As a three-year citizens’ dialogue for identifying a new direction for Canadian foreign policy, Canada's world dialogue series initiative advanced democratic development and hoped to inspire residents to develop and promote their own vision for the future of international policy.
Problems and Purpose
Canada’s World was a three-year citizens’ dialogue focused on advancing a new vision for Canadian international policy. The goals of the initiative were two-fold:
- To advance democratic development in Canada by engaging Canadians in a dialogue that moved beyond rhetoric, and examined key international policy themes from a basis of common information.
- To inspire Canadians to formulate and advance their own future-oriented vision for Canadian international policy.
These goals were elaborated in a series of objectives:
- Create a broad and inclusive collaborative initiative that involves citizens, organizations, individuals, businesses and institutions active internationally.
- Engage Canadians who have not traditionally participated in foreign policy initiatives and increase their knowledge of Canadian international policy.
- Design and deliver a national dialogue process that empowers citizens to deliberate, formulate and advance options for Canadian international policy and is seen as a model for citizen engagement and deliberation on public policy issues.
- Develop a citizens’ agenda that reflects the historical experiences, values, assets and interests of Canadians.
- Build the capacity of participants to communicate the citizens’ agenda to government, the media and other international policy actors.
Canada’s World succeeded in meeting each of the goals and objectives for this project.
Background History and Context
Canada's World was created to engage Canadians in a discussion about Canada's role in the world. The rationale for the initiative was developed in a concept paper which identified the following key problems:
- Canada’s profile and position internationally has eroded leaving many confused about Canadian international policy.
- The gap between perception and reality of Canada’s place in the world is growing.
- International policy is fundamental to every aspect of our daily lives, but few Canadians know or understand much about it.
- Former consultations have been led by government, have been narrow in scope and have not embraced the changing nature of Canadian society.
- Discussions about international policy are becoming increasingly polarized.
- Our perceptions of ourselves as a nation are evolving.
- The actors shaping our international policy are shifting and as a consequence the nature of government decision-making is changing.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Canada’s World began modestly from a small office at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Dialogue and grew into a collaboration of hundreds of individuals, universities, foundations, and non-profit organizations. The project received $2.2 million direct cash and in-kind contributions over 3 years totally $2.5 million including volunteer contributions & funding from SFU.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Dialogues were open to all and specific attention was given to youth, ethnocultural, aboriginal, and multi-faith outreach. In order to attract more participants and reach those unable to attend in-person, social media was used as a channel of engagement including such platforms as Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter, as well as online dialogues, blogs, and video upload.
In the final report, Shauna Sylvester, director of Canada's World, writes that "working horizontally through networks of collaborators and through experimentation with different channels we reached over 4,000 Canadians face-to-face and another 100,000 online."
Methods and Tools Used
The initiative was designed to bridge dialogue across generations, sectors and ideologies. Subsequently, Canada’s World used an “open source” approach to policy development and used a combination of traditional methods of engagement – public opinion research, surveys, questionnaires and interviews - and new methods like 2.5 days of deliberative dialogues with randomly selected citizens, open forum, kitchen roundtables, presentations, town hall meetings, and interactive workshops. As well, interactive technological tools were employed to enhance citizen engagement including social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter,as well as online dialogues, blogs, and video uploads). Specific attention was given to youth, ethnocultural, aboriginal, and multi-faith outreach.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Canada's World crossed the country several times and met with 10,000 Canadians face-to-face and engaged another 200,000 on-line. They reached out to diverse communities, developed new models for dialogue and exploited a variety of social media tools targeted at different demographic groups. [see Appendix A for a Calendar of Canada’s World events].
Influence, Outcomes and Effects
Canada’s World presented a successful model of democratic engagement. It set out to speak to Canadians who are not a part of the “foreign policy choir” and ask them to examine the new realities facing Canada internationally and to develop a forward-looking and compelling vision for Canada in the world.
The process ultimately delivered a robust, forward looking vision that demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of international policy. They documented this vision through reports, powerpoint presentations, media articles and videos and communicated it back to Canadians citizens, civil servants, political parties and the federal government.
The important results included:
- A network of citizens who felt empowered to engage in a dialogue about issues that have been traditionally the purview of a small community of experts.
- A new narrative that moved beyond the myths of Canada as a great global peacemaker in the world and realistically addressed Canada’s capacity for global influence in a targeted and realistic manner drawing from an analysis of our country’s interests, values and assets.
- A community of citizens, particularly young people, who developed a better understanding of democracy and Canadian foreign policy and who want to extend their experience to other initiatives.
- New models of citizen engagement that can be used by government departments and practitioners of deliberative dialogue.
The impact on policy and political decisions can be seen in a number of ways. The Canada's World findings have been considered by each of the political parties and some aspects of the new narrative and poll findings have been incorporated into the Liberal Party's foreign policy platform. The process design has informed citizen engagement practitioners within the Canadian International Development Agency, the Policy Research Institute of the federal government, the Privy Council Office (it was put forward as a model of online engagement) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Other agencies have used the process as a model of engagement (Toronto City Summit, Canadian International Council). Although the project has officially come to an end, the requests for speaking engagements continue.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Canada’s World was launched as an experiment in democratic development. The people who helped shape Canada’s World were deeply concerned about the lack of a conversation about Canada’s role in the world within the broader political culture. They were also turned off by the narrow and polarized conversations within the formal political institutions and the ideological mud-slinging served up by political parties. Project leaders wanted to find a different avenue for democratic expression and so we took a page from the handbooks on direct democracy, the open source movement and the “Wisdom of Crowds” to develop a “by the people, for the people” approach. While this approach respected the wealth of intellectual capital that existed in the foreign policy community, it didn’t draw on that capital. Instead, organizers ventured out to citizens - the non-experts - to seek their participation and their vision for Canada in the world.
Canada’s World began modestly from a small office at the SFU Centre for dialogue and grew into a collaboration of hundreds of individuals, universities, foundations, and non-profit organizations. Scholarship and rhetoric around "true participatory democracy" proliferating on the Internet and across communities in North America and the UK provided inspiration.
With such a broad number of methods and tools used to engage citizens, some approaches worked well (e.g. deliberative dialogue) and some fell flat (e.g. online policy dialogue through the website), but with each new attempt, organizers were careful to share lessons and open up the process to scrutiny. In doing so it was hoped that the process would become a model new approach to policy formulation – one that begins with the assumption that power comes from sharing knowledge, rather than hoarding it and that citizens can and will participate in complex policy discussion if given the opportunity. Subsequently, while the engagement process was developing the democratic capabilities of the citizens, organizers were providing documentation and analysis to further the scholarship on building the capacities of institutions and organizations to undertake such processes.
 Sylvester, Shauna. (2009). Back on the Map: a new vision for Canada in the world. Available at http://www.sfu.ca/content/dam/sfu/centre-for-dialogue/Watch-and-Discover/canadas-world/PDFs/Events/Back_on_the_Map.pdf
Links to Canada’s World videos, websites, key reports and social media sites:
- Canada’s World: Democracy in the Making – a documentary by Sarah Van Borek
- Canada’s World website
- Foreign Policy Camp website
- Canada’s World blog
- Back on the Map – report of the national dialogue
- Moving Beyond Dichotomies – Canada in the 21st Century – report of the regional deliberative dialogues [broken link]
- Canada’s World YouTube Channel
- Canada’s World Photo Gallery
- Canada’s World Twitter Group
The original version of this case study first appeared on Vitalizing Democracy in 2010 and was a contestant for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize. It was originally submitted by Jacquie Dale.