As the Speaker of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, one of my top priorities is to defend, maintain, and build public trust in our democratic institutions.
To this end, I have expanded efforts to reach out to Albertans through social media to help demystify aspects of procedure within the legislature. I have also tried to visit as many schools as possible, to provide students with a basic appreciation of how and why our institutions were created to serve the public.
In tough times, frustrations are high. Building faith in our public institutions often feels like an uphill battle, and cynicism is not solely reserved for adults. I recently took a question from a young girl in a social studies class, who told me she doesn’t believe elected officials will ever make a difference in her life.
Her concerns perfectly illustrate a string of recent public opinion polls across North America and Europe depicting a growing number of young people feeling disconnected from our institutions. Many seem willing to reject democracy altogether.
Now, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of the importance of our individual rights and freedoms. They are the very foundation of our democratic institutions: institutions that have created an era of economic, social, and scientific progress unprecedented in human history.
To be reminded of a world without individual rights, we need only look back in time to what many scholars consider a key turning point: King John’s acceptance of what would come to be known as the Magna Carta in June of 1215. In many ways, this document planted the seeds for reform that would change the world: the idea that individuals can and must be granted freedom from the arbitrary authority of the state.
It evolved out of an era of frustration with an English crown that continually raised taxes, scornfully flouted the jurisdiction of local barons, and placed foreign interests above the welfare of the English people, all justified by the notion that the king is above the law. The political and economic freedoms we enjoy today evolved out of the ashes of these fundamental injustices.
Many of the symbols of our society’s long fight for individual freedom remain proudly on display at Alberta’s legislature.
Take, for example, the mace ceremony. Every sitting begins the same way, with the sergeant-at-arms presenting the mace, a symbol of the monarch’s power. It is entrusted to the representatives of the people — in the people’s house — to write laws for the people. This one simple ceremony tells the story of a centuries-long struggle for freedom, justice, and democracy.
I take this ceremony a little more personally than most. There is a good reason. In the early days of our parliamentary democracy, the Speaker was often in a difficult position between the will of parliament and monarch.
Over the years, monarchs who were displeased by parliament’s resolutions executed no fewer than nine Speakers. The road to freedom is rarely smooth.
Another symbol of importance is our provincial motto: Fortis et Liber. It translates to Strong and Free. Although adopted quite recently in 1980, I cannot think of a better motto to describe both the character and the aspirations of our province.
Today, much of the focus of our political discourse is on the left vs. right dynamic. However, when it comes to the progress of our people, there is another spectrum that matters just as much, if not more.
On one hand: authoritarianism; on the other: freedom. Our parliamentary democracy is rooted firmly on the freedom side. Our freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and association are not luxuries; they form the very core of our identity as free people.
It is also worth noting that historically, those who seek to dominate others have always tried to devalue individual freedom. Some claim that freedom makes our society weak. Alberta’s motto rejects this notion outright. We aim to be both Strong and Free. That is the attitude that makes Alberta one of the greatest places to live.
Now, I am a realist. I understand better than most that the thrust and parry of modern politics is growing increasingly divisive. My word of caution is simply this: we must not allow the disagreements of the day to threaten the principles and values that we hold most dear.
Today, this very minute, we see a generation turning away from our democratic institutions and values.
We cannot simply shrug and look away. We must speak up for freedom.
Nathan Cooper is Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.