The Growing Threat of Civic Illiteracy

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For democracy to flourish, citizens must have confidence in the institutions that underpin it: the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the electoral system. Many experts also underline the importance of an independent media.  Virtually everyone agrees that when these various pillars of the democratic state lose their credibility, all bets are off. Anything from popular protest movements and civil disobedience to insurrection, anarchy and the adoption of an autocratic regime are possible.

This is not news to students of politics. What is new, or at least newly important in the age of social media and disinformation, is how ignorant so many ordinary citizens in western democracies appear to be about these crucial institutions. Ignorance in this case is not bliss, but a real threat to the stability of the state. Ignorance about the democratic process and institutions leaves individuals vulnerable to all manner of false claims, deception and manipulation which have the effect of further undermining democracy.

Take, for example, the frightening developments south of the border. There can be no doubt now that former president Donald Trump has done serious damage to the credibility of the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. But it is his attacks on the legitimacy of the electoral system that have raised the stakes exponentially. As he appears poised to become the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in the upcoming November 2024 federal election, (while facing some 21 criminal charges), an astonishing 30% of Americans continue to believe he actually won the last election in 2020.[i]

One of the most obvious examples of civic illiteracy was on full display in the United States on January 6, 2021. Loss of faith in their electoral system may have been a driving force behind the insurrection, but even more shocking was the revelation that many of the participants mistakenly believed they were actually defending democracy and upholding the principles of the American constitution. This was the so-called “big lie” promoted by former president Trump, who urged his followers to “stand up” for democracy. As one of the individuals charged in the riots told the court at his trial, he had foolishly “gone down the rabbit hole of lies” spun by the former president. In sentencing the man to a lengthy prison term, the judge stated, “I think our democracy is in trouble,” adding that “charlatans like Trump don’t care about democracy, only about power. And as a result of that, it’s tearing our country apart,”[ii] And this is the country once seen as the free world’s champion of democracy.

In Canada we have seen similar behaviour, albeit on a much smaller scale. In our case it was largely a situation where the ignorant were leading the ignorant, and no politician was leading the charge. From their testimony at the ensuing hearings, we now know that the infamous “Truckers’ Convoy” to Ottawa in January 2022 was led by a collection of misfits, narcissists and would-be messiahs who had no conception of how government works, or who is responsible for what. Although they were allegedly protesting vaccination mandates, which were the purview of provinces, they nevertheless converged on Ottawa and illegally occupied the nation’s capital. Once there they enthusiastically promoted a so-called Memorandum of Understanding they bizarrely believed could replace the duly elected federal government with some sort of cabal, composed of the governor general, a handful of senators and the leadership of the convoy itself. And when told their occupation of downtown Ottawa was illegal, they responded that they were merely defending their rights to free speech and protest, obviously unaware that one individual’s rights end where another’s begins. When finally told by police that they had to leave or be arrested, a significant majority fell to their knees, falsely believing they could not be arrested if they offered no resistance, and were astonished to learn they were wrong.

One of the saddest images of the convoy ordeal was surely the presence of entire families camped out in their vehicles in the freezing cold, proudly stating they were providing their children with a valuable life experience.[iii] And on the margins of this popular protest we witnessed the dangerous participation of known criminals and violent offenders, including at the Windsor, Ontario and Coutts, Alberta border blockades, where the RCMP arrested 13 individuals for arms offences including possession of long guns, hand guns, ammunition, dynamite and body armour.[iv]  

But not all politicians were blameless in this affair either. Certainly future Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for their behaviour when he regularly visited the protesters, (who were literally dug in less than a block away from the parliament buildings), with trays of hot coffee and good cheer, and who stated in his podcast that he was “proud of the truckers and I stand with them.[v]

How did we get into this depressing state of affairs and what, if anything can we do about it? First and foremost, it would seem obvious that we must ensure every citizen receives a proper education in democratic principles, institutions and processes before graduating from high school. There are already civics classes on the books in most provincial public education systems, but they clearly are not doing the job. A recent Abacus poll of some 2,000 Canadian teachers reveals one of the most important reasons why this approach is failing. It found that although more than 90% of these teachers strongly agreed or agreed that it was valuable to teach students about politics and government, fully two thirds of them felt this subject matter was not a priority in their school. They also believed it had declined in importance in recent years due to increased emphasis on STEM topics. More shocking was the fact that fewer than half of the teachers surveyed felt they were competent to teach about government and politics, and only one quarter said they themselves had had any formal training in this subject area. [vi]    

