Democracy, diversity and unity online – Canadian Government Executive

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Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyICT
May 7, 2012

Democracy, diversity and unity online

Shortly after the Quebec referendum of October 1995 that brought the country to the brink of a constitutional abyss, I recall encountering a graduate student from Sudan. Coming from a country torn by civil war and genocide, he simply could not fathom the possibility of Canada breaking up, but nonetheless admired the relative civility and calm that characterized a debate driven by ethnic and linguistic identities and the political struggles that result.

While few Canadians miss the constitutional drama of the late 1980s and 1990s – with the seemingly endless meetings and proposals – words are always a blessing in comparison to guns and bombs. Much like Rwanda has shed its recent genocide-laden past to emerge as a democratic model for the rest of Africa (with the world’s highest proportion of women – more than 50 percent – serving in the national Parliament), what happens in Sudan will matter greatly not only to citizens there but to millions across the continent.

For the Sudanese student studying in this country, emulating the Canadian model at home remained a distant dream. Indeed, while few Canadians appreciate it sufficiently, the Canadian mosaic is an anomaly relative to most parts of the world, a model of cultural and political pluralism that is perhaps our most important export to the world.

As Canada’s traditional political fault lines between two languages and two founding nations recede into the background, at least for now, multiculturalism is becoming the predominant feature of the 21st century Canadian identity. Gone are the days when Italian placed third in Canada’s linguistic make-up: Western European immigrants have stalled to a trickle, replaced by a widening and varied flow of would-be citizens from all parts of the world, notably Asia and Africa.

As this model of Canadian pluralism evolves, it is worth asking how our social and political fabric will be shaped by a world increasingly online. Here multiculturalism is arguably more realistic than the American variant of an ethnic melting pot where immigrants shed their past for a common present and shared future (at least in the ideal). The Canadian premise is that newcomers maintain their old identities and combine them into something complex and new: a tricky form of ethnic and political fusion.

A very unscientific review of Facebook in Canada reveals a multitude of groups devoted to shared ethnic and religious orientations, some predominantly social in nature, others with specific political and religious aims. What is less obvious is whether such dynamics come at the expense of or enhance the shared “Canadian” aspects to values and civic life.

The major efforts by governments in Canada with respect to e-government and cultural diversity have been twofold: first, to provide enhanced linguistic capacities for certain service offerings (especially local governments in the most diverse urban areas); and second, Heritage Canada’s role in providing information online regarding policies and programs underpinning multiculturalism as an official government endeavour.

Yet, a customer service apparatus, necessary as it is, does little to promote civic fusion and dialogue online. Heritage Canada’s website, for example, is devoid of interactive forums and web 2.0 capacities that might foster new communities of interest to form across cultures. The department housed no active public consultations online in recent months, and those featured from the past were very program and issue specific, such as copyright reform.

Canada’s urban epicentre of ethnic diversity, the City of Toronto, welcomes visitors and residents online with Google-facilitated translation capacities in 51 languages, and provides important information on living and settling there. While the city has invested significantly in online consultation capacities on specific policy and budgetary matters, notably absent are community-building initiatives that transcend ethnic and religious boundaries.

Perhaps such initiatives will not be the purview of government. Facebook is, after all, rife with cultural exchange initiatives and there are numerous online venues devoted to fostering communication and understanding across traditionally conflicted groups (the Middle East, for example). As governments struggle to contain the internet in many emerging (or anti) democratic countries, something akin to a globally-based civil society may be slowly taking root.  

It nonetheless seems desirable that Canada provide a more assertive and friendly presence, especially in light of the highly secretive and intrusive nature of security agencies conducting surveillance activities of one sort or another. The reality is that Canada’s multicultural identities going forward are going to be shaped increasingly by what transpires online. For government policies and programs to remain relevant and adapt to this new dimension of social life, and for a common civic foundation for the country as a whole, innovative and collaborative government action will be required.

Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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