Is there a lack of engagement?

With the casino debate as an example, civic input appears to be low

Mark Shiffer

Kitchener city council recently asked citizens to submit their opinions on approving a potential casino. This was done through a voluntary online survey and 2,326 responded out of a population of more than 200,000 people.

Between Kitchener, Waterloo and Woolwich Township, only 5,309 people gave their opinion on this pending political decision. Why was input so low? Is this part of a larger problem of a general lack of civic engagement in the community?

The apparent case of apathy is nothing new. The percentage of voters in general elections is down across the country. Voter turnout in municipal elections is always significantly below 50 per cent.

There are several factors that might be contributing to a lack of participation. Only people who are most interested and passionate about a topic will likely take the time to submit their ideas. They are motivated to respond. The majority may not have strong opinions either way and wouldn’t bother to contribute.

Besides, most of us are busy with our own lives. As the pace of society continues to increase, there may be a sense that there is less time to contribute to public debate.

The online access makes it easier but is still competing with email and social media for our distracted attention.

Perhaps it’s the layers of local government that contribute to citizen lethargy. In Waterloo Region, there are two tiers of local government, resulting in over-governance and confusion.

It can be difficult to tell where the rule of the cities and townships ends and the region begins. That is certainly a factor in the casino debate. Individual cities can decide who wants a casino or not, but everyone is affected as part of the greater Region of Waterloo. At which level of government would the debate be best focused?

Discussion often turns to what should be done, if anything, to correct this lack of civic participation.

Rand Strauss is the president and CEO of, an American website that promotes civic engagement and activism. He suggests a variety of actions individuals can take to become more engaged citizens.

One of his suggestions is to self-educate. Learn about issues affecting your community. To participate effectively in society, you need to know what you are talking about and where you stand.

Strauss suggests that you then talk to others and find groups that support your position. Using social media, contacting elected officials and organizing in public are various strategies that can help you to promote a cause.

The process of being an engaged citizen doesn’t just involve political activity. It can take the form of volunteering for the benefit of others.

Helping at a food bank or working with children is part of being active in the community. There are many ways to be actively involved.
We should not take the opportunities to participate in civic life for granted. We are fortunate to have the option to give our input into what we want for our communities. If we say nothing, then the decisions are taken out of our hands.

Whatever the outcome of the casino debate, I hope there will be increased discussion and participation.