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It’s been six weeks since I “came out of the closet” about my political aspirations. The response of friends, neighbours and colleagues has been overwhelmingly positive. The road ahead is daunting and the learning curve is steep. One of the interesting lessons so far is that Canadians are shy about participating in formal politics.

My venture into politics is at an interesting and challenging phase. The first milestone to being elected is securing the nomination of the federal Liberals in the new riding where I live and work. The strategy is not complicated. It involves getting hundreds of people to sign up as party members so that they can vote for me in a nomination meeting. We are well on our way. But one of the fascinating lessons has been that many Canadians are timid about the idea of formally joining a political party. When we call people to ask if they can help, one of the common responses is: “I’m excited that Jane is trying to run. I will definitely vote for her. But I’ve never joined a party before. I need think about this for a bit.” Thankfully, on follow-up, lots of those people do agree to join and I’ll be able to count on their support. The discovery of this cautiousness has caused me to contemplate the reasons for our collective timidity about politics.

Very few Canadians have formally joined a political party and the number of people who choose to do so is apparently declining. Recent studies have shown “that between 1 and 2 percent of Canadians belong to a political party on a year-to-year basis. This places Canada at the bottom of the list of Western democracies.” I realize that party membership is only one indicator of political engagement. For my part, I’d thought about joining a party for years. But I must admit that I did not do so until May 2011. Now I wish I’d done so years ago. And I’ve become curious about why small and shrinking numbers of Canadians are open to the idea of joining a party.

Here are my theories about why Canadians are hesitant to join a political party…

1. We’re afraid of commitment

It’s always a little frightening to sign up for something new. The financial cost is small – just $10 for a one-year membership with the Liberal Party of Canada. But we are never quite sure what else will be expected of us. Will we have to show up at meetings? (It’s optional, but I strongly recommend it.) Will get asked for more money? (Possibly, but any further contribution is entirely voluntary.) Am I signed up for life? (No – you can cancel your membership at any time.) The fear of commitment may also relate to a fear of offending others who may disagree with our political choices.

It’s been my experience that the best things in life involve making a commitment. At one time I was also afraid of making a commitment to a political party. I didn’t think the policies of any single party would line up exactly with my own values. I have been delighted to discover that the Liberal Party of Canada is full of smart, thoughtful folks who are eager to welcome people with a divergent array of opinions on how to build a better Canada. Making a commitment to working with this collective group has been a satisfying and enlightening experience.

2. We are disillusioned about politics

If there were ever a week to feel disillusioned about the state of Canadian politics, this would be it. It feels like the governance of this great country has almost come to a standstill. The energy and resources of dozens of political leaders and the teams around them have been seriously sidetracked by a disgraceful scandal in the Senate. We are shocked and dismayed by the words and actions of elected and appointed officials. Some might wonder if we can trust any politician.

Previously in this blog, I have recommended the outstanding work of Samara Canada, whose mandate is to improve political participation in Canada. One of their recent reports, called “The Real Outsiders”, examines the reasons why Canadians are disengaged in politics. Disillusionment is a key reason. This report found that Canadians universally condemn politics. Those who were interviewed reported feeling like outsiders in a political system and that has let them down.

These are some of the folks who have helped already in the nomination campaign.

These are some of the folks who have been volunteering in the nomination campaign.

The antidote to this cynicism is engagement. I firmly believe that if we don’t like what we see, the best response is to step up to the plate and do our part to improve a system that disappoints us. The most exciting thing about my nomination campaign so far has been the joy of building a team. People are excited to learn how they can actually participate in the political system when they sign up and offer their support. I get the privilege of offering myself as a conduit connecting the people of my community to a political decision-making system.

3. We’ve been lulled into a false sense of security

I believe another reason why some Canadians choose not to become politically engaged is that we fail to see what is at stake. On the whole, Canadians enjoy one of the best standards of living in the world. We take for granted our relatively safe and peaceful communities. We have become familiar with a system of universal health care that has meant reasonably fair access to basic medical care for all citizens. We have been lulled into a sense of security. This could be dangerous. We could fail to notice subtle changes in the system that could have serious consequences in years to come. I am deeply concerned, for example, about the future of Canadian medicare. There has been an absence of federal oversight to ensure that the principles of the Canada Health Act will be upheld. If we are too shy about getting involved in politics, we could find one day that we barely recognize the country we once knew.

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The Markham Tamil Organization donated $10,000 to support Markham Stouffville Hospital

On this point, I have been inspired by the political engagement of new Canadians. Those who have come here from a country that does not enjoy the same level of democracy may best understand what’s at stake. Both the town of Stouffville, where I live, and the city of Markham, where I work, are home to thousands of new Canadians. One of the immigrant groups that most impresses me with their passion for politics is the people of Tamil descent. I have several friends and colleagues who are Tamil Canadians. Last Saturday night I enjoyed a wonderful fundraising dinner hosted by the Markham Tamil Organization. While I hesitate to make generalizations, I think it’s fair to say that Tamil Canadians set a high bar by their remarkable engagement at every level of politics in this country. They are not afraid to talk about their views. They are not afraid to express support for someone in whom they have confidence. They are enthusiastic about helping this country to remain a peaceful, caring and productive nation. Remember the words of Joni Mitchell? “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

We should not take the social structure of this country for granted. We should not be shy about getting involved in shaping how the country develops.

I’m over my shyness. As I wade into the world of politics, I hope I can inspire great numbers of other Canadians to join me in this. We all want a bright future for our community and our country. If you are reading this, I hope you will consider getting more involved in the formal politics of your community.

If you live in Markham-Stouffville and you think I have what it takes to be a good representative for you as a Member of Parliament, I would be grateful for your support. If you live in my riding, I’d be delighted if you would sign up to vote for my nomination. Find out more here: http://janephilpott.ca/nominate/. Please, don’t be shy!

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