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How to engage in democracy between municipal elections

The municipal government has a significant impact on our day-to-day lives. Municipal government is responsible for parks, the water system, roadways, recreational programs, some social service programs and much more.

Although there may be alliances between councillors, in most Canadian municipalities, there aren’t political parties like there are at the provincial or federal levels that require voting along party lines. Every vote at a city council is a free vote.

But like provincial and federal politics, organizations and corporations are trying to influence municipal decisions through lobbying. For individual citizens, it’s both possible and important to stay engaged in the system between municipal elections to help ensure that your council makes decisions based on the public interest.

How to engage in municipal democracy

Democracy means government by the people. Governments at all levels should have processes in place that allow the public to participate, and public officials should consider the public’s opinions and experiential knowledge. There are various ways you can engage in democracy at the municipal level.

Attend council and school board meetings

Discussions and decisions of the council are required to happen at public meetings. It’s easy to tune in to council meetings because they’re steamed online. You can also attend in person. Staying current is still a challenge, however. It’s a time commitment—you must show up weekly to pay attention. Plus, staff reports aren’t always easy to understand. You may find it helpful to create a group that shares the responsibility of attending meetings and reading staff reports so that you can stay informed together.

Idea: consider taking grandchildren to council with you to teach them about participation in democracy. 

Join public engagement and consultation sessions

Municipalities consult the public on future development, land use, social issues, and more. Watch for public notices about upcoming consultations and consider attending to learn more and share your thoughts. Respond to surveys asking for the public’s input on municipal issues and share the survey with others to help encourage participation.

Reach out to your councillor directly

You can always call, email or send a letter to your city councillor to express your thoughts on an issue of importance. Your city councillor’s contact information is available on the municipality’s website or by calling your municipality’s information line.

Request to speak at council

You can request the opportunity to delegate to your city council. Usually, delegations are short – under 10 minutes – so you’ll want to prepare a succinct and powerful presentation that blends storytelling with facts to lay out key points to support your issue. Check your municipality’s website for information and guidelines about delegating.

Volunteer for local organizations

There are organizations in your community focused on various issues that are related to municipal democracy. Find an organization working on a topic you care about and join them. Through that organization, you may be able to interact with public officials and lend your skills to advocacy efforts.

Join municipal committees

Municipalities often put out calls for volunteers for municipal committees. If you have experiential knowledge on a topic, this is a great way to engage in democracy. You will meet people and have more direct ways of influencing decisions.

Attend rallies and demonstrations

There’s strength in numbers. If there’s a community demonstration happening about an issue you care about, showing up is a simple way to help the cause.

Volunteer to support civics education at local high schools

Suppose you’re quite knowledgeable and passionate about democracy. In that case, you may consider connecting with your local high school to see if there are opportunities to volunteer to support the civics/government courses. Engaging young people in democracy and helping them to recognize that their role goes beyond voting in elections can help to support democracy in the future.

How to increase your chances of being heard at the municipal level

We’ve provided various ways you can engage in local democracy. How you engage can also impact the success of your efforts. Here are some tips to help ensure your voice is heard:

Find points of common ground

Before entering a situation where you know there will be an opposing view, spend some time considering what the opposing points and perspectives will be. Consider where you have common ground. If making a presentation, you can start by emphasizing common ground.

Be respectful

It’s normal to feel an emotional response to injustices or issues you’re passionate about. Disagreement can be valuable, and how you disagree will impact whether you build support around your point of view. When a conflict gets personal, it’s easy to slip into a self-righteous tone or start prosecuting the other side and dismissing anything that doesn’t align with your thoughts. Be careful not to attack the person but focus on the task or challenge. Task conflict can be helpful because it’ll surface various points of view. Listen closely; there may be times you can agree—and agreeing with an argument can disarm the other side. If you can listen with an open mind, you can stay humble and hopefully help move everyone closer to a good solution. 

Focus on a small number of critical points

More is not better. Pick a few solid arguments and focus on those. You can water down your best points when you start to layer on additional ideas that aren’t as strong.

Stay curious

Staying open and curious can help you respond in situations of disagreement. Think like a scientist. Use questions when you respond. Be willing to search for more information and find ways to leave both sides better off.

Back up key points with facts and stories

Do your preparation work so that you have the research and facts to back up the key arguments you’re making. Gather stories that you can offer as illustrations of the points you’re making. Stories are memorable.

Remember, school boards are elected too

School boards are also elected and have similar processes to municipal councils. You may also be interested in engaging in democracy at the school board level.

When people think about what participation in a democracy means, they think of voting, but there are many ways to participate in a democracy. Various views need to be surfaced to help public officials understand all sides of an issue when decisions are being made. Your efforts to participate in democracy beyond elections, and to encourage others to join, can help make sure decisions are in the public interest.

RTOERO members have opportunities to participate in democracy through our advocacy work. RTOERO advocates for critical issues affecting older adults and Canadians of all ages. Through our local districts, members often get involved in public engagement at the municipal level. Do you work in any role in the education sector in Canada? You’re eligible for membership, and it’s free until you retire. Sign up today.