In my previous post, I wrote that many Canadians don’t know much about municipal planning processes, the implications of the legal division of powers in Canada, and what this means for service provision in our cities. In this vein, readers might be interested in some examples of municipal efforts at citizen engagement that go beyond the often-uninspired public meeting.

Participatory budgeting originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. It’s driven by core principles such as democracy, equity, community, education, and transparency. Thousands of citizens assemble in Porto Alegre each year to elect delegates to represent each city district, prioritize demands, serve on the Municipal Council of the Budget, and produce a binding municipal budget. Proponents of participatory budgeting say that because people with the greatest needs play a larger role in the decision-making process, spending decisions tend to redistribute resources to communities in need. In Porto Alegre, for example, there has been a marked increase in funding for badly-needed sanitary sewer projects and schools. Participatory budgeting is used in about 140 municipalities in Brazil as well as towns and cities in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, India and Africa. It is used for municipal school, university, and public housing budgets.

The process has also been used in several Canadian municipalities: Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) allows its tenants to participate in decision-making on local, neighbourhood and city-wide spending priorities. TCHC’s participatory budgeting process first took place in 2001, when tenants were asked to help decide how to spend $9 million per year (13.5% of TCHC’s budget); 237 local capital projects were funded. In Guelph, residents allocate a small portion of the City’s budget through the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition. Since 1999, neighbourhood groups have been sharing and redistributing resources for local community projects, including recreation programs, youth centres, and physical improvements to community facilities. In 2005 some 10,000 people participated in the process and 460 events and programs were funded.

In a review of participatory budgeting efforts in Canadian cities, Josh Lerner and Estair Van Wagner outline several challenges for participatory budgeting in Canada: the fact that Canadians are extremely diverse in language and culture, the small scale of these efforts so far, the limited power of citizens in the process, the fact that none of them have fundamentally changed their cities’ political systems or created a more progressive social agenda, and the potential for the process to become co-opted by politicians.

City of Calgary "Our City. Our Budget. Our Future."

Other efforts at participatory processes in budget planning have included the Cities of Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. In each case municipal officials encouraged citizens to get involved in the City’s budget planning. For the 2004 City of Toronto budget, Mayor David Miller initiated the Listening to Toronto consultations. A City Budget Community Workbook was posted on the website and seven public sessions were held. This wasn’t participatory budgeting (participants didn’t help formulate priorities that were then adopted); in a process similar to integrating feedback from public meetings, participants’ ideas were used to guide City Council during the drafting of the budget.

In February 2011, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nehshi opened up the budget planning process to the public through a citywide engagement process. In “Our City. Our Budget. Our Future.” the City aimed to help people feel like they were part of the process, make the budgetary process clearer by simplifying communication from city staff, and gather ideas on the budget. Their online budgeting tool allowed users to see how much each department currently spent, and what an increase or decrease in areas like transportation or safety would look like. The City heard from 24,000 people during this process. Again, citizens’ ideas were considered in drafting the budget, which was adopted in November 2011. The new three-year budget resulted in property tax rate increases of 6.0% in 2012, 5.7% in 2013 and 6.1% in 2014 and included (among other things) additional funding of $1 million for Calgary Transit, a reserve fund of $3.5 million for snow clearing in 2013 and 2014, a $225,000 increase to the Calgary Arts Development Authority.

“We used to do things like open houses and town halls when we had those discussions. And what we learned this time around is that the open houses and the town halls are the most expensive and least successful part of the process.”– Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

A screen shot from the City of Vancouver Budget Allocator

The City of Vancouver followed suit this year, encouraging citizens to get involved in the 2012 budget process. In addition to attending public meetings and completing an online survey on budget priorities, a section of the City’s website lets users to download a primer explaining how the budget works (how the city raises funds, what percentage of taxes goes to pay for utilities, fire and police services, etc.). The interactive tool lets them “be Councillor for a day, see what it costs to run a city.” This simple tool gives you options to remain at the current level of funding or to increase or decrease funding levels in each area. When you’ve finished making your budget, the Budget Allocator tells you whether you have a surplus or a deficit, and how much you would have to raise taxes to cover the increased costs. You can submit your budget, along with the reasons for your choices, directly to city staff: if you’re a local, go to 2012 before February 10th to have your say.

In short, there are varying levels of participation in budget processes, from consultation to surveys to participatory budgeting. In addition to various levels of power for the participants, the educational aspects differ as well: one could argue that while Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver have made strides in educating the public on the budgetary process, they stop short of allowing residents to learn how to prioritize spending objectives and vote on them. Nevertheless, Canadians in other municipalities might want to find out how their budget works, when their budget is up for adoption and what the process is for citizen involvement. With so many online and interactive ways to get involved, there seem to be many opportunities to inform and involve communities that may not participate otherwise: young adults, immigrant groups, seniors living in facilities, etc. High school teachers, college and university professor could use the online budgeting tools in civics, planning, political science, or urban studies courses. Immigrant groups could organize online participation at a community event. Residents and health care support workers could help seniors participate. If your municipality doesn’t currently encourage participation in the city budget process, ask your councillor to suggest the idea.

Update: check out the latest national issue of Spacing magazine for integrated approaches to public engagement in Saskatoon, Vancouver, and Halifax (“Speaking with Your City” by Rachel Caroline Derrah).

