Foreign Policy by Canadians

150 strangers spent a weekend together debating Canada’s role in the world. Here’s what happened.

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1 April, 2021
The School of Athens by painter Raphael (1483–1520). Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

What would Canadian foreign policy look like if it were shaped by everyday Canadians?

Discovering an answer to this question was the goal of a virtual gathering last month of more than 150 Canadians for a two-day exercise in “Deliberative Democracy” — a process that asks participants to make policy decisions following informed deliberation, rather than simply voting based on their pre-existing opinions.

These discussions were part of an ongoing “Foreign Policy by Canadians” exercise organized by the Canadian International Council (CIC) in cooperation with the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) and Global Canada, a not-for-profit organization that aims to increase Canada’s international influence. The CIC and CanWaCH collaborated with Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, which provided the platform and the techniques used for the exercise, and with the polling company YouGov.

Participants debated questions such as: should the Canadian government provide vaccines to less developed countries before it finishes vaccinating its own citizens, and should it pass stronger laws against foreign interference in local elections?

An objective of the event was to involve people who don’t usually contribute to crafting Canadian foreign policy in a discussion about what those policies should be. Citizens “have an absolutely central role to play,” said Ben Rowswell, president of the CIC and one of the event organizers.

Julia Anderson, CEO of CanWaCH, said Deliberative Democracy allows participants to engage in meaningful conversations with people they don’t agree with, ensuring the solutions they propose “are rooted in a diversity of perspectives.”

Deliberative democracy has led to tangible changes elsewhere. In May 2018, Ireland held a referendum to topple a constitutional law that banned abortions. The decision to hold a public vote was made after 99 citizens made a recommendation during a deliberative process in 2017.

Deliberative democracy in a nutshell

The four areas of foreign policy that participants looked into — health, prosperity, security and human dignity — were selected by citizens at virtual events held by the CIC during the summer and fall of 2020.

The exercise followed a process called “Deliberative Polling,” which was developed in 1988 by political scientist James Fishkin and has been used more than 100 times in some 30 countries.

Polling company YouGov picked participants using “stratified random sampling.” It chose people of all ages, education levels and ethnicities from across Canada. Event organizers compensated those who took part.

Participants received briefing material on the issues ahead of time. On the day of the event, they were randomly divided in small groups of 10 to 12 people and given one hour to discuss specific policies and come up with questions to ask experts.

Afterwards, participants attended a 45-minute panel discussion with experts at which each group asked their questions.

Before discussions began, participants completed a survey about their world views. They were asked to do the same survey after the event. Their responses will be compared with those of a control group.

“It’s the deliberation that is moving the opinions.”

“We see the opinion changes among the people who deliberate,” said Fishkin, who leads the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford. But comparable changes aren’t usually observed among those in the control group. “It’s the deliberation that is moving the opinions.”

Shauna Sylvester, executive director of Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, led a large-scale deliberative democracy project called “Canada’s World” from 2007 to 2010.

She compared deliberative democracy to the courts’ jury system, in which random Canadians come together to decide what sentence to give offenders. Sylvester would like to see this type of citizen-led decision-making process used elsewhere, including in the Senate — a suitable place for it, she said, given the Senate’s mandate to reflect citizens’ voices from across the country.

“We’re seeing greater polarization,” Sylvester said, adding that more and more people believe the system isn’t serving them. “If we incorporated those kinds of deliberative processes into our government decision making and into our policy deliberations, I think we would have a more democratic society.”

What happens when we listen to each other?

Jacob Maricle, a 22-year-old student in Kamloops, B.C., said participating in the exercise made him a little more receptive to view he might have previously dismissed.

The self-described political junkie, who has moved back in with his parents during the pandemic, said his opinions on the carbon tax shifted slightly after hearing a woman in his group describe how it had negatively affected her because of her precarious financial situation.

As “a privileged kid,” Maricle said he had always thought of the carbon tax as a good thing. This conversation opened his eyes to different realities, but it also convinced him that it is still possible to find something close to common ground.

“Even if our views seem like polar opposites, there’s a lot of nuance in between that [shows] we’re not that far apart,” he said.

Montreal resident and grandmother Wendy Paquette said her views on sharing vaccines with less developed countries changed after she talked about it with her group. She said she went into the debate thinking, “We do Canada first, and then we can give the other people,” because she was worried about all the vulnerable Canadians who hadn’t received a shot yet.

By the end of the discussion, Paquette concluded that because of the ongoing movement of people across borders, Canadians would be safer if the virus was defeated outside this country, too.

High efforts, uncertain results

A downside of deliberative democracy as a tool for designing public policy is its cost.

It’s really demanding, and it’s really expensive to do,” said Sanjay Ruparelia, the Jarislowsky Democracy Chair at Ryerson University and one of the experts on the prosperity panel at the event.

He added that because a small number of people can dominate discussions during any given exercise, deliberative projects are most effective when they take place repeatedly over time in order to dilute particularly assertive voices.

Deliberative Democracy exercises are most valuable when their results are disseminated and used, Sylvester said. But there has to be political will for that to happen.

That’s something she noticed when she led Canada’s World. “If the government is not sponsoring [the exercise], and they’re not willing to act on it, it becomes a civil society exercise of saying ‘Hey, look at us and listen,’” she said. “But there’s nothing to compel them to do so.”

“I’m hoping that the right people actually listen,” said Paquette, the Montreal grandmother. “I think conversations need to be had in a lot of places.”

A second and third round of deliberations will take place before findings are tabulated later this month. Open Canada will have additional coverage then. Rowswell said the CIC will also brief civil servants, academics and politicians about the results.