Power to the People! (Part I)

…revolution is, in fact, always unimaginable.

R.F. Kuang, Babel


Part I: We Can’t Go On Like This!


In March 1985, a 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev realized he was likely to become the next general secretary of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and thus leader of the planet’s largest and most militarized state, a self-serving one-party system long misruled by elderly, physically and mentally fragile autocrats. On the eve of his appointment, as he recalled in a 1992 lecture, he “pronounced” to colleagues a“ sentence that proved the beginning…of an altogether new policy” aimed at democratizing and demilitarizing—“rehumanizing” would become a key word—Soviet society. What was this explosive sentence, previously uttered only in private?

We can’t go on like this!

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gobrachev, 1987. (RIA Novosti archive, image #850809 / Vladimir Vyatkin / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘new policy,’ combining perestroika (restructuring) with glasnost (openness), aimed decisively “to end the totalitarian system,” and re-imagine the 1917 revolution’s original, monstrously perverted promise of ‘soviets’ as councils of autonomous citizen power. Did we “realize,” Gorbachev asked, “the scale of the task and its consequences? Inasmuch as this question is directed first and foremost at me, I will say”:

Yes, we knew the system—we knew it inside out. We realized full well how mighty and monolithic this monster was, welding together as it did the party machine and the state structures. One had to have this knowledge to have any hope of success.

It didn’t succeed. By 1992 the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, sundered by centrifugal nationalist tendencies and a reactionary 1991 coup attempting to reimpose centralized Communist control. The USSR, it turned out, simply couldn’t go on. But that doesn’t mean perestroika and glasnost were misguided; or that they might not serve as future guideposts to the democratization, demilitarization, and rehumanization not just of Russia, fallen again into the pit of dictatorship and adventurism, but across much of our war-torn, environmentally disintegrating, ludicrously unequal globe, a violently broken ‘home’ to billions of radically disempowered people, trapped in profoundly anti-social societies, forced to ‘go on’ in ways they would never freely choose.

Including in this – beautiful but crumbling – part of the world.


In recent years the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, already one of the most deprived and underfunded regions in Canada – with, notoriously, more than one in three children living in poverty—has been hit by a ghoulish ‘triple whammy’ threatening to tip it into tailspin decline: the COVID-19 pandemic; post-tropical storm Fiona; and the breakneck over-expansion of Cape Breton University (CBU). In interlocking combination, these massive pressures are generating levels of poverty and precarity perhaps unseen since the Great Depression, a horror show featuring:

record numbers of the unhoused, badly-housed, and insecurely-housed;
chronic food insecurity, overwhelmed food banks (you should see the queues at CBU!) and notwithstanding heroic volunteer efforts at providing relief—widespread hunger and malnutrition;
• a cratering of health and social services, just as needs, demands—and excess post-pandemic deaths—soar;
• rises in alcohol, drug, gambling, and other addictions;
• accelerating, lockdown-fuelled epidemics of violence (physical, psychological, structural) against women, children, trans people, racial and ethnic minorities, and other vulnerable groups and ‘Othered’ others;
sharp increases (from high levels) in acute forms of anxiety, depression, and other manifestations of psychosocial illness and trauma;
• growing lawlessness and disorder, not infrequently met with repressive ‘law enforcement,’ an expensive over-reliance on surveillance, profiling, punishment, and prison;
• literally sickening levels of air and noise pollution;
• etc, etc, etc.


Not only are all these crises related, they’re all related to a crisis of ‘citizenship’ in ostensibly ‘representative democracies’: the comprehensive powerlessness of almost all ‘ordinary people’ to act together to change their lives and communities for the better. In Part II, I set out four ways to change our local world, ‘democratize democracy’ through exercises—new to us, but tried-and-tested elsewhere—in direct, participatory, deliberative citizen engagement.

