Canadian Manufacturing

What Canada can learn from Ireland on citizen engagement to bolster democracy

by Seána Glennon, Doctoral Fellow, Constitutional Law, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa   

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Citizens’ assemblies are not a silver bullet — their impact depends on the appetite of politicians to implement their recommendations and many other factors.

Details of Federal Parliament Building of Canada in Ottawa, North America

Adobe stock by Deyan.

Canadian democracy is under pressure. Recent challenges have ranged from Ottawa’s so-called Freedom Convoy protests in 2022, which resulted in the federal government invoking the Emergencies Act (unjustifiably, according to a recent court ruling), to Ontario’s enactment of legislation reducing the size of Toronto City Council during the 2018 municipal election.

Perhaps most worrying, however, is the consistent trend that shows citizens are increasingly disillusioned with their democratic institutions.

This is a moment that calls out for democratic renewal. In the search for inspiration for methods of re-engaging citizens, Canada might look to Ireland.

Irish inspiration

Ireland has become a trailblazer internationally for integrating citizens’ assemblies into its democratic process. Citizens’ assemblies are a form of what are known as “deliberative mini-publics,” representative samples of ordinary citizens who deliberate together and make proposals for reform.


Modern examples of deliberative mini-publics stem from American political scientist Robert Dahl’s idea of what he called “minipopulus” in which a random cohort of citizens is tasked with deliberating on an issue with the assistance of experts. Ideally, it then produces a reasoned judgment on the best policies to pursue.

The judgments of the minipopulus, Dahl argued, would represent the views of the wider community if it was given the opportunity to access the best knowledge available and engage in a deliberative process. In other words, the legitimacy of the minipopulus’s views would derive from the legitimacy of democracy itself.

One of the world’s first citizens’ assemblies took place in Canada in 2004, in the form of the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly which deliberated on electoral reform. It set the model for the subsequent Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on the same subject in 2007.

In each case, the assembly’s recommendations were put to referendum, but in neither case did the referendum pass. The momentum around citizens’ assemblies in Canada has since faded.

Irish abortion laws

The Irish experience has been different. Citizens’ assemblies in Ireland began in 2012 in response to public distrust of elite institutions following the 2008 recession.

The Constitutional Convention — an assembly including both elected representatives and ordinary citizens — was mandated to make recommendations on a range of matters, from marriage equality to the voting age.

In 2016, the Irish government established the first citizens’ assembly composed entirely of randomly selected citizens. Its first topic was Ireland’s constitutional position on abortion.

Abortion was an explosive issue in Ireland since the controversial insertion of a 1983 amendment to the country’s constitution that effectively banned abortion in most circumstances. Public demand for a referendum on the issue had been building, and the government’s decision to establish a citizens’ assembly was criticized by some as a stalling tactic.

Nonetheless, the assembly ultimately recommended a radical liberalization of the law to allow for abortion without restriction for the first time in Irish history.

Following the resounding referendum result in favour of this proposal, lawmakers enacted a new legislative framework, based around the model recommended by the assembly — an extraordinary example of tangible mini-public impact on a landmark legal reform.

Not a silver bullet

Of course, not all citizen processes are so impactful. Indeed, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly has produced recommendations on other topics that have not achieved the same — or any — uptake.

But since 2016, citizens’ assemblies have started to become part of the architecture of constitutional and policy change in Ireland. Since 2020, assemblies have taken place on gender equalitybiodiversitymodels of local government and drug use. It remains to be seen how or if the recommendations will eventually result in constitutional or legislative changes.

Citizens’ assemblies are not a silver bullet — their impact depends on the appetite of politicians to implement their recommendations and many other factors.

There is, however, a strong case for revisiting citizens’ assemblies in Canada, not least the significant contemporary challenges facing Canadian democracy. The perceived failings of prior Canadian experiments with citizens’ assemblies are no reason to abandon these efforts.

The disappointing outcomes of the referendums that followed those processes were not attributable to a failure of citizens to deliberate and agree on reform; the reasons for failure were many, both legal and political.

By all accounts, the participants in those assemblies showed enthusiasm and energy at becoming engaged in shaping their country’s values.

Canadian opportunities

A raft of areas of law in Canada are now in need of reform. The federal government has outlined a range of priorities for the Law Commission of Canada, including racism in the law, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, access to justice, climate change and technological changes.

The Irish experience has shown that citizens are capable not only of deliberating on broad constitutional issues, but technical legislative matters too.

What’s more, citizens’ assemblies can serve a particularly important role when elected representatives have a vested interest. That includes on topics like electoral reform because it may be unrealistic to expect politicians to substantially reform a system that resulted in their election in the first place. Citizens have no such conflicts.

Canada has so far avoided the more extreme attacks on democracy witnessed by its nearest neighbour, the United States. In the face of declining public participation, however, there is no room for complacency. A fresh approach to citizen engagement is an exciting prospect, worthy of serious consideration.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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