Democracy in Canada: Fact or Fiction?

Recently I was discussing Telford Taylor’s memoir on the Nuremberg trials with someone. That individual responded with how “lucky” we are to live in a “democratic” state like Canada. Although this particular individual is an immigrant and might not be familiar with Canadian history and politics, their statement nonetheless expresses a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a “democracy”.

Let me be clear: Canada is a state founded on the theft and pillaging of indigenous lands and resources and the genocide of indigenous peoples, the slavery of Chinese and African-Americans, and the exploitation of all working-peoples. Canada is not, has never been, and was never intended to be “democratic”.

The Origins and Definition of Democracy

“Democracy” comes from the Greek words, demos, meaning people, and kratos, meaning rule. It is widely believed that the democracy first developed in the Greek city-state of Athens around the fifth century BCE[1]. However, as Narcisse Tiky definitively argues, “democratic principles spread from ancient Egypt to Athens, that Africa is the birthplace of democracy, not Greece. A study of the political organization of the precolonial African Kingdoms of Mossi, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai…[will] show that the practice of democracy was pervasive and pre-dated the Western domination of the continent through the Atlantic Slave Trade and colonialism”[2]. African democracy, moreover, was in some respects superior to that which existed in ancient Athens. Athenian democracy disenfranchised slaves, former slaves, immigrants, people of foreign descent, youth, and women[3]. Around a thousand years earlier, “[s]uch religious, political, and economic discrimination was alien to the Africans,” notes Tiky, as African “social and political organizations could not discriminate against any group of people on any basis; as even the slaves played a role in government processes”[4].

Most scholars today equate democracy with certain institutional or procedural processes and the rights of citizens, including the existence of free and fair elections, equality before the law, the existence and protection of political liberties, etc. In Polyarchy, Robert Dahl, a former Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, argued that a democracy is defined, inter alia, by the right to vote and the right to be elected, free and fair elections, and freedom of association and freedom of expression. Similarly, Larry Diamond, a Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Sanford University, argues that democracy “consists of four basic elements”: “A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections”; “The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life”; “Protection of the human rights of all citizens”; and “A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.” For simplicity’s sake, we will use Diamond’s criteria for our examination of democracy. 

Free and Fair Elections

Voting in free and fair elections is widely perceived as the pinnacle of democracy, especially by Western liberals. While it is difficult to conceive of a democratic society without the right to vote in free and fair elections, which can take many different forms other than simply voting for a handful of virtually indistinguishable political parties at set intervals, if we accept this criterion as a benchmark for democracy, one can only conclude that Canada is not democratic.

Firstly, the ability to vote, far from being the pinnacle of anything, is the minimum level of participation possible in a political system. David Van Reybrouck, in an article published in the Guardian, eloquently described the absurdity of the voting booth as the highest form of civic participation: “Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?”[5]. As Barbara A. Arrighi and David J. Maume note in their essay Workplace Control and Political Participation, numerous other scholars argue that there are far more engaging and profound ways to participate in society than voting. “For these scholars the political is not an insular sphere to be dominated by a few, but is connected to every arena in life, especially the workplace.” Our places of work having a far larger influence in our day-to-day lives than elections, it is in the workplace that “we learn to become either active participants in the governance of ourselves or passive, apathetic laborers and citizens,” not the voting booth[6].

Secondly, free and fair elections can hardly be said to have existed throughout most of Canada’s history, when masses of people, if not the majority of the population, were denied the right to vote. At the time of Confederation in 1867, the right to vote was restricted to male property-owners. Women were denied the right to vote in federal elections until 50 years after Confederation, in 1918, a right that wasn’t extended to provincial elections in all provinces until 1940. Racial and religious restrictions on voting rights weren’t eliminated until 1948 and 1955 respectively, although Aboriginal people still couldn’t vote until 1960[7]. Thus, when Canadian soldiers were fighting to allegedly make the world safe for democracy in WWI, the Allied invasion of Russia, WWII, and the Korean War, Canada maintained racial and religious barriers that prevented many Canadians from voting.

