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One of the most important principles of good governance is voice — people must have a say and be listened to in decisions that affect them. This past week we have seen protests and riots erupt across the United States and around the world in response to the videotaped killing of George Floyd. These protests are part of a broader issue of racially motivated police brutality in the United States. Governments should not be surprised to see this uprising of civil voice and anger over an incident that has happened again and again.
Protests emerge when society either does not trust, or feels they have no voice in, the levers of power in governance. When government, at any level, fails to listen, converse and respond to the needs of the people it represents, protests are organized to grab their attention. In Canada we’ve seen countless examples, including the Wet’suwet’en protests earlier this year, the 2019 Climate Strike, the Black Lives Matter movement since its founding in 2013 and the Printemps Érable in Quebec in 2012.
The anger we see comes from people who feel ignored by their representatives and from allies who don’t want them to give up. Riots and protests are a symptom of government’s failure to comply with the democratic social contract between government and its citizens.
With this in mind, what should government do in response? Peaceful protests are an essential right in democratic societies. Government across all levels and its agents, such as law enforcement, have a duty to listen and converse with civil society organizations, hear their concerns, and meaningfully adapt to better the governance of citizens. This requires effective leadership, from the leader of a country to a station captain in a police office, and also means having the tools in place to bring together civil society actors to have a meaningful dialogue on how to approach contemporary, complex issues. The resolution of this dialogue must demonstrate impact and change so that citizens recognize their demands reflected in their government. In federal countries like the United States, the variety of responses at the state and municipal levels by governments and police forces exhibits the differences in how each jurisdiction interprets its leadership role or how it sees its role in reacting to civil society. Not all states have done this equally or fairly.
Canada has its own issues with respect to race relations. Through public inquiries, protests, petitions, and advocacy we continue to voice our concerns and to work to strengthen our democratic institutions and ensure they serve everyone living here.
Our government system is anchored in the idea of “responsible government” which means that the elected government must maintain at all times the trust of the House (the delegates elected by the people). What about the trust of the population they serve?
Democratic societies are experiencing a decline in trust in their public institutions. If “a riot is the language of the unheard,” the responsibility falls to governments to demonstrate leadership, empower civil society and create mediums for meaningful dialogue, and to listen and to act. If we are to believe and endorse the concept of subsidiarity, this dialogue must occur where citizens live. All issues are local; and citizens must feel heard locally before it becomes national, as it is today. Governments that fail to do so will continue to see trust decline, and civil unrest persist.
By: Rebecca Hollett and Rhonda Moore
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