Blog | February 19, 2012

Philosopher tells Albertans to get informed and vote

By Thandi Fletcher, Calgary HeraldWith election day fast approaching, Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul has a simple message for Albertans: get informed and go vote."I think that we haven't taken seriously enough the reality that the guarantor of society is the citizens, and that the citizens express themselves through their representatives, through their government and through their personal engagement," Saul told the Herald on Monday.Reached by phone at Les Deux Salons, a bustling Parisian-style brasserie in the hub of the Covent Garden district of London, a clearly fatigued Saul has just wrapped up an engagement at the London Book Fair, where he appeared in his capacity as the president of writers' group PEN International.Despite his gruelling tour schedule - which included stops in South Korea, Mexico, Toronto and London this year - the award-winning author and former viceregal consort of Canada had no difficulty summoning the energy to offer a passionate synopsis of a speech he will be delivering in Calgary this week.A former Albertan - having lived in Calgary for part of his childhood and for several years in the late1970s when he helped launch PetroCanada - Saul is returning to the province as the keynote speaker at Public Interest Alberta's annual Advocacy Conference in Calgary today.The concept of an open, inclusive and egalitarian society, which he argues is reliant on individuals seeing themselves as having the power to shape their civilization, forms of the basis of his speech.An informed citizenry is the cornerstone of every democracy, Saul explained, but merely marking an X on a ballot is not enough for citizens to take a role in helping to mould their society.Citizens also need to be engaged and to take seriously the concept of "responsible government" - holding our political leaders accountable, he said.Using a sentence as an analogy for citizen engagement, Saul said that, "voting is just a little period or question mark or exclamation mark.""That's all it is," he said. "Citizens have to believe they have that power, that the engagement is worth it."His advice is all the more critical when one realizes that, in 2008, a mere 41 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots during the last Alberta general election."Once you're below 50 per cent, you're not even really in a democracy," he said.In contrast, during the 1820s and 1830s in Canada, Saul said this country experienced almost complete suffrage.Of course, voters made up only half the population as the women's suffrage movement would not unfold for another half century, he said."These were poor, often illiterate farmers, (yet) we had like 50 per cent of the people voting…and now we've dropped 10 per cent below the 1820s and 1830s," he said."When you put it in that context, (you) realize how marginal we've allowed our own democracy to become."Saul said that in middle-class democracies like Canada, citizens tend to "fall into the trap" of believing that because of international economic forces, they no longer have the right or the power to shape their society.As Alberta, shielded by the prosperous oil and gas industry, continues to weather an economic slowdown threatening to envelope the rest of North America, that inclination to take a backseat is all the more tempting. But Albertans shouldn't get too comfortable, Saul warned."There's a long history of people with natural resources thinking that it's a proof that they've done something miraculous. Well, they haven't," he said. "If you're growing something, that's real work.…but to just sort of sell the stuff as it comes out of the ground and make some money from it, that's really not the way you build a long-term, complex society."Language will be another key theme of Saul's talk on Wednesday. Part of that includes sifting through political rhetoric to truly understand the policies being put forth by the candidates in this election."People need to vote…very coolly and calmly," he said."They need to believe in themselves and their long-term responsibilities as citizens to build a society. Societies are built. They don't build themselves."To do that, he said voters "have to believe that their policies are the right policies, that their programs are the right programs."Saul will be speaking at the Knox United Church at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the Public Interest Alberta website.By Thandi Fletcher, Calgary Heraldtfletcher@calgaryherald.com
Twitter.com/ThandiFletcherThis article was published in the Calgary Herald on Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Read the full article on the Calgary Herald website.