In a year that tested some of our fundamental freedoms, Canada has managed to move up in the global democracy rankings — now in the top five democratic nations according to The Economist’s annual “democracy index.”
Canada is now number five on the list — a jump from the seventh-place post it occupied last year, despite a global pandemic and an ethical scandal for Justin Trudeau’s government, which The Economist pointedly noted.
While the controversy over the WE Charity cost Canada some points on transparency and COVID-19 restrictions hurt the score on functioning of government, this country still managed to ascend in the rankings because of healthy political participation and interest in democracy.
Canadians were in fact cited for their active interest in U.S. politics as well, where democracy continues to take a beating, according to the 2020 index. The United States, which slipped into the ranks of “flawed democracy” in this index a few years ago, languishes at 25th place in this year’s list.
“The negatives include extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties, deep dysfunction in the functioning of government, increasing threats to freedom of expression and a degree of societal polarization that makes consensus almost impossible to achieve,” The Economist report states. “Social cohesion has collapsed and consensus has evaporated on fundamental issues.”
This sad picture could account for Canadians’ fascination in the troubled U.S. democracy. What we’re seeing in the United States looks like a combination of car crash and viral contagion — impossible to ignore but worrying because of its potential spread.
Coincidentally, the perils of polarization are the focus this week in the Star/TVO democracy project, launched this month to explore some of the same issues also monitored in The Economist’s annual democracy index.
Our panel discussion, which airs on TVO on Thursday night, examined whether U.S.-style polarization could surface in Canada — or whether it was already here. Led by The Agenda host Steve Paikin, it included journalists Jen Gerson and Vicky Mochama, McGill University’s Andrew Potter and me. I can report that it wasn’t a polarized discussion, though I did revive an idea I first floated in 2014 — that abolishing political parties would do a lot to make democracy more constructive.
My reasonably optimistic view, for what it’s worth, is that Canadians are not all that polarized when it comes to issues of what the government should do and bread-and-butter topics. The pandemic hasn’t sent us into warring camps (though vaccine delivery, or lack of it, might.)
As things now stand, we aren’t polarized around facts as much as the U.S. is, where now the outcome of a fairly conducted election has been rejected — at times violently so — by a significant swath of the population.
So far, Canadians have not arrived at the place where basic democratic facts are in dispute and we don’t have people living in their own political or news media universes. Social bubbles were created for the pandemic, but when this plague is over, many Canadians will go back to mixing with people who don’t look or think exactly like them.
Still, where we do see the potential for things to get very black and white in Canada, I believe, is on questions of identity and values. Whenever politics gets into this zone, the middle is an elusive place.
One year ago, slightly before the pandemic hit, Canada was embroiled in escalating rail blockades in protests over Indigenous rights and the debate was sending people into radically opposite corners. You were either sympathetic to the protests or very angry about them and it was getting increasingly difficult to find the middle ground.
Had the pandemic not interrupted that drama, we well could have seen race becoming a flash point in this country, and none of those divisions have been really addressed since COVID-19 hit.
Climate change is another issue that can get quickly polarizing too, especially when discussed in the context of pipelines and Canada’s natural resource industry. Technically, this isn’t a discussion about identity or values, but the way it has broken down regionally and demographically in Canada makes climate change ripe for sharp, ideological splits.
Democracy, in the broad strokes, has functioned during the pandemic in Canada, albeit with modifications. Two federal parties have chosen new leaders, three provinces held full general elections and federal Parliament even got a couple of new MPs in byelections. Canadians, as Trudeau observed in an interview last week, even got a chance to see government relevant in their lives again.
All this has earned Canada some democratic bragging rights in the 2020 democracy index, but no freedom to be complacent. That “flawed democracy” lives right next door.