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COMMENTARY: Engaged citizens can make difference in shaping society

We hear much about polarization in society these days, and with upcoming federal and municipal elections, the rhetoric around what divides us will become heightened. But the truth is when it comes down to it, Canadians and Albertans have much more in common with each other than politicians and the media will have us believe.

Human values unite us.

We hear much about polarization in society these days, and with upcoming federal and municipal elections, the rhetoric around what divides us will become heightened. But the truth is when it comes down to it, Canadians and Albertans have much more in common with each other than politicians and the media will have us believe.

We want to live a healthy, happy and comfortable life. We want fresh air and clean water and a healthy planet that will nurture and sustain us. We want a bright future for our children.

It is hard to argue with these values because they are universal human values. And right now this is very apparent in every community in Alberta. Seeing these values threatened, Albertans are speaking up to defend them.

The lawn signs say it all. Protect Our Water. Defend Alberta Parks. Protect Education in Alberta. Don’t pull the plug on public health care.

Behind the lawn signs are very concerned Albertans who realize the people who promised to preserve what’s most important to Albertans have forgotten this now that they are in political office.

Dedicated and engaged citizens are committing to protecting our values, our land and our collective well-being. Faced with a common threat, we are reaching out to other Albertans with similar concerns. But advocating for what we believe in can be difficult and time-consuming. Using strategies to maximize impact will be crucial.

We can connect with like-minded people who care and want to make change. Collectively we can make our voices louder and make the work lighter by building coalitions. When people and organizations join together and promote a common cause, our voices become amplified and much harder to ignore.

We need to look for windows of opportunity that open up for a specific issue. Even if we are advocating for our cause all the time, we need to be prepared to leap at a window of opportunity that presents itself. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportune time to ask for improved conditions in Canada’s senior care homes. The tragic death of George Floyd provided an opening to demand action to address structural racism within the police force.

We need to educate ourselves on the roles of the three main levels of governments, their responsibilities and how they operate. This allows us to focus our advocacy on the right audience and tailor our requests to the powers invested in the policymakers we are addressing. For example, changes to senior care homes will need to come from provincial and federal policymakers rather than municipal politicians.

We can identify a policymaker at the suitable level of government who is willing to sponsor our policy request. If we want our town to fluoridate drinking water to prevent tooth decay in children, we can meet with individual town councillors and educate them on the benefits to children’s health from this intervention. It will become quite clear if one or more councillors are sympathetic to the issue and if they will be willing to turn our request to fluoridate drinking water into a motion at a council meeting. Making our request specific to legislation, regulation, programming or funding will align with how councils operate.

Finally, we don’t have to take no for an answer. If we are met with disinterest or opposition, we can reframe our request – if town councillors won’t fluoridate drinking water, then we can ask them to support children’s dental health in other ways by providing funding, services or regulation that ensures that all children can develop healthy teeth.

And, we can keep making our request at different times and in different ways. The political cycle is four years, but our time horizon is much longer. When in the election cycle we make our request can make a difference to the answers we get. A politician vying for election or re-election has different motivations from one who has just been elected.

Let us remember we all share the same core human values and there is more that unites us than divides us. When we act as engaged citizens, we are ordinary people who do ordinary things that make an extraordinary impact.

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in the Bow Valley. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.