Since Easter weekend, when record-breaking numbers of voters took to advance polls, election fever has gripped this country from coast to coast. I can’t remember a more exciting campaign, nor a time when the Liberal and NDP parties have ever changed places in a mere five weeks (according to pollsters, anyway). The surge in NDP support has left political commentators breathless: could Jack Layton’s NDP become the official Opposition party? The Toronto Star endorsed Layton as Prime Minister, but urged Canadians to vote strategically to prevent a Harper majority. The Globe and Mail, rather characteristically, endorsed Stephen Harper…and went so far as to call this “an unremarkable and disappointing election campaign”!

The polls have been fluctuating wildly in the past week, leaving the outcome undecided: will the NDP grab seats in BC, as the polls suggest? Both Harper and Layton ended their campaigns in Vancouver this week: we’re home to several key ridings like Burnaby-Douglas, Vancouver Centre, Newton-North Delta, and Surrey North. Will waning Liberal support lead to Conservative wins in key ridings? Will the Quebecois shift their support from the Bloc to the NDP in ridings like Gatineau? How exactly will the NDP surge play out in terms of number of seats? The media are also trying to decipher the significance of youth turnout encouraged by vote mobs (see my last post: this picture is from today’s vote mob in my hometown of London, Ontario which gathered over 1500 people. London, you may recall, is where two students were kicked out of a Conservative party rally way back at the beginning of the campaign. Organizers say London’s was the biggest vote mob of the year.)

Is this election campaign best summarized by the Globe and Mail‘s headline, “Federal elections a tight race between boredom and hope” (April 29, 2011)? Or has this “unnecessary election” changed Canada for the better? (May 1, 2011) The youngest voters and NDP supporters are hoping for change across this great country, and at this point it looks like there is no hope of a Harper majority. My hope: that the 35% increase at advance polls signals high voter turnout on May 2nd…and that Harper is not re-elected to form a government, majority or minority. Hold on, kids, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

In the past two weeks, an amazing development has taken root at university campuses across Canada.

Spurred by comedian Rick Mercer and activist groups LeadNow, Project Democracy and Apathy is Boring, students are holding vote mobs to show that they will be voting in the upcoming federal election. Media coverage of the vote mobs has been slow and grudging, but that doesn’t seem to have dampened the spirits of young voters.

Mercer’s rant was recorded on the day the government fell, March 29, 2011. In it, he said that there were over 3 million eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 and “as far as the major political parties are concerned, you may as well be dead.” He encouraged young people to get out there and “scare the hell out of the people who run this country”, since only 37% of this group voted in the last election. Mercer has been characteristically humble about his rant, saying that he had no idea young people would react the way they have. Beginning with the University of Guelph, students at over 25 universities have held vote mobs so far. The resulting videos are so fun, positive, and non-partisan that they have provoked both local (London Free Press, Guelph Mercury) and national (CBC, CTV) media attention.

One can’t help but notice the parties’ lack of response to students’ desire to vote this time around. If hundreds of seniors all across the country started mobilizing to vote, it would be front page news. When young people do it, it’s cutesy headlines (“Thanks a heap, Rick Mercer–the students might actually vote” and “Voting-mob mentality has young people running amok” at The Globe and Mail) and skepticism (“Will vote mobs translate into actual votes?”, Toronto Star ). One notable exception: the Toronto Star’s Youth Nation, which profiles candidates under 30 blogging about issues as diverse as renewable energy and social justice.


“I’m not sure what a flash mob is but it sounds a bit disconcerting … I don’t know about ‘flash’ or ‘mobs’ but I don’t like the context of either word.” –Conservative MP John Baird

Baird’s comment made many students shake their heads in disbelief. It illustrated the disconnect between federal politicians and youth. Several studies have shown that Canadian youth aren’t disengaged at all; they just participate in different ways and have different values from older adults (check out an article I wrote on youth participation in transportation planning a couple of years ago).

The sole political response to vote mobs has been from the Conservative party, who tried to have a special ballot held at the University of Guelph declared illegal. After the success of their vote mob, over 700 students stood in line for an hour to cast votes on April 13th; special ballots are often held for groups with lower than average turnout, such as students, aboriginals and those with physical disabilities. Elections Canada declared the Guelph special ballot valid, but in order to avoid controversy it said it was stopping all special ballots at universities. The Conservative party had already come under fire on April 3rd for kicking a couple of students out of a rally in London, Ontario, a move that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP leader Jack Layton swiftly criticized (check out the Liberals’ cheeky “Hey Stephen Harper, stop creeping me on Facebook”). The events seem to have lit a fire of passion among students across the country (LeadNow assembled 3600 signatures within 12 hours in an online petition to have the Guelph votes declared valid). But one wonders at the wisdom of cancelling special ballots at universities: way to make voting harder and even more confusing for first-time student voters.

I was at UBC’s vote mob today with about a hundred other students. While the event itself was non-partisan, these images show that there was some interest from the major parties. The Young Liberals of Canada handed out flyers (above right) at the bus loop entering UBC. Conservative candidate Deborah Merideth (Vancouver Quadra) handed out free snacks after the event. And the Green Party’s Adriane Carr (Vancouver Centre) was also on hand (below right).

Young people have been discounted and discredited as lazy, apathetic non-citizens for far too long. They’ve seen the political leaders court seniors, women, families, and immigrant groups while persistently ignoring youth in this and every other election. Issues that matter to youth, like the environment, health care, education, and civil liberties (not to mention public transit), linger on the back burner while tax cuts and deficits dominate the media. It’s about time they took matters into their own hands.