 4, 1989, Chau became an activist and helped build the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement. On the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Tiananmen Square memorial walk in Vancouver, Chau reminded Canadians to never let someone else tell you what your democratic rights are.
The 90-minute roundtable wrapped up with all seven panellists agreeing that such a dialogue is only the start of a much more substantial conversation that Canadians from all walks of life must have.
"We need to hear our immigrants' stories, because Canadians have little experience with what it means to lose democracy. Canadians need to learn that if we want to keep our democracy, it has to be defended and defended vigilantly," Cameron said.