A Disruptive Conversation About Democracy

At a recent 5 Good Ideas session of the Maytree Foundation, the amazing Uzma Shakir challenged the audience to have disruptive conversations. To identify words whose meaning we have been taking for granted even though they are often used to mean something they are not.

My word for today is “democracy.” Like many of you, I was taught that democracy began in ancient Athens when citizens could gather in the Agora and vote. But democracy in my mind means most adult citizens can vote – and in that Agora, less than 4% of the adults had a vote. Slaves, I am told, made up about 90% of the population, and had no vote. Women, likely at just over 50% then as now, had no vote. Free men who did not own property had no vote, and like now, many people were renters. Prisoners had no vote. So all they had, in my opinion, was a slightly expanded oligarchy. That word is defined as “A government run by only a few, often the wealthy.” Seems about right.

And I was taught Canada was founded as a democratic country. Not remotely true in my opinion. Most women could not vote federally until 1919. Aboriginal people didn’t get a federal vote until 1960. Prisoners couldn’t vote until 1993 or 2002, depending on their length of sentence. People with mental illnesses were also given the vote in 1993. We needed the Charter of Rights to enfranchise those two groups—and judges! We’ve gradually improved access to voting for people with such severe disabilities they can’t go to a polling station, but challenges remain for people with disabilities.

So did we have democracy when well less than 50% of Canadian citizens had the vote? I expect there is a similar set of dates in most developed countries. Is it democracy when over 50% can vote (that is, when women were added) if major groups are still left out? Where do we set the bar?

What does democracy mean to us today?

Many Canadians still cannot vote. Discussions are ongoing about the rights of permanent residents waiting for citizenship eligibility and of youth under 18. A prior federal government temporarily removed voting rights from some Canadians living abroad. What’s the impact of excluding some Canadians? Of including them? These are discussions worth having.

Exercising one’s right to vote can be affected by a lack of education, difficulty getting registered, difficulty getting to polling stations, unsafe conditions at polling stations (in some countries, your life is at risk), voter bribery, poor election process controls and more. Is it democracy if some groups of people are much more affected by these challenges than others?

What about systems in multi-party situations that allow a government to be in power with way less than half the popular vote? What about other systems that override the popular vote?

So have the difficult, disruptive conversations. If you find that you care, notice what you can do to increase and protect democracy where you live and around the world.

And what word would you like to have a disruptive conversation about?


  1. Uzma is the Director, Equity, Diversity & Human Rights Division, City of Toronto. Toronto is lucky to have such an office and even luckier to have Uzma leading it.
  2. Dates for eligibility to vote provincially and municipally in Canada are different from the above.

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