David Coletto at Abacus Data recently X-posted this compelling one-sentence report on a new Canada-wide opinion survey : “Canadians Lack Basics of Civic Education and It’s Impacting Our Democracy.”
A shrewd respondent (@brucejameshayes) soon added: “This was fully on display during the convoy protest in Ottawa, where some folks were asking others to sign a petition to the GG which would force the PM to resign.”
In Canada today pursuing these two related lines of thought can lead in somewhat different civic education directions.
In the first case the new Abacus survey of “all Canadians” to which Mr. Coletto alluded is matched by a parallel Abacus survey of Civic Education attitudes among teachers across the country — “at the frontlines of our democracy.”
The teachers survey urges that: “Civics … includes the formal study of political processes, the role of government.” But “citizenship education” … is also “about how we address social issues and engage in the democratic processes.”
All this concludes with such classroom-related recommendations as “Invest in training at all levels” ; “Support classroom discussion of civic issues” ; and “Promote democratic culture and values in schools and classrooms.”
As important (and often controversial) as it is, this classroom approach to strengthening civic education might not have had much impact on the Ottawa convoy protesters two years ago. And this raises a second kind of current Canadian civic education issue.
As CBC News explained in late February 2022: “Many protesters … came to Ottawa with a flawed understanding of … how the Westminster parliamentary system works … Many … signed a memorandum of understanding,” which foolishly “called on the Governor General and the Senate of Canada to somehow form a new government with the protesters themselves.”
Before altogether dismissing this convoy protester memorandum it is worth noting that it does bear some relation to what is now called the Constitution Act, 1867 — foolishly viewed as a document that actually means what it appears to say.
(See for example this passage from the current Government of Canada website: “The Canadian Constitution places executive power in the King. However, in practice this power is exercised by the Prime Minister and his ministers.”)
One problem is that, unlike the American republic next door, Canada does not have any single written constitutional document. The Constitution Act, 1867 — old colonial legislation passed by the 19th century Parliament at Westminster in London, England — is certainly no such thing.
To begin with it is now accompanied by the Constitution Act, 1982. This finally “patriated” the Constitution Act, 1867 from the United Kingdom, and gave Canadians a Charter of Rights and made-in-Canada constitutional amending procedures.
A deeper problem is that Canada’s constitution is nowhere entirely written down. Its general principle is simply noted in the Preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867. Canada has “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.”
It is part of how this kind of Constitution works that it has an important “unwritten” side — transmitted to successive generations of lawyers, political actors, and voting citizens by a kind of intellectual osmosis, once more rooted in everyday Canadian political culture than it is now.
Put in its most positive way, just “how the Westminster parliamentary system works” is nowhere entirely set down, because it is always in some important degree evolving to keep up with changing times and circumstances.
It does seem that in recent years this unwritten side of any Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom has lost some prestige. In the United Kingdom itself, the Westminster parliamentary system has tried to become somewhat more written down.
Yet most recently there have also been reasons for Canadians and others to take some solace in parliamentary democratic institutions more like the United Kingdom than the United States.
There are virtues to the flexibility and adaptability of the evolving unwritten side of any Westminster parliamentary system. But keeping the system effective does involve cultivating a democratic political culture that can communicate the subtleties of just how the system is evolving. And we used to have more of that in Canada than we apparently do now.
Legend has it, for example, that Canadian high school history teachers used to struggle to make clear to any students remotely interested just what the key differences were, between parliamentary democracy in Canada and presidential/congressional democracy in the USA.
Some revival of this tradition in the 21st century might finally bring at least some convoy protesters back into the classroom at last!