ACT LOCAL: Campus Democracy Project!!

[cross-posted from the Unlock Democracy blog]

Toronto UnConference • January 24th • Hart House

Canada uses a broken voting system called “First-Past-the-Post”.  It’s a terrible system because it pushes out new voices, forces voters to choose ‘strategically’, encourages negative campaigns and often delivers us the exact opposite result of what we actually voted for.

But we don’t just use this voting system to choose our national parliament, we also use First-Past-the-Post to choose our provincial parliaments and all of our mayors and City Councillors.  And it doesn’t stop there!  Every week, across Canada, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of elections:  Condo boards, residents groups, non-profit boards, labour elections, high school student councils, tenant boards, credit unions, and post-secondary student unions.  And with few exceptions, almost ALL of these groups use First-Past-The-Post.

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Nine Citizen Heroes


One of my favorite non-profits in Canada, is Samara.  Their mandate is to “improve political participation in Canada”, and their approach is always creative, unique, practical and effective.

A few months ago they launched yet another creative initiative, called “The Everyday Political Citizen Project”.  The goal of the campaign is to celebrate the “unsung political heroes such as campaigners, activists, community organizers, and members of local riding associations who work through the political system to improve their communities, and whose contributions often go unrecognized.”

It’s brilliant.  I think one of the biggest barriers to engagement is the fact that most people simply don’t realise how many ways there are to contribute and participate.  You don’t have to run for office to make a difference.  And you don’t have to march in the streets, chanting bad activist slogans (sorry Canada, our activist chants are terrible).

Canada has thousands of non-profits, charities, grassroots organisations, clubs and associations, comprised of passionate volunteers who are the driving force behind social change.  The work they do is crucial, yet often goes unseen.

I’ve nominated nine people for this project, each who have contributed to the political process in their own creative way. Check ‘em out:

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VIDEOS: Tales from the Twin Cities

A few weeks ago, I drove for 16 hours to Minneapolis along with two other volunteers from the RaBIT campaign: Sarah Rimmington and Chloe Doesburg.

We spent one week documenting and researching their municipal election.  A new City Council was elected – using a ranked ballot!!

After 40 years on this planet, I’d finally witnessed an actual fair election.  There were no distorted results, negative campaigns or ‘vote splitting’  – the hallmarks of a Toronto election.  They elected a female mayor, 46% female council, as well as their first Somali Councillor, first Latino Councillor and first Hmong Councillor.  It was a breath of fresh air, compared to what I’m used to.


Here are three videos I’ve edited, from the footage that the three of us shot on streets of Minneapolis:

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This ad is vacant

Three years ago, I launched The Fourth Wall exhibit containing 36 practical ways to make our local democracy more inclusive, inviting and participatory.

Recommendation #22 was simple:  “The city should pro-actively promote the nomination process and encourage nominations”.

We have this wonderful thing called “Democracy”, where anyone is allowed to put their name on a ballot and ask the public to support their vision and their ideas.  But it only works if people actually know when and how to participate!

In the exhibit, I pointed out that the city does know to produce good outreach materials, when they are seeking nominations for OTHER things …like the ‘Green Toronto Awards’:


Note the effective use of colour, images, pretty fonts, and attractive layout/design.  There’s even an exclamation mark. (!)

As part of the exhibit, I created a fictitious “Call for Nominations” for City Council:


But this ad shouldn’t be fictitious.  We know the City has the capacity to design effective marketing materials.  So I was disappointed to see this ad in today’s newspaper: Continue reading

Two Neighbourhood Fence Removals: West & East!


Hey folks,

The Downtown De-Fence Project is at it again, and we need your brawn to help us out!

No experience required.  Bring a pair of pliers, if you have any.  (Available at Dollarama)

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The Lauder Avenue Conservation Area and Botanical Gardens

There’s an abandoned house on my street.  According to my neighbours, it’s been empty for about ten years.  The front yard has grown into a jungle of weeds, some of them extending more than six feet high, and the City has posted violation notices on the front door.  Weed violations:


Many people view it as an eye-sore, a neglected mess.  But it occurred to me recently that the property is really nothing less than a naturalised habitat!  Rather than fretting about the abandoned property, why not embrace it as a neighbourhood treasure?  So I made my own sign and posted it on the yard.  Voila!! Continue reading

The Professional Guest


Seven years ago, it occurred to me that paying rent was a real drag.

I was putting together the original business plan for Cycle Toronto, and I realised that we’d need to have a full-time staff person for about nine months, being paid roughly $0 per week.  As long as I needed to pay rent, we couldn’t start the new bike group.

So I came up with a fun idea called “The Professional Guest”.  I sent the following letter to all my friends:

November 27 2006


dear friends!

I’m moving out of my house and I’d like to move into yours.  Don’t be alarmed.  My plan is not to be a moocher nor a ‘Couch Surfer’.  As of New Years, I will begin my new career as a Professional Guest.

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