A second major source of accurate information for citizens should, of course, be an independent media delivering fact-based journalism. However that concept, too, is in serious difficulty. Mainstream media, both print and broadcast, are at their lowest levels of credibility ever. They are also in huge financial difficulty. Most are attempting to do more with less by cutting professional staff and news bureaus in order to stave off bankruptcy in the face of increasingly popular fringe media outlets like Fox News, and the ever-growing influence of unregulated social media. Ominously, while a total of slightly more than 55% of Canadians still acquire most of their news from established mainstream media, that number plummets with decreasing age. One study found some 85% of Generation Z (those under 28) acquire their news primarily from social media such as Instagram and Tik Tok.[vii] Equally significant is the fact that several experts who analyzed the events leading to the January 2022 occupation of Ottawa concluded “social media acted as the central nervous system” of the Convoy, and the primary way of “building momentum for a social and political movement.”[viii]

The prevalence of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories on the internet has also been the topic of considerable concern among politicians in liberal democracies for some time. This concern has only increased with concrete evidence that various foreign actors, including Russia, China, and Iran, have been actively involved in the spread of such disinformation. One study conducted at the University of Calgary, for example, found thousands of incorrect and misleading tweets and retweets about the war in Ukraine that could be traced back to Russia and China.[ix] Former Public Safety Minister Marco Mendocino described disinformation as “one of the most pervasive threats to all our democracies” when speaking to his counterparts at a G7 conference in Germany in November 2022. Stressing the importance of educating high school students on how to spot disinformation and tell fact from fiction, he argued it should be seen as a fundamental aspect of a civic literacy as well as a consumer awareness curriculum.[x] The ministers considered the problem to be of sufficient importance and urgency that Canada and other G7 partners organized follow-up meetings in 2023 and an OECD conference was to be held in March 2024 entitled “Facts not Fakes: Tackling Disinformation in an Era of Globalization”.

At the end of the day, however, there is a crucial role for politicians themselves to play in educating citizens about the proper functioning of democracy and the underlying rationale for their various policy initiatives. As renowned 18th century English political philosopher and Member of Parliament Edmund Burke once famously explained to his constituents, he was their delegate, not their simple representative. As such, he had a duty to make decisions based on not only their preconceived views but on the evidence he obtained during the course of his deliberations in parliament, and he had an equal duty to explain these decisions and his reasoning for them to his constituents. [xi] This concept of the MP as delegate, and the role of the legislator to educate and legitimate, has become even more relevant with the passage of time and the increasing complexity of government. Clearly the executive branch of government – that is, the prime minister and cabinet in a parliamentary system – are expected to provide clear and compelling explanations of their policies and their actions. But so are ordinary backbench MPs on both sides of the House. Many would argue that this ability to communicate clearly, and to rebut misinformation and disinformation, has been conspicuously absent in recent years.

Conversely there has been a dramatic increase in the tendency of politicians of all stripes to ignore factual explanations in favour of negative rhetoric. The toxic political climate at both federal and many provincial levels (exemplified by Danielle Smith) is literally preventing sensible public engagement and debate on the pressing issues of our times. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the language of Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre, whose incendiary and often fact-free attacks have fanned the flames of public discontent, especially among the very Generation Z and Millennial Canadians who are most vulnerable, due to their lack of knowledge and reliance on social media for news. Indeed, recent public opinion polls have found Poilievre’s support among those two groups has soared to 41% and may well be the determining factor in the next federal election.[xii] 

At this point it is obvious that virtually all political actors, not just educators and journalists, need to take the need for civic literacy seriously. As Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner recently stated in his keynote address at the Canadian Bar Association forum in June, 2023:

When people trust national institutions, they are more resilient to misinformation and less likely to share it with others. I think we would agree that among the most serious harms of misinformation is that it leads people who are otherwise of good faith to lose confidence in their institutions and pervert the principles that uphold our democracy.[xiii]

Wagner has been recognized for bringing more openness and transparency to the workings of the court via news conferences, which he conducts annually, as well as providing simplified plain-language summaries of court rulings, more public outreach through traditional and social media, and by taking the Supreme Court of Canada on the road.[xiv] The leadership of other fundamental democratic institutions should take note.






[vi] C. Alphonso. “Canadian Teachers feel unequipped for civics education, survey finds”. Globe and Mail. January 22, 2024. For the full survey results, go to


[viii] L. Dean. “Social Media was key to convoy protest,expert tells Emergencies Act inquiry.” Globe and Mail. November 30, 2022.

[ix]  M. Woolf. “High School Students Need Better Tools to Spot Disinformation: Minister”. Globe and Mail. November 19, 2022.

[x] loc. cit.