Posts Tagged ‘self-determination’

Government and community, self-government and self-determination

December 1, 2009

Discussion is picking up on the topic of new framework legislation for education in Alberta.

The first question is not about education:  it is about community.

For more than 125 years Albertans have lived in levels of community — the neighbourhood or village or town; the city or county or M.D.; the province; the country.  In the province, we have governed ourselves — we have practiced self-government — simultaneously in the local community and in the provincial community.  For many many years I knew this as the “respectful partnership” that existed between the government of the provincial community and the government of the local community.

The purpose of these two levels of community, the purpose of this respectful partnership is not to make work for elected politicians.  The purpose is to allow citizens to make some important decisions among a smaller population and across a smaller geographic area, while making other important decisions among a larger population and across a larger geographic area.

In a democracy, “government” is shorthand for “self-government“, and self-government means “self-determination“.  The community that can make some decisions for itself, even if the decisions lead to mistakes, and use its resources to act on its decisions, is self-determining, that is, self-governing.

The term “respectful partnership” (between the provincial government and the local government) has fallen into disuse, because the working relationship is no longer a partnership:  it is the relationship of supplicant to provider.  (Some observers would also say that the relationship is no longer respectful.)  Across all Ministries, the provincial government is centralizing more and more decision-making.  Every such movement reduces the number and significance of the locally made decisions.  In addition, the provincial government is more and more in control of the purse-strings.  So, the local community has to go to the provincial government to ask for permission and resources to do what people themselves — in the local community — want to do.  Locally, there is less self-determination and less self-government.  As this happens, the local community itself is weakened.

From the perspective of the provincial government, none of this is “anti-community”, or undermining self-government and self-determination.  From the perspective of the provincial government, the provincial community — all 3.6 million of us — is the only community that counts.  It is not as though they favour large communities, and have a bias against small communities.  The mayor and Council of Calgary feel just as shackled as the mayor and Council of Claresholm.

And, indeed, the provincial government may be right that local communities should no longer be self-governing and self-determining.  Perhaps with developments in transportation and communications technology we are all one community for all purposes.  Perhaps we can be self-determining and self-governing exclusively through the voices and votes of 83 men and women in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.  Perhaps there are no local priorities in Provost that differ in any significant way from the priorities of Peace River.  Perhaps there are no conventions that are more central to life in Coaldale than in Calgary.   Perhaps the people of Edson have exactly the same vision of the future of community — and how to achieve the vision –as do the people of Edmonton.

Personally, I still hold — and strongly — that many decisions should be made in the local community, by the people who live in it.  There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with my neighbours, the people I share immediate space with.  There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with all Albertans.  (There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with all Canadians.)

There is another reason why I believe it is important to favour substantial self-determination and self-government for local communities.  In times of rapid change, turmoil, and uncertain outcomes, the best decision-making model is a decentralized one.  Some decisions may be badly made or implemented.  Some will be well-made and implemented.  The more independent decision-making in play, the more likely it is that decisions appropriate to the circumstances will succeed and thrive.  Bascially, in times of rapid change, turmoil, and uncertain outcomes, one only wants decision-making to be highly centralized if one is 100% certain that 100% of the decisions will be 100% correct 100% of the time.  No provincial government has that track record.  You can decide how close the Government of Alberta comes to approximating that record.  (Think of health care, Bill #44, etc.)

In any case, we the people have the opportunity to consider this issue again, in the context of new framework legislation for education in the province.  Do we want the government of Alberta to acknowledge, in legislation, that local communities must continue to be self-governing, or should we start to think of school boards as representing a local public which is simply one stakeholder group among many?  Do we want local communities to continue practicing self-determination, or do we want all local communities in the province to be equal supplicants to the provincial government? When the elected representatives of local communities make decisions, should they be accountable to the local electorate, or should they be accountable to the provincial government?

All of these issues, and more, are up in the air right now.  In the year ahead, the way we deal with local self-government for schools will determine the future of local communities generally and across the province.  This will determine the future of municipal government and it will determine the future of economic and social well-being for all of us, for years to come.

Is Alberta a community of many communities, or is it one single community of 3.6 million people?  Are all political decisions to be made in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, or are there political decisions that should be made in smaller communities?  Would we be wise to have all political decisions made in the Legislative Assembly, or should some decision-making be decentralized?

Now is the time for citizens to think about self-determination, self-government, and community.  Now is the time to talk among ourselves, listen to our neighbours, inform ourselves, form a conviction, and talk to our elected representatives — school trustees and M.L.A.s