Thirdly, elections can hardly be said to be free and fair in Canada when the majority vote is often meaningless. According to Fair Vote Canada, Canada has had 16 “majority” governments since WWI, wherein a single party controls 100% of the power, but only four of these actually had a majority of the popular vote. Since the 1960s alone, of the eight “majority” governments in Canada, only one had the majority of the popular vote[8]. At a press conference in Jordan, John Baird, Canada’s Foreign Minister under Stephen Harper, who led a “majority” government with 39.6% of the popular vote, was embarrassed by reporters who were curious how Canada could have a majority government without a majority of the popular vote. After praising Israeli democracy and criticizing Iran’s dictatorship, a reporter commented that Canada sounded more like a dictatorship than a democracy, at which point Baird ended the press conference[9]. When “a voting system wastes votes, provides no representation for nearly half of the voters, distorts election outcomes, and routinely creates phony majority governments,” it can hardly be described as free and fair[10]. Moreover, Canada’s head of state is an unelected monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, living in a foreign state, and monarchy is anathema to democracy.

Fourthly, elections can hardly be said to be free and fair in a society where inequality is systemic. Canada is a capitalist, indeed imperialist, state, where human rights are subordinated to the rights of capital (profit). A report by Princeton and Northwestern universities regarding wealth and political inequality in the U.S. is equally applicable to Canada. According to the report, not “only do ordinary citizens” in the U.S. exercise no “uniquely substantial power over policy decisions” but that “they have little or no independent influence at all.” Compared to the “economic elites,” which “have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy,” average, working-class Americans “appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The report concludes that:

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule…When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it[11].

If the existence of free and fair elections is a defining principle of democracy, Canada is not democratic. To claim otherwise is to imply that a free and fair voting system can disenfranchise people based on property-ownership or wealth, sex, religion, ethnicity, disability, etc., comprising a large number of people if not the overwhelmingly majority of the population, distort election outcomes, and enable economic elites to exert greater influence in shaping public policy.

Mass Participation

Voting is the minimum possible participation in politics and civic life (see above). Yet throughout the West, that bastion of freedom and democracy, more and more people are disengaging from elections. Only 55.7% of voting-eligible Americans voted in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election[12]. Low voter turnout is not a uniquely American phenomenon, however. According to A. Hadjar and M. Beck, “Voter turnout seems to have been on the decline during the last few decades in most industrial democracies. Looking at the European elections, which are generally characterised by high rates of non-voting, the percentage of people who abstain from voting has gradually risen, from 38 percent in 1979 to 57 percent in 2009. Regarding national elections, the same problem can be observed. In Switzerland the rate of non-voting regarding national parliamentary elections increased from over 30 percent in 1944 to about 55 percent in the late 1990s. In West Germany, non-voting — which used to range between 10 and 20 percent — rose to the level of 20 percent during the 1980s and remained on this level. The United Kingdom has suffered a major and sharp increase to 40 percent in the 1990s”[13]. Declining levels of voter turnout have serious repercussions for democratic societies. Low levels of voter turnout encourage politicians to cater to the interests of a small minority of the population, usually the wealthy or other powerful interest groups, leading to deeper political and economic inequalities[14]. Regarding elections in the U.K., Ferdinand Mount writes, moreover, that “If only just over half of us bother to vote at all in national elections and scarcely a third in local elections, the bureaucracy begins to think of elections as a tiresome and increasingly insignificant interruption in its continuous exercise of power. What develops is… ‘executive democracy’ and… more rudely described… ‘elective dictatorship’”[15].

