Two hundred and fifty years ago, on October 2, 1758, Nova Scotia's first legislative assembly met in Halifax and Canadian Parliamentary government was born. The twenty members of the assembly had been elected the previous July by the votes of Protestant, British males, over 21, owning freehold land, a franchise that seems remarkably restrictive to us, but was, in fact, liberal for that era.

With the national election drums summoning Canadians to the polls again this autumn, it is a good time to reflect on what was achieved in Nova Scotia more than two centuries ago and what lessons we might take from this historical event to meet the challenges of democracy in our era. The September 2008 "D250” Encounters With Canada youth summit in Halifax is an excellent initiative to achieve this purpose.

In the most celebrated trial in Nova Scotia history, newspaperman Joseph Howe defended himself in a fight for freedom of the press with a crowd pleasing speech of over six hours (Source: Library and Archives Canada/PA-025486).

Democracy, as succinctly defined by the Oxford Dictionary "is a form of government in which the power resides in the people and is exercised by them either directly or by means of elected representatives”. In the history of democracy, there are three major turning points of direct democracy, representative democracy and mass democracy, and in their application to Canada, Maritimers, especially Nova Scotians, have played a leading role.

Direct or participatory democracy was born in Athens in 500 B.C. In that era of kings and empires, the Athenian idea that average citizens should decide policy rather than elites may be the single most revolutionary innovation in the history of government. Male citizens of Athens, about 30 000 out of a population of about 250 000 (slaves and women were not entitled to vote), had the right to attend ten fixed meetings a year of the assembly where they deliberated on critical issues like war and peace. Gathered on the Pnyx, a hill in Athens, citizens listened, debated, and decided their fate.

Ever since then, Athens has been the model for participatory or strong democracy where citizens, as individuals, play the deciding role in public affairs. Canada, too, has a tradition of participatory governance, one especially enshrined in the history of our First Nations. There are over 600 First Nations in Canada and one should not make generalizations that apply to all, but there are some well-documented case studies on the procedures and principles which illustrated aboriginal governance. The operative rules were consensus and participation. The Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Nations, for example, contains 117 clauses. Some believe the origin of the Iroquois Confederacy goes as far back as the 12th Century, although it certainly goes back at least to the 15th. Tribes would choose a Peace Chief, a War Chief, and a Council of Elders. Women did not get the vote in Canada until 1918, but the Iroquois were a matriarchal society, with women choosing the representatives who attended the Councils. Representatives of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy even attended the congress of 1776 in Philadelphia where they exchanged ideas on governance with Benjamin Franklin.

In Eastern Canada, several First Nations formed the Wabanaki Confederacy, and the Mi'kmaq had a sophisticated tri-level of leadership. The villages had local Chiefs and Councils of Elders; several villages came together in Districts, presided over by a Saqamaw; and the eight Districts formed a Grand Council which had the responsibilities of relations with the other aboriginal nations and confederacies. Long before the European settlement, aboriginal people had developed sophisticated mechanisms of government and international relations and the basic principle of this system - consensus decision-making - is of continuing relevance to the modern age.

Direct democracy on the Athenian or aboriginal model had one major flaw: once you get beyond a certain size, it is not possible to put all your citizens atop a hill or around a campfire. The British solved the problem by a second great invention - a representative Parliament. Citizens would not decide issues individually, as in Athens, but they would elect representatives to do so on their behalf. The Pynx of the citizen assembly would evolve into a Parliament of representatives. In 1265, Simon de Montfort convened a Parliament which contained two knights from the shires, and two burgesses from each borough. For the first time, representatives of the people were part of an institution that advised and controlled the executive.

This was the institution transplanted to Nova Scotia in 1758. And, as in Great Britain, the struggle in Nova Scotia soon became how to transform a representative legislature into a responsible government. Parliament's initial role in Great Britain was to ensure that the Monarch heard the voices of the people as he or she wielded the executive powers of government. Britain had a "mixed constitution” comprised of an elected House of Commons, a hereditary House of Lords, and a Monarch. A mixed constitution was replicated in Nova Scotia and the other colonies in British North America. The appointed Governor ruled with the assistance of an appointed Executive Committee and an appointed Legislative Council. The elected Legislative Assembly had the power to approve laws and withhold supplies, but the source of colonial power was in the governor, who was accountable to the imperial government in Great Britain.

As the Legislative Assembly was being inaugurated in Nova Scotia, however, the British Parliament was evolving toward a government dependent on the votes of a majority of the members of the House of Commons (and thus, in theory, the people). George III of Great Britain is as significant for grudgingly conceding power to the parties represented in Parliament as he is for losing the American Revolution. In the 1780's the King was forced to accept a government that he detested (the Fox-North Coalition) because it commanded a majority in the House of Commons, and gradually the post of the Prime Minister began to supersede the power of the monarch.