Three of these four ways involve Citizens’ Assemblies, which I am proposing be convened to consider: 1) the impact of COVID-19, and options for post-pandemic recovery, in the CBRM; 2) the formula for distributing federal equalization payments in Nova Scotia; 3) lessons to be learned from—and optimal ways to respond to—the multiple crises generated by CBU over-expansion. But before taking a deep dive into this content next week, a word on the form I believe such deliberation can best take.

Citizens’ Assemblies—a.k.a. Citizen Panels, Citizen Juries, or Deliberative Mini-Publics—are typically groups of 100 (or less) members of society entrusted with reviewing and making recommendations on issues affecting communities whose full demographic and other diversity they are carefully selected to reflect and embody.

Sketch of diverse group of people sitting around a table.

Source: MASSLBP, “How to run a Civic Lottery.”

In December 2021, I proposed establishing a Canadian Citizens’ Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament, empowered to review Canada’s commitment—more rhetorical than real—to achieving a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World. I was inspired in particular by the example of Ireland, where two recent Citizens’ Assemblies—nationally televised, avidly followed, and intensively discussed—led to constitutional amendments, ratified by referendum, legalizing abortion and marriage equality: changes which, prior to the Assemblies, were opposed by large majorities.

In a concept paper published by Peace Quest Cape Breton last August, I quoted ‘Derek,’ an “initially sceptical” Dubliner, who was “dreading the decisive nature of what I thought was a cop-out,” admitting: “I was completely wrong. Issues were discussed logically and with complete transparency and fairness. The result was a revelation in many ways.” In the view of ‘Barbara,’ another initial skeptic, a “citizens’ assembly has revealed itself to be a vital tool of democracy—it takes the debating of a contentious issue right back down into the hands of the people on the electoral roll. … The greatest thing the assembly did was get balanced and truthful information out among the people.” That’s the ‘glasnost’—and it led to the ‘perestroika.’

Though the Irish experience may have been an international “game-changer, basically,” in the exultant words of Graham Smith, Professor of Politics at the UK University of Westminster’s Center for the Study of Democracy, such exercises have become increasingly common and influential through the 21st century, generating what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) called in 2020 a “deliberative wave” of “innovative participation and new democratic institutions.”


In part, the ‘wave’ has built because such forums are comparatively easy and relatively inexpensive for governments (national, regional, local) to organize. Since 2007, the Canadian organization MASS LBP—“founded on the radical proposition that the next stage of democracy is not only one where people can have their say” (at the ballot box) ”but where everyone has the opportunity and responsibility to exercise public judgement and act as stewards of the greater common good”—has provided expert support and facilitation for over 40 citizen panels of varied sorts and sizes, publishing comprehensive guides on ‘How to Run a Civic Lottery: Designing Fair Selection Mechanisms for Deliberative Public Processes’ and ‘How to Commission a Citizens’ Assembly or Reference Panel: Advice for Public Agencies Procuring Long-Term, Deliberative Processes.’ The The Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Expression provides an admirably concise, 90-second summary in this YouTube video:


Subjects tackled by citizens so assembled have so far ranged from big-picture national issues—e.g. the 2021 Canadian Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Expression—to municipal responses to global warming—e.g. Toronto’s 2019 ‘Transform TO’ Reference Panel on Climate Action—to granular details of community planning—e.g. a 2015 Calgary ‘Citizens’ Commission on Municipal Infrastructure.’ Isn’t it time we ‘caught the wave’ in Cape Breton?The fourth option set out in Part II—a ‘Community Peace, Well-Being and Inclusivity Council’ in CBRM—is far more radical and innovative. Indeed, far from being representative of the whole community, such a council would disproportionately empower the most disempowered and disadvantaged groups among us, those most disproportionately impacted by decisions often taken in ignorance of, and/or rank indifference to, their needs and rights.

The following proposals hardly exhaust the possibilities, and I encourage suggestions on alternative ventures in what we might call ‘deep democracy.’ The bad news is, we can’t go on like this; the good news is, there are many other—better, fairer, freer—ways we can move forward.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.