The declining levels of voter turnout are ultimately a reflection of the failure of liberal democracy in the very same states that are most vociferous in promoting democracy in the Global South. Describing this failure, P. Parvin writes that Western

liberal democratic states no longer ensure the fair value of the political liberties for their poorest members; they have failed, and continue to fail, to ensure the requisite social, political, civic, and economic environment necessary for citizens to learn to articulate their views in ways that others can understand and accept, think of themselves as citizens joined in a collective political project with others, or internalise the norms of reasonableness necessary to engage in productive democratic debates with others. The reconfiguration of civil society and its associations has closed off the principal routes through which poorer citizens used to obtain political representation and social capital, and markets have not taken up the slack: indeed, they have made the situation worse. As traditional non-political and mass-membership associations capable of mobilising citizens of low socio-economic status decline and have been replaced with newer associations and groups which mobilise citizens of a predominantly higher socio-economic status, and as the opportunity for entering into non-economic relations with one another has diminished in the face of expanding free markets and a withering of civil society, so social capital has become concentrated among the wealthy. As a consequence, we are seeing not just a concentration of power and influence among elite organizations and institutions which operate at a distance from the citizenry at large, but also the emergence of a ‘political’ class, whose members tend to be of high socio-economic status, engage in a range of formal and informal political activities, and have a disproportionately high degree of political knowledge and influence, and an ‘apolitical’ class, who tend to be of a lower socio-economic status, do not tend to engage formally or informally in politics, and have a disproportionately low degree of political knowledge and influence[16].

Human Rights

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the protection of human rights and the holding of free and fair elections “are essential elements of democracy”[17]. Elections in Canada and many other Western democracies are by no means free or fair, being heavily biased in favor of economic elites and the status quo (see above). But what about the protection of human rights? Human rights, despite being formally protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other treatises, are almost pathologically disregarded by Canadian political leaders, thus making a mockery of any claim that Canada is democratic.

The genocide of indigenous peoples in Canada and other Western settler-colonial “democracies” is a case in point. Between the 1870s and the 1990s more than 150,000 Aboriginal children in Canada attended residential schools[18]. Decades before the Nazis exterminated Jewish men, women, and children as the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish Question, Duncan Campbell Scott, the architect of the residential school system in Canada, described the system as “being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem”[19].

With the support of the Catholic Church and to a lesser extent churches of other denominations[20], the Canadian government, writes Dr. Pamela D. Palmater, forcibly “apprehended Indigenous children from their communities and forced them to live in residential schools under the guise of civilizing them with education”[21]. But instead of receiving an education, as few Aboriginal children received more than a sixth-grade education, some still being illiterate upon being discharged[22], and consistent with the Canadian government’s intent to eliminate the ‘Indian Problem’, most of the children who attended residential schools “were starved, beaten, tortured, raped, and medically experimented on”[23]. According to Kevin D. Annett in the report Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust, the residential schools “were structured like concentration camps, on a hierarchical military basis under the absolute control of a Principal appointed jointly by church and state, and who was usually a clergyman”[24].

The barbaric conditions in these veritable “death traps,” as various inspectors described them[25], were first noted by Dr. Peter Bryce in 1909. After touring several residential schools in western Canada and British Columbia, Bryce found an average mortality rate of between 35-60%[26]. While most of these deaths were attributed to tuberculosis, the high mortality rate was, Bryce believed, due to “conditions [that] are being deliberately created in our residential schools to spread infectious diseases,” a fact that has since been confirmed by survivor testimonies as well as government and church officials. In response to Bryce’s findings, Duncan Campbell Scott (quoted above), wrote: “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating [sic] so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem [emphasis added]”[27].

Several residential school survivors have described how residential school officials deliberately tried to infect them with tuberculosis. “I was forced to sleep in the same bed with kids who were dying of tuberculosis,” Mabel Sport testified to IHRAAM officers. “That was at the Catholic Christie residential school around 1942. They were trying to kill us off, and it nearly worked. They did the same thing at Protestant Indian schools, three kids to a bed, healthy ones with the dying.” George Harris similarly testified to IHAARM officers:

We were expendable. Our lives had no value. Whenever we got sick at the Kuper Island school we were completely ignored. My mother was even forced to sleep in the same bed with kids who had tuberculosis. That was common. The church people were trying to kill us off. Tuberculosis spread like wildfire among us because of the policy of infecting us. So many of us died from that, and from the food they made us eat, which was rancid and filled with bugs. Anything was permitted if it killed Indians[28].

