Venting Overview

Venting Overview

From Venting to Inventing


When citizens feel alienated, cynical and disconnected from their governments, discontent is a natural response. At the same time, this discontent can generate new kinds of engagement between citizens and governments -- venting can become inventing. In Canada, citizen’s desire for increased participation has sparked significant citizen-led initiatives for change.

From Venting to Inventing examines three case studies, all reflecting citizen initiatives which have emerged over the last decade as a response to three deeply rooted concerns: a perceived lack of democracy, a challenge to government inaction, and a deep desire to strengthen and expand civic space .

This project builds on the work undertaken in Learning to Engage: Experiences with Civic Engagement in Canada[1]. In undertaking to respond to the key questions of the Commonwealth Foundation’s Civil Society in the New Millennium Project, Learning to Engage looked at three key links in civic engagement:

  • Citizens’ access to government
  • Citizens’ access to resources
  • Citizens’ access to each other

From Venting to Inventing looks primarily at ways citizens are creating to engage one another, and tries to assess the extent to which they are succeeding in strengthening their voices in governance at local, national and international levels. It examines three experiments with citizen-led initiatives to expand and redefine democracy. In each case, citizens have worked to have stronger, more effective voices in decisions made in their respective communities. These cases are not closed. They are dispatches from the frontiers documenting new ways of engaging civic space. Their applicability goes far beyond Canada.

The first case examines efforts in 1990 to establish direct democracy at the municipal level in Rossland, British Columbia. This study takes places in the context of a broader movement to create permanent structures which empower citizens at local levels. It is part of the larger struggle between competing forces of indirect and direct governance, between our parliamentary legacy and our "homegrown," North American impulse to more direct democracy.

The second case involved Web Networks, an internet-based network for activists, created in the late 80s. Web Networks continues to provide on-line space as well as tools for alternative organizations to build their capacity as social change agents. The Internet has emerged as a potent technology for transforming civic space. This study was selected to examine the ways that the Internet is shaping citizen participation -- and vice versa -- and its impact on civil society.

The third case examines the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) as an example of the ways that large summits involving governments, NGOs and citizens and parallel people’s summits are redefining both the context and manner in which decisions are made. The rise in "summitry" over the last decade (including Rio, Cairo, Beijing, Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, Kananaskis) raises important questions about the extent to which citizen-initiated efforts around these events expand democracy in lasting ways. Since Rio was the summit meeting which redefined participation, it is an important model from which to draw insights related to citizens and governance. [2]

Analysis of the cases is focused on an assessment of the extent to which these experiments have become permanent features of the political terrain in Canada. The central questions of the project include:

  • How are citizen organizing to strengthen their voices in political decisions?
  • How are citizens attempting to rebalance relationships of engagement with their governments?
  • How are citizens’ efforts translating into better institutionalized commitments to increased citizen involvement in governance?

In all three cases, the answer to these questions appears to "Yes ... but." On the positive side:

  • Citizens in Rossland won the right to initiate and ratify municipal laws, and used this new tool to press their local government to adopt bold measures in water quality and environ-mental safety.
  • Through its training and programming efforts, Web Networks made it possible for citizens to use information technology to engage each other on important local, national and global issues.
  • Canadian civil society organizations used the preparations for the Rio Summit to gain unprecedented access to the levers and resources of policy making and to create widespread networks with one another.

At the same time, these achievements are tempered by some of the less successful outcomes of these initiatives:

  • Citizens in Rossland are making relatively little use of their referendum opportunity to participate in municipal governance.
  • Web Networks’ effectiveness was hindered by financial difficulties due, in part, to the fact that they misgauged the real needs of communities -- and perhaps, more importantly, by the inability to recapture the vision and excitement of their early days and apply them in the new and vastly changed electronic world.
  • The "Rio Way," for all its strengths, could not withstand subsequent shifts in events and players which led to a withdrawal of resources and access over the past decade. More importantly, it was overtaken by enormous changes in the global corporate trade agenda which seems to have overtaken concern for sustainable development.

In all three cases, a number of fault lines are evident. There is a clash between the new tools and their use. There is a clash between the desire for greater diversity in participation and the disunity that results before unity can emerge. And, there is a clash between the rhythm of innovation and the rhythm of democracy.

Each of these cases has much to say about the ways that citizens are trying to strengthen their voices in decision-making, to achieve more balanced relationships with their governments and to create more permanent features of the political landscape. There is no question that "[C]itizens want a deepening of democracy to make it more direct and participatory."3] However, citizens are not the only players and too often, their efforts with respect to governments are unrewarded.

In each of our cases, citizens have clearly demonstrated their willingness to come together, to identify the common good and to take action. There are countless such cases around the world. Citizens are organizing in creative and committed ways to strengthen their voices in political decisions and to are working hard to rebalance relationships of engagement with their governments.
Are these efforts translating into better institutionalized commitments to increased involvement in governance? Unfortunately, the answer is an unequivocal no. When we began this study, we were hoping to find that if citizens were active, democracy would be strong. These studies are telling us something else. What we see is a stark picture of the chasm between citizens and governments.

We have seen that citizens are doing many -- if not all -- of the right things. And, it is not enough. Civil society alone does not create strong democracy. What we have found is that democracy can be weak even when citizens are active. Even when civil society is active, engaged and energized, there must be a framework that entrenches their engagement in the governing and decision making institutions of their lands. It seems that this is where the most important change must take place. Only with changes in the ways that citizen involvement is institutionalized will democracy be strong.
These experiments emerged from a period of civic innovation. All grew out of the sense that something different was needed to strengthen citizen’s voices in governance -- and all three experiments demonstrated that something different was possible. Nevertheless, they have not been able to reverse the weakening of democracy in Canada. For all their efforts at inventing, Canadians are back to venting.

[1] Learning to Engage: Experiences with Civic Engagement in Canada was prepared by Miriam Wyman, David Shulman and Laurie Ham for Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN) as Canada’s National Report for the Commonwealth Foundation’s Civil Society in the New Millennium Project. It can be found at

[2] The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), or Rio plus 10, took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in August, 2002.

[3] Barry Knight, Hope Chigudu & Rajesh Tandon. Reviving Democracy. London: Earthscan Press, 2001, 164.

Tyler S