#01, June 2019
Investing in loopholes
The symbol of democracy and inclusion, citizen participation represents the boldness and reinvention necessary to penetrate the system and shake its foundations.
Jonathan Durand Folco has no illusions. “Of course, citizen participation has been appropriated. And this has been the case since it came back into fashion in the 1990s. But that is no reason not to fight for it with those who monopolize it for electoral purposes.” On the contrary, for this PhD in philosophy and professor of social innovation who is passionate about democracy, it is our duty to live it in order to give a meaning to it.
For the Institut du Nouveau Monde, a Montréal-based organization that has made citizen participation the core of its mission for 15 years, it can be defined as “the exercise and expression of citizenship through the practice of public, social and electoral participation.” “The reality behind the expression is certainly plural,” confirms Jonathan. “It can refer to simple information meetings, supervised public consultation exercises or co-management processes where decisions are truly made in common. Behind each of these formulas lies a different degree of power for the citizen.”
Citizen participation would therefore have many facets, from the most institutionalized to the most spontaneous. In À nous la ville, published in 2017, Durand Folco reaffirms the importance of the latter: the disparate, free and bold initiatives of citizen participation—whether it is urban agriculture, community fridges, the sharing of equipment, services or energy sources—would be the spark of true social transformation. “The neighbourhood, the city, the community are at the heart of this effervescence. At the moment, this is where the most promising projects are taking place.”
“But that doesn’t imply abandoning political action,” he hastens to add. “There are loopholes in the system into which we must introduce ourselves in order to try to change institutions at all levels.” But in the meantime, these projects are proof that groups of people all over the world share the values of solidarity, autonomy and collective action.
Moreover, the increasing perceived distance between traditional citizen participation and its impact on our lives is one of the main reasons for the crisis of confidence in democracy. And the slowness of the processes is its corollary. By acting on a small scale, citizens immediately see the benefits of their actions. This short feedback cycle is a source of satisfaction, empowerment, and encourages people to continue. Above all, the absence of rules characterizing these grassroots initiatives provides the requisite boldness for the innovation we need.
But there are many obstacles to the development of massive citizen participation. Economic, cultural and even geographical inequalities create a first barrier to entry. “Of course, everyone is invited, but without money to buy the bus ticket, or without childcare services, some people are automatically excluded from the majority of citizen participation events.”
Furthermore, we all face serious time constraints. In a context of a constantly accelerating pace of our lives and workplaces, even the mobilizing agents of participation, which are the irreplaceable link between the isolated citizen and the authorities, are running out of steam. In À nous la ville, Durand Folco also proposes some ways to better support citizen action, including a time policy, which would be “a necessary condition for the democratization [of the economy].”
Citizen participation advocated by community organizations
Nadine St-Louis, social entrepreneur, Indigenous activist and founder of Productions Feux Sacrés, has a very different life story to Jonathan’s, yet their vision of citizen issues is very similar–starting with the need to root the action in the heart of the city, to have a physical presence in the community. “Brick and mortar,” she says. “You can’t produce events sitting on a street corner.”
Hence, it was right on Place Jacques-Cartier that she created the Ashukan Cultural Space in 2015. Much more than an art gallery, this unique structure in Montréal is an economic and civic incubator for Indigenous artists, a place for public education and dialogue between cultures. Above all, it is the only store in Old Montréal selling 100% Indigenous creations in a district invaded by dream catchers made in China, which an entire system inherited from colonialism and subjected to mass tourism tolerates and maintains.
Nadine St-Louis is the living proof that organized citizen participation can go a long way, but also that it requires a huge commitment. In her struggle for a more just and inclusive society, she points to the complexity and compartmentalization of institutions as the main enemies. She must constantly address all levels of decision-making, write endless reports and defend her programming, project by project, in both official languages. “I am knocking on the door of the municipal, provincial and federal governments, but also of the arts, tourism, social innovation communities, or of foundations and the corporate sector. I’m that circus performer who spins plates on a stick, and I have to constantly make sure that they all spin at the same time.”
It seems, therefore, that citizen participation is a two-speed vehicle, moving forward thanks to the efforts of technocratic citizens, well-equipped and used to representing themselves, leaving no chance for isolated and non-expert people to see their actions one day weigh in the balance.
Except that there is art, answers Nadine St-Louis. And it is the only thing capable of freeing our minds and ultimately breaking resistance to change. And Durand Folco says the same when he calls for the creation of a common ideal to unite communities. Because, to move forward, we have to be looking in the same direction. And in this regard, citizen participation can do a lot. Until we reform the democracy that disappoints us today, it has the merit of systematically gathering people and thus strengthening the social fabric stretched and undermined by individualism. This is the essential condition for the establishment of a truly participatory democracy.