Trevor Jones, an Anglican Church official, further confirmed the deliberate policy of killing off Aboriginal people with tuberculosis, at a public gathering in Toronto in 1953. According to Jones, the Canadian government’s policy of “not hospitalizing Indians and Eskimos with tuberculosis” was due to an “unofficial attitude…that they were dying races and wouldn’t last long”[29].

Even more Aboriginal children in residential schools suffered severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. To “kill the Indian in the child” staff at residential schools used such methods as: inserting needles into the tongues of Aboriginal children who dared to speak their native language, forcing Aboriginal children to eat their own vomit, starvation, public beatings with straps or other objects, forced labour in unsafe work environments, sexual abuse; etc[30]. The latter was so prevalent that at least 1 in 5 children who attended residential schools were sexually abused, The Globe and Mail reported[31]. According to Cheryle Partridge, residential schools “taught Aboriginal children that they should be proud when they were hand-picked to serve as sexual playthings to their so-called protectors. Boys and girls alike, were sexually abused by their guardians. Aboriginal children lost their childhood, their trust, and their innocence in those acts of violence against their small, unformed bodies”[32].

According to William Aguiar and Regine Halseth, the trauma Aboriginal children experienced at residential schools has “left ongoing and devastating impacts on the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Residential schools eroded and undermined all aspects of well-being for Aboriginal peoples through disruption of the structure, cohesion and quality of family life; loss of cultural identity; diminished parenting skills; and low self-esteem and self-concept problems…These traumatic impacts have been felt not only by those with direct experience with residential schools — they have also been transmitted to subsequent generations through various psychological, physiological and social processes. The schools left an historical and emotional legacy of shame, loss, and self-hatred that is the root cause of addiction and many of the associated social problems facing Aboriginal communities today”[33]. 

A “microcosm of intergenerational trauma,” notes award-winning author Joseph Boyden, is the isolated Cree reserve of Attawapiskat[34]. Between 1902-76, Aboriginal children from Attawapiskat were sent to the Catholic-run St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario. The school became infamous for torturing Aboriginal children as young as six-years-old with a homemade electric chair for “punishment and sport”[35]. In its investigation of the school, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) documented 860 cases of children being raped, sexually assaulted, and tortured by 180 identified perpetrators[36]. In 2016, Attawapiskat made headlines when eleven people attempted suicide. “You can’t attempt cultural genocide for 140 years, for seven generations — the last of these schools closing their doors in 1996 — and not expect some very real fallout from that,” Boyden writes. “Attawapiskat is a brutal example”[37].

St. Anne’s Residential School, infamous for its electric chair. Photo Source:

It is estimated that more than 6,000 Aboriginal children died as a result of attending residential schools. This means that an Aboriginal child at a residential school had a higher chance of dying than a Canadian solider in WWII[38]. (In 1907 a magazine reported how “Indian boys and girls are dying like flies…Even war seldom shows as large a percentage of fatalities as does the education system we have imposed on our Indian wards.”[39]) Many of these children were buried in unmarked mass graves that have only recently been discovered, including at least 50 bodies found beneath an RV park in Brandon, Manitoba[40], and between 10 to 15 burial sites in east-central Saskatchewan[41]. Just this weekend, the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years of age, were discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops, BC[42].

Kamloops Residential School, where the remains of 215 children were found. Photo Source:

Adding to the multitude of horrors experienced by Aboriginal peoples in Residential Schools, more than a thousand Aboriginal women have been coercively sterilized in Canada. Under Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act (1928-72), the first and most aggressive compulsory sterilization act enacted in Canada, 2,800 sterilizations were performed under the auspices of the provincially mandated Eugenics Board[43][44].

