Our Government Our Election

Lesson 1.1: What is Democracy?

To understand how we are governed, concepts of democracy will be considered.

Teacher's Background Information: The Ideal of Democracy
Democracy is a complex term. The word is rooted in the Greek nouns demos (people) and kratein (rule). At first this seems simple: the people rule. However, in practice it becomes complicated. Can every person rule? If not, then who actually rules? And what gives legitimacy to their rule?

To ground our understanding of democracy, we will look at its ancient forms in Greece and Rome and its modern-day practice in Canada.

The cradle of western democracy is widely considered to be Athens of 5th century B.C. Athenian citizens directly participated in law-making. They gathered in public squares to debate and then vote on policies. Such an approach is called direct democracy. In Athens, the right to participate was taken seriously: the state paid citizens a day’s wages to attend the assembly. However, Athenian direct democracy was not democracy for all. Only males with citizenship—a mere ten percent of the population—had the right to participate. Around the same time direct democracy began in Athens, representative democracy emerged in the Roman Empire. Roman representative democracy was similar to how we choose our governments today. Individuals elected representatives to government to govern on their behalf.

Greek democracy ended when Macedonia conquered Greece in 338 BC. Roman democracy ended when power centralised in the Imperial Palace following Augustus’s death in 14AD. Pockets of democratic rule could still be found around the world, but for the most part democracy went into hibernation. It was not until the last half of the early modern period (c. 1500-1800) that democracy re-emerged. By the beginning of the 21st century, the majority of countries were considered democracies.

Today, a key aspect for a country to be considered a democracy is a universal franchise (the right to vote for all adult citizens). In Canada, the franchise is almost universal: virtually every adult citizen has the right to vote. The lone exception in Saskatchewan is the chief electoral officer, the person who coordinates and oversees provincial elections. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Canadian democracy was disappointingly close to its ancient Greek derivative: women, minorities, prisoners, younger adults, and people without property could not vote. Many of these restrictions were not lifted until the 1970s.

Since the time of ancient Athens, the concept of the state has grown: states are geographically bigger, have larger populations, and take on more responsibilities. The growth of the state makes the idea of the Athenian public square—where all citizens directly participate in all decision-making—almost impossible. Hence, Canadian democracy is primarily based in the Roman concept of representative democracy. Occasionally we directly decide an issue by referendum, but most often we choose representatives to govern on our behalf.

We know that Canada’s federal, provincial, municipal, and Indigenous governments under the Indian Act are representative democracies, all with a universal franchise. This gets us closer to understanding what exactly democracy is in Canada.

To better define democracy, it is helpful to turn to Canadian political scientist Henry Bertram Mayo. In his 1960 book An Introduction to Democratic Theory, he said that modern western democracy usually includes the four following elements:

  • popular sovereignty: the people have the final say, usually in the form of elections
  • political equality: every person’s vote counts equally
  • political freedom: today, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees foundational freedoms such as freedom of expression and freedom of political association
  • majority rule: the larger number takes precedent over the smaller number, with due consideration given to minority rights.

Mayo’s framework may not definitively define democracy, but it helps capture the basic parameters upon which Canadian representative democracy operates: every adult citizen is free to participate with equal voice, and collectively the larger number will prevail so long as the majority does not trample the rights of minorities.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of democratic education. As Canadian senator Eugene Forsey said, “Government is our creature. We make it, we are ultimately responsible for it.” Because we choose the people who govern us, our rights and responsibilities are the product of the democratic decisions we make. Put more simply, we are not subservient to government. Government is subservient to us.

1. Brainstorm with students what democracy means to them. Use the varied answers to establish that it is hard to precisely define democracy.

2. Break students into smaller groups and distribute What is Democracy? Each group should discuss the statements about democracy amongst themselves. Have groups share with the class the statement that they believe to be most compelling, and explain their reasoning.

3. Reconvene groups so they may create their own definition of democracy.

4. Bring class together to share each group's definition of democracy.

  • How was the process of working together to create a definition of democracy similar to the concept of democracy itself?

5. One more round of the definition-creation process can be added by having the class work together as a whole to define democracy.

6. For a summary of the lesson, have class discuss the following statement:
“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”
- George Bernard Shaw

7. Canada is a representative democracy. Canada is also a liberal democracy. This means that the broad principles of liberalism guide our democratic rule. To better understand the principles of liberal democracy, check out Lesson Three: What is Liberal Democracy? in Democracy and the Rule of Law.

8. For an exploration of the history of the right to vote in Canada, check out the Indigenous People and the Right to Vote in Lesson One of Democracy and the Rule of Law.

9. For an overview of how the Haudenosaunee governed themselves, check out Roots of Indigenous Democracy in Lesson One of Direct Democracy.

10. Astra Taylor’s recent work on the origins and forms of democracy provides valuable insights into the different meanings of democracy. An excellent introduction can be found on CBC’s October 2019 Ideas episode “What is Democracy?”

What is Democracy?


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