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Not even Twitter can save us now

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It was a number that leaped off the page at me.

According to national survey conducted by Samara, a non-profit group that promotes civic engagement in Canada, only 10 per cent of respondents had volunteered for, donated to, or joined a political party in the previous five years. Only 17 per cent had taken part in a political discussion on social media, or written a letter to the editor on politics or a political issue in the last year.

Reading this reminded me that I recently also read that only 20 per cent of Canadians still smoke.

Imagine that. More people smoke than use the brave new tools of social connectivity to discuss political issues. All this at a time when smoking is considered unfashionable, and the internet makes it so much easier for us to engage, debate, organize and mobilize.

Smoking and politics: bad habits that Canadians are slowly convincing themselves to give up altogether.

The survey results are a source of profound concern for Samara. "At a time when technology could make some forms of engagement easier than ever, Canadians are stepping away from formal politics," it states. "Politics will only improve when citizens demand change, and when working within politics is better understood and viewed as a critical part of citizenship."

Social media has been a tool of devastating engagement and mobilization in Asia. It was a key element in the Arab Spring movement. It is the megaphone for a new generation. It's a ubiquitous presence in political movements that defy the status quo and work to defeat the forces of suppression and oppression.

Contrast that trend with North America, where social media is the tool we use to efficiently share pictures of what we ordered for dinner the night before.

For those who have abandoned all interest in politics and government, let’s look at what is created in the absence of citizen engagement.

The first area of concern is the state of political discourse. The reality now is that those few still involved in politics to have among the worst attitudes towards government and public policy. Far too many of the still-politically active Canadians are unbridled partisans who are more interested in laying waste to opponents than engaging in any kind of debate.

Rampant partisanism, which manifests in pointless and uncivil debate, does not produce better policy or programs. It stifles innovation and gridlocks government from doing anything truly bold and beneficial for society. As a result, we get government that worries more about winning elections than good government. And opposition politics that is more about disagreeing with the government than making better policy or programs.

The other troubling trend is that lower interest in politics and lower voter turnout means that an increasingly smaller constituency gets to make all of the important decisions in the country.

As it stands right now, only about one-quarter of all registered adult voters pick the party that gets to lead the country, or the province.

In the 2011 Manitoba general election, 199,069 Manitobans helped elect a NDP majority government. That’s 25.62 per cent of the total registered voters in that election. Federally, the Conservatives received 5.83 million votes, or about 24.33 per cent of all registered voters.

We should all study the identities of those still involved in politics. Then, we should ask ourselves whether these folks really represent us, or represent only their own and other special interests? And, perhaps more importantly, what we're going to do when a handful of citizens control government, and all our lives, and we stood by and watched it all happen.

There is something we can all do to help turn this trend around. Tweet a link to the Samara report to your followers. Post it on your Facebook page. Start a new trend where expressing concern about the pathetic state of citizen engagement is the main reason why you use social media.

You can post it right beside the picture of the ceviche you enjoyed last night.

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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