While the legislation allowed the province to sterilize those deemed to have mental disabilities and was not officially directed at any one ethnic group, according to research by Timothy Christian, those “most likely to fit this categorization and on whom legislation in Alberta was disproportionately applied based on their numerical significance in the general population were Aboriginal peoples.” As Karen Stote writes in her ground-breaking book, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, “when subjected to tests” — such as IQ and other tests — “based on specific Western European knowledge, those who are not part of this group tend to do poorly.” Immigrants of “non-Western European descent and Aboriginal peoples were most likely to score below the level of sound intelligence and this also influenced a diagnosis as mentally defective. Grekul and her colleagues estimate that 77 percent of Aboriginal patients presented to the Eugenics Board were diagnosed as mentally defective, as compared to 46 percent for Western Europeans and 44 percent of Eastern Europeans”[45]. Later amendments to the Act further increased the likelihood of Aboriginal peoples being sterilized. Fearing the Act to be too restrictive and to limit the possibility of patients refusing to be sterilized, the Act was amended in 1937, in which “the consent requirement for ‘mental defectives’ was excised. This amendment allowed the Eugenics Board to compel the sterilization of any patient it defined as mentally defective and who was likely to transmit this defectiveness to his/her progeny”. Consequently, once a patient was defined as mentally defective according to the criteria of the Eugenics Board, “a patient no longer had much say in whether they would be sterilized”[46].

The inherently racist, colonialist, and undemocratic nature of the Act, if it isn’t already obvious, was demonstrated by the “terrific increase” in which Aboriginal peoples were sterilized in the province once opposition to the Act and its repeal became more likely, almost as if the province made one last ditch effort to sterilize as many Aboriginal people while it still (legally) could[47]. Alberta wasn’t the only province to have enacted compulsory sexual sterilization legislation. British Columbia’s Sexual Sterilization Act (1933-73) enabled the province’s Eugenics Board “to sterilize any inmate of a provincial institution deemed ‘hereditarily unfit,’ specifically, any inmate of an industrial school or industrial home [Residential School] for girls’[48]. Moreover, other provinces, despite lacking specific acts enabling coercive sterilization, have nonetheless sterilized women, especially Aboriginal women, without their consent, including as recently as 2017[49]. In response to such allegations, and despite his self-proclaimed record of reconciliation with Aboriginal people and support for women’s rights and gender equality, it is worth noting that Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected a proposal by First Nations chiefs to change the Criminal Code to explicitly outlaw coerced sterilizations in late 2018[50].

Other racial and ethnic minorities have suffered brutal treatment at the hands of “democratic” Canada.

According to historian Afua Cooper, before Confederation, “Slavery was the dominant condition of life for black people in this country for well over 200 years. So we have been enslaved for longer than we have been free”[51]. Cooper is correct in her description of the false moral superiority that many Canadians feel about slavery vis-à-vis the U.S. and the Underground Railroad: “The Underground Railroad is pushed to the forefront. It’s a triumphant story. It makes the Americans look bad and we’ve always had this posturing with regards to the Americans. But we don’t know about what happened before the Underground Railroad, which is that indigenous and black Canadians endured slavery, and that is the main page of the history before 1867”[52]. While smaller in scale than other slave-owning societies, slavery in Canada was no less brutal, “with beatings, rapes, dogs hunting down escapees when they fled their masters, and even executions”[53].

Although slavery was officially abolished, it continued in new and equally brutal forms. More than 15,000 Chinese were brought to Canada in the early 1880s to serve as virtual slaves in the construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad[54]. These Chinese workers were forced to perform “the most dangerous jobs in the already dangerous task of blasting through the Rocky Mountains to lay the Western section of the track. Many were killed by landslides, cave-ins, disease, and explosions”[55].

