By Eric Van Rythoven

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. All photos provided by The Conversation from various sources.

With a downtown Ottawa clean-up continuing after police dispersed the protestors’ occupation, it’s important to look at what this episode tells us about how Canadians understand their civic institutions.

In a video posted on YouTube Feb. 8, convoy spokesperson Tom Marazzo floated the idea that the protestors should “sit at a table with the Conservatives and the NDP and the Bloc as a coalition.” Presumably, he means as a coalition government. He added: “I’ll sit with the Governor General. You put me … you put us at the table with somebody that actually cares about Canada.”

Never mind that parties cannot form coalition governments with external groups.

Never mind that the Governor General does not have the power to dissolve governments simply because the protestors feel their cause is popular.

Never mind that we recently had an election, and the party most closely aligned with protestors — the People’s Party of Canada — only won five per cent of the popular vote and zero seats.

The video in question has over a million views.

What we are witnessing now is an acute failure of civic education in Canada. People simply do not understand their civic institutions, history or even basic political ideas. They do not understand who has what authority, or where the boundary of that authority resides. Evidence of this failure is all around us.

Throwing around the Charter

Truckers encamped in downtown Ottawa in the hopes of pressuring the Trudeau government to end restrictions, despite the fact that many of these restrictions were put in place by provincial governments.

Anti-vaxxers reached for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to justify their opposition to vaccine mandates, despite the charter containing language that these rights are subject to “reasonable limits” (a point reinforced by the Federal Court’s refusal to strike down mandates).

A person is seen securing a camper van that says 'Freedom'
Where are Canadians getting their ideas about freedom? Here, a camper is secured before being hauled away in Ottawa, on Feb. 20, 2022.

Even the most tepid efforts at law enforcement have led protestors to brandish signs likening Canada to North Korea, the totalitarian regime known for its prison camps where hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have died and for its recurring famine.

Extremism, pandemic stress plays a role

There is no doubt that extremism plays a role here. Stewing in Facebook echo chambers can warp people’s judgment and lead them to believe in outlandish conspiracy theories.

The accumulated stress of the pandemic certainly has also played a role. Buffeted by uncertainty and government failure, it is no surprise some people turn to radical ideas to make sense out of a world that does not make sense anymore.

But extremism is more likely a symptom of civic illiteracy rather than its cause.

Civic literacy implies the skills and knowledge needed to make democracy work and gaining competency in understanding how we know what we know.

Recent research in Germany looked at civic and media literacy among adolescents as it relates to the dangers of extremism and how extremist groups communicate online. Researchers found that adolescents who were more literate were more likely to both recognize extremist content online, and to classify it as extremist.

A lack of civic literacy may be making it harder to navigate the stress of the pandemic. If you don’t have a working knowledge of your government and its institutions then it’s hard to see how it might help you in a time of crisis, or why it is justified in implementing more restrictive policies like vaccine mandates.

Uneducated Canadians?

If recent history is anything to go by, civic literacy in Canada is in poor shape: According to a 2019 report from the Samara Centre for Democracy, a not-for-profit think tank, only 60 per cent of Canadians could identify their premier in 2015, compared to 90 per cent in 1984.

In 2019, a random sampling of public opinion by The Forum Poll of 1,645 Canadian voters showed that nine out of 10 Canadians would fail the citizenship test given to immigrants to test their basic knowledge about Canada. In 2008, a Dominion Institute and Ipsos Reid poll found that half of Canadians believed that the Prime Minister is elected directly.

The Parliament buildings are seen behind a fence during the Ottawa convoy.
A fence cordons off Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 21, 2022.

The ‘gospel of STEM’

It did not have to be this way. Provincial governments typically relegate civic education to a few compulsory high school courses, or even just one as in the case of New Brunswick and Québec. And while some federal agencies and departments, such as Elections Canada and Canadian Heritage, have a mandate to support civics education the funding for these initiatives is often limited and sporadic.

Instead, political leaders have overwhelmingly preached the gospel of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. Students need to focus on STEM, we are told, because it leads to individual and collective prosperity.

There is certainly some truth to this, but it is a difficult argument to make when anti-vax protesters have blockaded a border crossing that normally sees $323 million worth of goods cross it per day.

Civic disinformation has always cost us, we are now just seeing the bill splashed across the evening news.

Facebook lessons

Ultimately, Canadians will get an education in civics one way or another. What matters is where that education comes from. Will it come from a robust and informed curriculum that teaches citizens about basic institutions like parliamentary democracy, charter rights and the differences between federal and provincial jurisdiction? Or will we simply leave it to YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms to fill in the void?

Both provincial and federal governments can play vital roles here. Provinces could choose to revitalize and expand civics education at the primary, secondary and even post-secondary level. Federal governments could expand their granting streams for civics education while at the same time expanding the mandate of agencies like Election Canada to engage with youth and under-served communities.

These efforts could be further buttressed with help from civil society by enlisting the aid of churches, journalists, unions, sports leagues and NGOs in the effort to educate citizens.

A revitalized effort to combat civic illiteracy won’t solve all of our problems. We will still have political extremism and conspiracy theories. But it stands as one of the best possible defences against the kind of disinformation that we see today.

Carleton Newsroom

The Conversation

Tuesday, February 22, 2022 in
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