The British debate over responsible government equally played out in Canada, with Nova Scotia leading the way. Nova Scotians began to demand that the members of the Executive Council, the forerunner to the Cabinet, should be responsible to the elected legislature, not the appointed governor. In 1836, for example, Joseph Howe, the leader of the Reform Movement (the liberals of the day), made the point that "all we ask for is what exists at home (Britain) - a system of responsibility to the people”. In 1847, the Nova Scotia Reformers won an election and in January 1848, when the Conservative government was defeated following a vote of non-confidence in the Assembly, the Governor General, Lord Elgin, called on James Uniacke, a Reformer, to become the leader of the new government. "Nova Scotia”, writes W.S. MacNutt, "was the first province of British North America in which responsible government was formally conceded and given effect.”

If direct democracy was the first turning point, and representative democracy and responsible government the second, mass democracy was the third mile stone in democracy's evolution. If the "people” were to choose their representatives, who made up the people? The initial answer in Nova Scotia in 1758 was Protestant men over 21 who owned property. But fairly quickly Nova Scotia began to expand the franchise (those entitled to vote) and soon surpassed Great Britain in defining the boundaries of citizenship. In 1789, the Nova Scotia Assembly removed religious restrictions affecting the right to vote (Roman Catholics in Great Britain had to wait until 1829 to enjoy the franchise). In 1854 Nova Scotia introduced universal male suffrage, dropping property restrictions and increasing the number of electors by 50%, the first jurisdiction in North America to do so. New Brunswick also innovated, introducing the secret ballot in 1855, a reform not adopted in Canada proper until 1874. This measure was crucial for reducing election violence. With public voting gangs could intimidate and wreck their vengeance on opponents. Robert Baldwin, the great Upper Canadian Reformer, once had to flee on horseback a howling election mob. Before Confederation, there were 20 deaths due to election violence, but the secret ballot and simultaneous voting (as opposed to staggered dates) ended the reign of electoral terror.

Women, however, had to wait until 1918 before they were considered as citizens entitled to vote federally; in this same year, Nova Scotia gave women the vote provincially. In Lower Canada in 1791, under the jurisdiction of the Civil Code rather than the Common Law, women who owned property could vote on the same basis as men, i.e. British conventions did not apply. For a time, Quebec was a leader in gender equity; but upon uniting with Canada in 1841 in the Act of Union, Quebec women lost this right and Quebec eventually became the last Canadian province to give women the vote in 1940. (Manitoba was the first in 1916.) Canadians learned from New Zealand, which led the world by giving women the vote in 1893.

Each of the three turning points of direct democracy, representative democracy and mass democracy continue to be issues for us today. Many citizens yearn to have a direct impact on policy rather than pleading with a bureaucrat or visiting the constituency office of a Member of Parliament. Some suggest that internet voting might be a technique that could replicate in Canada the direct democracy of the Pnyx in Athens. But how many citizens would engage in the process as opposed to special interest groups? The Aboriginal tradition of consensus equally depends on extensive discussion and mutual learning - how many citizens have the time to engage so intensively? Randomly selected citizen panels might be one answer. They have been already used to advise governments on electoral systems and in the United Kingdom they have been employed on broader issues such as city planning. But this democratic innovation depends on volunteers willing to spend their weekends discussing policy.

The representative institution of parliament also is badly in need of reform. Partisan-wrangling has reduced question period to a reality show circus, and many MP's feel that they have little influence on the executive. The origins of Parliament in 1265 were intended to provide some restraint on the power of the executive; how to re-balance power between the Prime Minister and Parliament today is as necessary as it was once to balance the power of the king.

In Lunenburg township, in Nova Scotia's first election in July 1758, 58 of 70 potential voters (or 82%) voted for 2 members from a list of 7 candidates. The percentage voting in Canada's last national election in 2006 was only 65% of registered voters. Canada's mass democracy is loosing its "mass”. According to Elections Canada, in the 2006 election the lowest turnout, at 44%, was from young voters 18-24, compared to 77% of voters 65-74. We know that turnout is related to personal efficacy - the amount of confidence individuals have in their knowledge of a subject. The calamitous decline of Canadian history in our school system may be a contributing factor in the low percentage of young people voting. If one does not know about the origins of Parliament, why vote for a Member of Parliament?

Democracy is always a work in progress. Issues change, and intuitions evolve. Canadian democracy is certainly in need of major repair as we face the next national general election: voting turnout is mediocre, parliamentary accountability is in decline, and citizens are frustrated in their ability to contribute to decisions that influence their lives. We must retain the optimism of Joseph Howe, the greatest of Nova Scotia reformers; he told the electors of Nova Scotia in 1851 that even after the great achievement of responsible government, the reform agenda was not done. He wrote "a noble heart is beating beneath the giant ribs of North America. See that you do not, by apathy or indifference, depress its healthy pulsations.” Amen to that!