Chinese railroad workers in Canada. Photo Source:

According to some estimates, as many as 4,000 Chinese workers died[56], including 1 worker for every mile of track laid between Calgary and Vancouver[57]. Yet these same Chinese workers who built Canada’s first transcontinental railroad were deemed “unfit for full citizenship” according to a 1902 Royal Commission report[58]. That report fully conformed to Sir John A. Macdonald’s white supremacism, described by historian Timothy Stanley:

In 1885, John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that, if the Chinese were not excluded from Canada, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed …” This was the precise moment in the histories of Canada and the British Dominions when Macdonald personally introduced race as a defining legal principle of the state…

Macdonald’s comments came as he justified an amendment taking the vote away from anyone “of Mongolian or Chinese race.” He warned that, if the Chinese (who had been in British Columbia as long as Europeans) were allowed to vote, “they might control the vote of that whole Province” and their “Chinese representatives” would foist “Asiatic principles,” “immoralities,” and “eccentricities” on the House “which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles.” He further claimed that “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics” and that “the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.” For Macdonald, Canada was to be the country that restored a pure Aryan race to its past glory, and the Chinese threatened this purity[59].

During WWII over 20,000 Japanese Canadians were forcibly relocated and interned for ‘national security’[60]. By 1942, Canada’s “democratic” government under Mackenzie King, who had a “man crush” on Hitler and was enthralled with Nazism[61], all Japanese Canadians living within 160 kilometers of the Pacific Coast had been “uprooted, interned and incarcerated” without charge, writes Jordan Stranger-Ross[62]. Although the U.S. similarly interned Japanese, Canada was even more racist and brutal than the U.S. As Roy Miki describes, unlike in the U.S., Japanese Canadians were forced to pay for their own forced internment with the proceeds of their confiscated properties that were sold without their consent[63]. Moreover, Canada continued to intern Japanese Canadians even after the war. “Thus, for instance, while the U.S. recognized that citizens could not be held against their will once the military emergency had passed, Canada was figuring out ways to retain control over Japanese Canadians once the war had ended — that is, after the expiry of the War Measures Act. Using its powers under the War Measures Act, the government produced the National Emergency Transitional Powers Act of 1945, an Act that maintained its control over Japanese Canadians. When this Act expired 18 months later, the government passed the Continuation of Transitional Measures Act to extend its control further. Instead of following U.S. policy, Canada prohibited Japanese Canadians from returning to the west coast until April 1, 1949, a measure that had nothing to do with national security. And they made it even more difficult for people to return by liquidating all their properties, belongings and businesses, to erase their collective presence on the west coast”[64].

Japanese Canadian internment camp. Photo Source:

Besides racial and ethnic minorities, the history of the labour movement within Canada seriously challenges Canada’s alleged “democratic” credentials. Just as in the U.S. and other capitalist states, whenever workers have challenged the rights of employers to exploit labour, Canadian authorities have been all too happy to use the police and military to suppress, even kill, them.

On September 29, 1931, miners on strike for daily working hours, better working conditions, an end to the company store monopoly, and a wage increase, participated in a solidarity parade in Estevan, Saskatchewan. RCMP officers opened fire on the striking minders and their families, killing three miners. No police officer was ever charged. To this day RCMP officers or their supporters continue to vandalize the graves of those killed in Estevan by removing the phrase “Least We Forget. Murdered in Estevan Sept 29 1931 by RCMP”[65].

RCMP officers in Estevan, SK, 1931. Photo Source: Wikipedia

The struggles of the Cape Breton coalminers and steelworkers are of special importance to me since my paternal relatives were coalminers and steelworkers in Cape Breton. Paul MacEwan, in Miners and Steelworkers: Labour in Cape Breton, describes in lucid detail the kind of “democracy” that existed for coalminers and steelworkers in Nova Scotia. According to MacEwan, during the 1923 strike, when 12,000 miners shut down the mines, “the press reported that 1200 of His Majesty’s calvary had been despatched to Cape Breton. The strike had progressed about a week when several British warships were observed off the coast by fisherman. Rumours circulated that Royal Marines were onboard the ships and that bombing planes were being readied for an aerial bombardment”[66]. At Whitney Pier, “when many worshipers were returning from church services, a mounted squadron was unleashed on the people of Whitney Pier. There was no picket line, rally, or demonstration that this was directed at; it was designed simply to terrorize the strikers and the general populace. The mounted police were armed with sticks, poles, and clubs. They charged up the main street, Victoria Road, at a full gallop, beating down everything in their way. Small children, women, and the aged and infirm were all attacked.” J. B. McLachlan, a witness to the events, offered this description:

On Sunday night last the provincial police, in the most brutal manner, rode down the people of Whitney Pier who were on the street, most of whom were coming from church. Neither age, sex, nor physical disability were proof against these brutes. One old woman over 70 years of age was beaten into insensibility and may die. A boy of nine years old was trampled under the horses hooves and had his breast bone crushed in. A woman, being beaten with a police club, gave premature birth to a child. The child is dead and the woman’s life is despaired of. Men and women were beaten up inside their own homes…[67].

Cape Breton coalminers and steelworkers vs police, circa 1920s. Photo Source: Wikipedia

One might argue that this was the past, that Canada’s “democratic” system has since been improved. But has it really?

In 2019, a Guardian article revealed that “Canadian police were prepared to shoot Indigenous land defenders blockading construction of a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia, according to documents seen by the Guardian”[68]. According to the documents, RCMP commanders instructed officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” against the roadblock erected by the Wet’suwet’en people[69]. Another report, cited by The Tyee, reveals that “the RCMP and pipeline company officials worked closely together on strategy”[70]. The fact that snipers were deployed against unarmed protestors in close collaboration with for-profit interests not even 2 years ago makes a mockery of any claim that Canada is a “democracy”!

Heavily militarized RCMP officers ordered to “sterilize” Indigenous protest. Photo Source, The Tyee
Indigenous woman at an anti-fracking protest in New Brunswick vs. RCMP. Photo Source:

There are many other instances of peaceful workers, Indigenous peoples, and other protestors being brutally attacked by police.

Rule of Law

Diamond’s final criterion for a democratic society is the “rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.” As described above, throughout Canada’s history and the history of many other Western “democracies,” masses of people, if not the overwhelming majority of the population, have been denied the right to vote because of their sex, ethnicity, religion, etc., the majority does not always rule, and political power is monopolized by the rich. In such a fundamentally unequal society, how can the rule of law be applied equally?

Woman shot in the face with a tear gas canister in Quebec, 2015. Photo Source:

The law in Canada is not and never has been applied equally to all people. A 2019 report from the Council of Canadian Academies found that a) Indigenous peoples are 11 times more likely to be accused of homicide, b) 56% more likely to be victims of violent crime, and c) represent 25% of the male prison population and 35 percent of the female prison population[71]. Moreover, an Indigenous person in Canada is 10 times more likely to have been shot and killed by police, according to CTV News[72].

Statistics alone don’t do justice to the fundamental inequality before the law in Canada.

In April 1879, the then Director of the RCMP admitted that the RCMP had broken into more than 400 premises without a warrant (i.e., illegally) since 1970[73]. Imagine if non-RCMP officers had committed such crimes?!

In October 1988, in a “dirty tricks” campaign the RCMP bombed and oil site in Alberta, which was later blamed on an Alberta farmer who had complained about oil pollution[74].

Lorne and Caroline Brown document the RCMP’s extensive list of crimes in their book, An Unauthorized History of the RCMP.

In Canada, like all capitalist states, “rich people are less likely to be caught or charged, less aggressively prosecuted and less likely to go to jail even if convicted,” Gene Monin writes in Sault St. Marie’s The Sault Star[75]. Activist Yves Engler succinctly describes this disparity in a 2013 article:

One law for the rulers and another for the rest of us — wasn’t that supposed to have ended with feudalism?

If a poor person is caught taking a computer or some other piece of property from a federal building you can bet police will be called and the thief will go before a judge to decide if she/he goes to jail. Yet when a Senator who is paid at least $132,000 per year in salary illegally claims many times the value of a stolen computer as a “living expense” they simply have to return the money.

