Another Canada is possible

Wednesday 28 May 2003, by Shannon DEVINE

Across the country, citizens are demanding greater influence over decisions in their communities, making politicians accountable to their constituents once again. Inspired by the participatory democracy flourishing in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, where residents set priorities for 20 percent of the municipal budget, a committed group of Canadians has expressed the desire to see budgets and community projects better reflect the needs of their neighbourhoods, towns, and cities.

"You have a system where people vote for parties, or a person in a party, and the larger level you get, you have no real power," said Catalyst Centre co-founder Matthew Adams. "Participatory democracy helps shake that up a little." 

Championing the World Social Forum rallying cry "another world is possible," concerned citizens, organizations, and municipal governments have created a number of initiatives intended to improve the state of local democracy in Canada. These range from widened public consultations, like those underway in Guelph, to deeper systems of popular decision-making like the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC). 

A Canadian version of the participatory budget

Like the citizens of Porto Alegre, residents of Guelph exercise direct control over community plans and the municipal budget. In the Ontario city of 100 000 people, members of six neighbourhood associations annually decide on projects for their area, for which the city provides $60 000 in funding. All projects are decided upon by consensus.

Unlike the Porto Alegre model, where the mayor and city councillors have final approval over all projects, Guelph city councillors cannot reject any of the proposed ventures: the budgets are pre-approved, granting the neighbourhood associations a virtual carte blanche for their communities. Current projects include collective kitchens, fresh produce boxes, family literacy programs, and personal and family counseling.

Smart Guelph, a planning exercise initiated by the municipal government, held an 18-month community-designed consultation process involving over 1 200 residents. Citizens were asked what they value about the city and how they would like it to look and operate in 25 years. Eight core themes and principles, such as "Distinctive and Diverse" and "Compact and Connected," were gleaned from the results and will guide Guelph’s city government.

Proposed new projects and programs are measured against these core principles by city councillors. "There is an accountability because it requires staff and councillors to look at it and think it is facilitating six of the eight principles, or whatever it happens to be," said Craig Manley, the city’s manager of policy planning. Accountability stops there, however; the main shortcoming of Smart Guelph is the lack of direct input by residents beyond the initial consultation process. Other communities will want to keep their eye on the project, currently in its early stages.

In 2000, the TCHC became the first housing authority in North America to implement a deliberative Porto Alegre-style budget in response to tenants’ desire for greater self-determination. The 164 000 residents of public housing decide on $10 million of the TCHC’s annual expenses. Buildings are divided into Community Operating Units (COUs), which meet to brainstorm and elect a representative to the budget council. This council considers their ideas and awards funding to each COU. 

Encouraged by the success in Guelph, citizens in Toronto are agitating for a broader participatory process in which residents would allocate 10 percent of the municipal budget by 2010. An ad-hoc committee, the Toronto Participatory Budgeting Network, was formed in October 2001 and operates from the Catalyst Centre, a non-profit organization focusing on popular education and research for social change. "We are interested in participatory budgeting as a way to promote democratic dialogue and promote democratic opportunities for residents," said Catalyst’s Adams. "Local politics provide a great potential for democratic involvement, but it doesn’t always happen in reality."

The centre has hosted meetings, guest lectures, and workshops promoting participatory budgeting and popular economics. Adams has high hopes for what he sees as a genuine movement towards participatory democracy. "It is possible that local participatory budgeting would help act as a catalyst to open up and democratize the federal, large-scale issues," he said.

Shannon Devine, special collaboration

Photo : In Canada, citizens are getting together to demand more participation in decision-making - a movement that has become a way of life in Southern countries like Argentina.

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