By Roderick Benns
Just one decade ago, former Prime Minister John Turner recalls the unforgettable demonstration of democratic power in Ukraine.
After a late November, 2004 election in which most election observers reported massive fraud on the part of the governing party, a re-run of the presidential election occurred about a month later after great Ukrainian and international pressure.
Mr. Turner, now 84, was a key witness to that historic second chance. That’s because then-Prime Minister Paul Martin handpicked Mr. Turner to lead the largest election delegation in Canada’s history, calling him a “tremendous defender of parliamentary democracy.”
Mr. Turner led a 500-person monitoring team under the first-ever mission of the Canada Corps.
“I led the team to Kiev and across Ukraine to patrol Election Day. It was the Orange revolution and it was one of the greatest demonstrations of democracy I have ever witnessed,” Mr. Turner says.
Turner, who still works five days a week in Toronto doing promotional work in energy and the environment, is dismayed at the state Ukraine finds itself in today.
“The last 10 years have been a political tragedy. You have to listen to the people,” Mr. Turner tells Leaders and Legacies.
“Those in charge of political affairs of the country need to open their ears and their eyes and be available to the people – that’s the secret to success.”
Canada was among the first to recognize Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union more than two decades ago. Canada’s connection with Ukraine has been strong, anchored by massive waves of immigration from the country since the turn of the twentieth century under former Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.
Democracy not an accident
The example of Ukraine’s lost decade in democratic renewal allows Canada’s 17th prime minister to reflect on Canada. Mr. Turner points out that he spoke to the Kiwanis Club of Montreal in 1963 and advocated for free votes in parliament except for budgets and the throne speech.
“I’m also in favour of strong standing committees, in favour of private members bills, and opening up question period,” said Mr. Turner.
Mr. Turner says Canada must stay “an open country” in practice and spirit.
“Democracy does not happen by accident. Citizens need to be active and parliament needs to be open to the people. There has to be political independence in parliament and in the legislature. That means the role of the individual MP has to be established,” said Mr. Turner.
As for more Canadians choosing to get involved in public life and choosing a political career, Mr. Turner says he has been on several committees over 25 years, exploring why young people don’t want to get involved in politics.
“They point to the financial sacrifice, marriage pressure, media pressure on one’s private life, and that the job itself isn’t worth it anymore – that the role of the individual Member of Parliament has diminished.”
Because of all these reasons, says Mr. Turner, “we have to be active in our own democracy” and consider how to bring in new people to renew our institutions.
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