Of course so-called white-collar crime is generally treated less severely than other forms of illegal activity, which is another way of saying there are different rules for ‘important people’ than the rest of us. If you have high enough status you can usually buy your way out of crime[76].

Anyone that claims Canada is “democratic” is ignorant of Canadian politics and history. I challenge anyone who claims Canada is “democratic” to point to me examples of Canadian “democracy” in action in their everyday lives — at work, at home, etc.

I worded that last paragraph in the manner I did because true democracy cannot be reduced to the individual’s right to vote at set intervals. This is the crux of the issue when describing a state like Canada as “democratic”. Democracy is incompatible with capitalism, a system where the means of production are privately owned and in which production occurs not to satisfy human needs but to enrich a handful of wealthy individuals. When was the last time you had a say in what your employer produces, how much you wage is, the cost of basic necessities and rent, etc.? Where is Canada’s democracy between elections?

The word “democracy” has been drained of all its revolutionary significance by the bourgeoisie. As Lenin wrote:

The democratic system is a feature of bourgeois society, in which the utmost freedom, scope and clarity of the class struggle are combined with the utmost cunning, with ruses and subterfuges aimed at spreading the ‘ideological’ influence of the bourgeoisie among the wage-slaves with the object of diverting them from their struggle against wage slavery.

If workers had a say in what was produced, the amount of their wages, the cost of basic necessities, etc., then how would Canada’s capitalist class be able to afford their luxurious lifestyles? Thus, bourgeois subterfuges, that transform democracy into voting for politicians with almost indistinguishable platforms.  

The blog Systemic Disorder succinctly describes the issue with bourgeois democracy that exists in Canada:

When we talk about “democracy,” inevitably, it seems, the discussion is about political democracy. Rarely is there discussion about economic democracy. Democracy stops at the entrance to the workplace.

At the workplace, you have no say in what is produced, how it is produced or much of anything beyond what you will be eating for lunch. You surely did not get a vote when the corporation decided to drop a large sum of money on a candidate for public office whose positions you detest even though that donation came out of the profits created by the work you and your co-workers performed. As large businesses become ever larger and accumulate ever more money — and fewer survive as competition causes some of the previous winners in competition to go under or merge — their power grows ever stronger.

That power enables decisive influence over the political process. So we have formal democracy — political office-holders submit to elections and abide by the results. But choosing between two bad candidates, and selecting the one not quite as bad as the other — both completely beholden to corporate interests and unable to compete without truckloads of their money — could qualify as a living democratic system only under the most sterile and narrowly formulaic definition.

It is important for working people not to be confused and mislead by the bourgeoisie and their propagandists about Canadian “democracy”.

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[2] Narcisse Tiky, “The African Origins of the Athenian Democracy: Whatever touches all must be approved by all”
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[13] Hadjar, A., & Beck, M. (2010). WHO DOES NOT PARTICIPATE IN ELECTIONS IN EUROPE AND WHY IS THIS? European Societies, 12(4), 521–542. doi:10.1080/14616696.2010.483007
[16] Parvin, P. (2017). Democracy Without Participation: A New Politics for a Disengaged Era. Res Publica, 24(1), 31–52. doi:10.1007/s11158-017-9382-1
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[44] Karen Sote, “An Act of Genocide,” Page 46
[45] Karen Sote, “An Act of Genocide,” Page 46-47
[46] Karen Stote, “An Act of Genocide”, Page 47
[47] Karen Stote, “An Act of Genocide,” Page 46
[48] Karen Stote, “An Act of Genocide,” Page 50
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[63] Roy Miki, “Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice,” Page 88
[64] Roy Miki, “Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice,” Page 89
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[66] Paul MacEwan, “Miners and Steelworkers: Labour in Cape Breton,” Page 88
[67] Paul MacEwan, “Miners and Steelworkers: Labour in Cape Breton,” Page 96
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