People & Policy: How Canadian Citizens Can Champion Policy Change

By: Roan Szucs

Edited by: Julia Neves

Writing as a 20-year-old political science student and geopolitical analyst, I struggle to recall a time in my life when geopolitical tensions reached such heights. Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Houthi Rebels in the Red Sea, elections globally (with massive implications), NATO and BRICS doubling down on alliance expansion, defenses, and economic agreements, 2024 will be–based on all evidence–a hyper-transformative year, for better or worse. 

Understanding the talent pool of current leadership within the Western states, I–along with many Canadians– wonder how I can influence Canada’s navigation plan for such a transformative year. In other words, what is the relationship between people and policy? Let’s explore some angles. 

Municipal Engagement

The first locale in which Canadian citizens can influence policy (specifically those on geopolitical crises) is through engagement with municipal politics. Attending council meetings and participating in local debates or town halls allows citizens to voice their opinions on international affairs and urge municipal leaders to advocate for these views at the federal level. Applying political pressure at the municipal level is not purely abstract, as geopolitical policy changes have come from singular MPs before. A notable example is the case of former Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler, who played a significant role in changing Canada’s stance on the issue of human rights in Iran. Cotler, a Liberal MP and human rights lawyer, was instrumental in advocating for the rights of political prisoners and highlighting human rights abuses in Iran. In 2009, Cotler, after hearing the concerns of his municipality, introduced a motion in the House of Commons that led to the creation of an annual Iran Accountability Week. This initiative was aimed at holding the Iranian government accountable for human rights violations, including a range of action items such as holding a multitude of hearings on Iran’s human rights situation, discussions on the plight of political prisoners, and the examination of Iran’s nuclear program. Cotler’s efforts helped raise awareness and change the discourse on Iran’s human rights record within the Canadian Parliament and the international community. It was first the concerns of the citizens in his municipality that propelled his lobbying for Canada to take a stronger stance on human rights abuses in Iran, including the imposition of sanctions and the severing of diplomatic ties. The aforementioned case is a prime example of a local MP listening to the needs of his municipality, literally changing Canada’s stance and action on geopolitical matters. 

Civic Engagement and Advocacy

Exploring other outlets for Canadian citizens to express influence on geopolitical policy stance/creation, citizens can participate in advocacy groups, NGOs, and civil society organizations that focus on international relations and conflict resolution, where through petitions, public demonstrations, lobbying efforts, and awareness campaigns, these groups can draw attention to specific issues and press the government to adopt certain policies. A prime example is the grassroots campaign that led to Canada adopting the Magnitsky Act. This Act allows for targeted sanctions against foreign officials deemed to have violated human rights. The campaign was significantly influenced by the efforts of Bill Browder, a businessman who lobbied various governments to enact legislation in response to the death of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Russian jail. While Browder is not Canadian, his campaign gained considerable traction in Canada due to the efforts of Canadian citizens, NGOs, and lawmakers who rallied behind the cause. Canadian human rights activists, legal experts, and the general public engaged in advocacy, demonstrations, and lobbying efforts to raise awareness of the Magnitsky case and the broader issue of human rights abuses. Their efforts culminated in Parliament unanimously passing the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Law) in 2017. This law allows the Canadian government to impose sanctions on foreign nationals responsible for gross human rights violations, significantly altering Canada’s approach to international human rights and its geopolitical policy, particularly concerning Russia and other countries with noted human rights abuses. It was Browder’s lobby efforts and ignition of public awareness (he’s got some great books, Red Notice for one) that positioned the Sergei Magnitsky Law to be passed in Ottawa.

This article discussed the relationship between people and policy and aimed to identify the two most effective ways we, as Canadians, can have a say in policy creation in a year filled with geopolitical uncertainties. It goes without saying that the globally-minded citizen, the politically proactive Canadian, the relationship between people and policy does not end at the ballot box. In reading this article, amidst geopolitical uncertainties, political pressure on the municipality and lobbying/NGO partnership have been the most successful ways that citizens can engage with policy.

References

Gharib, A. (2015, June 29). Controversial Iranian exile shakes up Canadian Parliament’s human rights program. The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/controversial-iranian-exile-shakes-canadian-parliaments-human-rights-program/

Hudspeth, M. (2022, April 10). Bill Browder on Putin, the Magnitsky act, and unmasking Russian money laundering. CBS News – Breaking news, 24/7 live streaming news & top stories. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/bill-browder-vladimir-putin-magnitsky-act-russian-money-laundering/

Image source: 

President of Russia. (2018, May 17). Transcript of Eurasian Economic Council expanded 

meeting [Photograph]. http://www.en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts. http://www.en.kremlin.ru/catalog/persons/474/events/57468/print