Amid a pandemic and social protests of proportions not seen in decades, how can Londoners strengthen the elector-representative bond?
The relationship between constituents and their elected representatives is as complicated as every relationship. Still, it has a distinct pinnacle: the months that go from the start of the campaign to the election day. It is a short period for a 4-year commitment.
Although people have many ways to keep in touch with their representatives, such as social media, email, phone, events, etc., sometimes, what they lack is not how to do so. It is the motivation that is lacking. (But, just in case, there are some links at the end of this article that will help you find your representatives’ communications channels).
A Two-Way Street
Councillor Arielle Kayabaga is serving her first term as City Councillor, representing London’s ward 13, located in Central London. In her opinion, electors and representatives should start in a common ground. “Both parts have to participate in the formulation of a common goal. It requires people to vote, to participate, but for some people, it takes a long time to feel included and to feel their voices matter.”
Typically, in pre-COVID-19 times, Kayabaga does a lot of face-to-face meetings and coffee chats, and not only with those in her ward. “I try to connect with the entire community at large. A ward is not a stand-alone thing. When you think about city building, you can’t think about just one ward. This must be a two-way street, a narrative shared by voters and representatives.”
“Two-way” is the same expression London West’s member of provincial Parliament (MPP) Peggy Sattler uses. “Whatever the vehicle, what is most important is ensuring that communication is two-way. Elected representatives can’t just sit back and wait for people to contact us; we have to be proactive and constantly reach out to invite constituents to share what is on their mind.”
Before the pandemic, Sattler says some of the ways she reached her constituents were through events, social meetings, and town halls. COVID-19 has made it more challenging to connect, but, like other sectors, representatives are also finding new ways to outreach. “I held a COVID-19 virtual town hall that people could join by telephone or online. And because we weren’t constrained by limitations of physical space, we were able to have hundreds of people on the line.”
London West’s Member of Parliament (MP), Kate Young, had a similar positive experience with a virtual town hall. Two years ago, she promoted a town hall on seniors’ issues with 20 attendants. While not considered a bad turnout, the virtual event, held a couple of months ago on the same topic, had 300 people. “I was able to bring a minister to talk with them, and they asked questions by phone. I have been using tools like Zoom quite a lot, and I’d never used it before March.”
Young, who says she was one of the first representatives to use door knocking outside the campaign to connect with her riding, thinks virtual town halls and live social media events, will continue even after the pandemic. “People are far more open to the concept of virtual communication.”
Black Lives Matter
The three representatives agree that the world-wide demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd in May contributed to an increase in political engagement.
“I think BLM demonstrations have pushed a lot of people. These demonstrations are centred around the safety of black communities and police accountability”, says Councillor Kayabaga. “How can we work to assure every single person is safe? It’s the bare minimum we can ask for. If people have to plead to be safe, there’s no common goal. From that common goal, we can start reframing the system we are in”.
In July, the City Council unanimously approved a motion moved by her that included anti-racism, diversity, inclusion, and anti-oppression as a strategic initiative, which asked every service area at the City of London to have an equity and inclusion lens.
In MP Young’s opinion, everybody has learned a lot in the last months. After the June 6th demonstration at Victoria Park, she talked to London’s police chief, police services board, and BLM members, trying to understand everybody’s viewpoint.
“We are asking these questions of how we can make it better. We have to face those issues; we can’t continue to act as they don’t exist.”
According to MPP Sattler, in the days following the Victoria Park rally, she received hundreds of emails supporting the specific demands of BLM London, and hundreds more calling for action to address systemic racism.
“It feels like we are truly on the precipice of transformative change, and it is exciting to see the community embrace the urgent calls to action.”
A City with a History
The MPP considers London’s population very engaged in equity and inclusion issues, an opinion supported by the fact that 10,000 Londoners had gathered on June 6th. She also mentions the city’s Pride Festival, “one of Ontario’s biggest and best outside Toronto.”
London also has many organizations that can help citizens to express their claims. The representatives cite the Urban League of London, Pillar Nonprofit Network, Employment Sector Council, Chamber of Commerce, London Environmental Network, London Poverty Research Centre, Women & Politics, and numerous other community associations.
“This city has been a provincial and national leader on issues of gender-based violence. Most recently, it became the first Ontario city to join the UN Safe Cities Initiative and was also the first to make improving safety for women and girls a stand-alone focus of its strategic plan. In addition, London has a long and unique history of collaboration within sectors, through organizations that have helped to bring citizens together in raising awareness and advocating for change locally and at the provincial or national level”, says MPP Sattler.
Paving the Two-Way Street
Successful examples of change led by citizens may give others the motivation to become more engaged. And London has many of them.
MP Young recalls that one of the leaders of the No Fly List Kids (NFLK) group lives in London. Parents of children who continuously face problems when trying to board a plane because, by sheer chance, they have the same name as a person on Canada’s no-fly list established the group in 2016.
“I helped move their concern up the ladder, but this father gathered families who were facing the same problem across the country.”
In 2018, with NFLK’s advocacy, the funding to address this problem was first included in the Federal Budget. A new system should begin this year.
In another example, MP Young tells the case of a mother whose young daughter survived cancer. However, she now lives with irreversible side effects caused by chemotherapy, developed for adult patients.
“This mother brought to my attention we need to have more dollars spent on pediatric cancer research because most of the money goes to adult cancer studies.”
Following Young’s suggestion, the mother started an online petition calling for an increase in pediatric cancer research funding. The MP brought the petition to the House of Commons. The discussion evolved until incorporated as a campaign promise.
“We were discussing how to get it through the budget when COVID happened. But I will continue to advocate for this mother after the pandemic is over.”
MPP Peggy Sattler remembers the path followed by her Private Member’s Bill to legislate paid leave for workers who experienced domestic violence or sexual violence. Ontario enacted the law in January 2018.
“It was developed in close collaboration with researchers at Western University’s Centre for Research on Violence Against Women and Children. It also received support from hundreds of Londoners who signed petitions and sent letters to the government. And it was endorsed by many London organizations including Anova, the London Abused Women’s Centre, Middlesex-London Health Unit, and more.”
If you get involved and engage with your elected representatives, you can make an impact.
Find your local representatives’ communications channels in the links below.
- How to contact the City of London’s Councillors and Mayor
- Find your ward
- Find London’s Provincial and Federal Representatives
- Google them! Almost all representatives have professional websites and accounts on many social media platforms. Follow your representative and search the web for their actions and opinions.
Feature Photo by Jason Plant of MC Spirit Studios