Re-Wiring Cities for Democracy

December 20th, 2013

Katarina in Strasbourg croppedImagine Atlantic Canada’s city of Halifax denying its entire population of 400,000-odd residents the right to vote in its municipal election. Unreal, yes, but that’s about how many tax-paying residents and consumers in Toronto, the country’s largest city, do not get to vote and elect their local representatives because they are not yet citizens.

As society becomes more diverse, this type of disenfranchisement has become an issue of growing concern for cities in Canada, Europe and elsewhere. It invites us to explore new perspectives on participatory democracy at the local level and the need to shift from a citizenship-based model to one based on residence.

Maytree’s Katarina Vukobratovic was in Strasbourg on November 27, 2013 for a conference titled Residence-based participation: a new reality of modern democracy. It was co-organized by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe and the City of Strasbourg within the World Forum for Democracy framework. The aim was to identify appropriate methods and forms to encourage and enable residents to engage in community building regardless of their origin and legal status.

Discussions focused on the role and place of migrants and foreign residents in the local community, their contribution to community building, political participation through representative structures such as councils of foreign residents and their right to vote in local elections. Intercultural policies and plans to engage migrants at a local level were also debated.

For European societies, the current challenge is to link up all the aspects of democracy in a coherent manner. They see a need to guarantee greater respect for human rights through broader participation of residents while promoting education in intercultural dialogue and setting up effective inclusive policies to integrate people. There was consensus on the need to restore an increasingly frayed social fabric against the backdrop of economic crisis and growing diversity.

Bringing on board diversity

The concept of participatory democracy raises the question of the role migrants have in the development of a community and their place within it. Katarina drew on her knowledge of Toronto’s efforts to engage migrants and foreign residents as one of the most diverse city in the world and focused on DiverseCity onBoard, the diverse leadership initiative spear-headed by Maytree and now gaining international recognition through a growing community practice. It is a good example of a project that brings more members of underrepresented groups to decision-making tables.

Another important theme of the conference was the question of voting rights for non-citizens. The Council of Europe is trying to promote the participation of immigrants in local and regional councils through the right to vote in local elections, says Katarina. “They believe that no integration policy can be said to have succeeded unless migrants and minorities are involved in local life.”

Sweden has set a good example in Europe. Among the very few countries that allow non-citizens who have permanent residency to vote in local elections, its “democracy ombudsmen” project actively promotes that right. Volunteers meet non-citizens in public places to educate them about the benefits of voting and its effects are obvious. In parts of cities where the ombudsmen have been active, the percentage of non-citizen voting was substantially higher than in other parts.

Voting rights for non-citizens

Extending voting rights to non-citizens is a well-worn subject of debate in Canada too. Giving permanent residents the right to vote is an ongoing debate in Toronto. The conference was of the opinion that local authorities have a major role to play in integrating migrants into the community as they are in the best position to take positive action to promote the process of participatory democracy.

It is imperative that society must interact with newcomers and gear its institutions to their needs to avoid inflaming social conflicts, which are a potential threat to local cohesion. Municipalities are the main protagonists in this process as consistent local policies and innovative methods would lead to a new form of active citizenship.

Promoting active citizenship in local communities through education about democracy and human rights and raising public awareness about the contribution of migrants to the local community might help fight prejudice and overcome discrimination and reluctance to engage them in community life.

“The consensus was to stimulate participatory democracy by involving non-citizens in a community’s projects,” said Katarina. With global migration increasingly creating a world of “transnational urbanism,” it is time to redefine cities as sites of citizenship in their own right. Just like in ancient Greece which gave rise to the Western concept of citizenship through its city states.

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