Participatory Budgeting and the Radical Imagination: In Europe but not in Canada?

By Terry Maley,


Participatory budgets are recent interventions that have sought to counter neoliberalism in the global south and north. I critically assess the claim that they constitute new democratic spaces in which marginal and poor citizens create practices of self-government based on principles of social justice and democratic deliberation. Tracing the migration of PBs from Porto Alegre to the EU to Canada, I ask why one less radical variant, Alternative Budgets (ABs), has become the default left critique of the deficit in fiscal democracy in Canada. I suggest that Canadian PBs and ABs are weak reflections of the radical imagination. Despite the global financial meltdown, the ongoing hegemony of neo-liberalism in Canada (and the EU) has meant that PBs are still exercises in ephemeral, or fugitive democracy that are not yet autonomous from the neoliberal state. This is not inherent in the idea of PBs, but is the result of institutional/political and historical barriers which, in Canadian neoliberalism, continue to block their potential radicalization/proliferation.


The Canadian Cases

The reaction against neoliberalism in Canada and the U.S. has been different and more muted than it has in the EU, and there have been fewer PBs in North America. Not only have mass protests against neoliberalism and corporate globalization after 9/11 not been as wide spread as in the EU, but PB experiments in Canada have been few in number and scope. They have not caught the popular democratic, or radical, imagination the same way they have in Latin America. Both the formal political sphere and civil society are still thoroughly neoliberal in Canada and the U.S., the Anglo-American capitalist democracies with historically more puritan individualist, and less socialist or radical historical traditions. As Linda White, Jane Jenson and others have noted in their discussions of Canadian social policy, the Anglo-American liberal democracies do not have the historical legacy or memory of radical politics to the left of social democracy, i.e. the socialist or communist traditions/political memory that many EU and Latin American countries have had. This has also influenced the form of Canadian PBs.

I want to look at three examples from Ontario –the cities of Guelph and Toronto, and a City of Toronto agency– and one from Montreal. The Montreal case involves one the boroughs of the city and not the amalgamated municipality as whole. I will then compare them briefly to the CCPA Alternative Budgets (ABs) which have emerged as the predominant variant of PB in Canada.

The Canadian example that comes closest to the Community funds at the local and city level or # 3 in the typology of Sintomer et al. which we discussed earlier, is the city of Guelph. Guelph is a medium sized city of 112,000 in central Ontario. Since 1999 through the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition, neighbourhood groups have shared and redistributed resources for local community projects in the allocation of a portion of the citys budget. While the mayor and city councillors still allocate the overall budget, the Coalition has worked with mid-level bureaucrats on a participatory community-based process to allocate discretionary funds ($1 million by 2005) for neighbourhood projects.

The other two cases from Ontario involve the city of Toronto and one of its biggest autonomous agencies, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, or TCHC. The TCHC is the largest housing agency in Toronto (and Canada), and provides subsidized housing to 150,000 low-income residents. Lerner and Van Wagner note that, Since 2001 the TCHC has used a PB process to involve tenants in budget decision-making, as part of their Tenant Participation System. The process has involved low-income tenants (TCHC is subsidized housing for those on social assistance and the working poor). Staff, again mid-level managers, initiated the process in 2000 in the face of severe budget cuts experienced by the City of Toronto after the election of a right-wing, neoliberal provincial government in 1995. Almost immediately after assuming office the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris systematically cut funding to the City of Toronto (and other Ontario municipalities) for social housing, public transit and other areas of spending for which the cities had previously shared responsibility with the province. This was done under the pretext of getting municipal governments to adopt the neoliberal principles of New Public Management, including greater transparency, accountability to the taxpayer and market-like efficiency in government.

It was against this backdrop that mid-level managers at the TCHC, who had more contact with the tenants, encouraged them to demand greater participation in decision-making regarding living conditions and maintenance issues in their apartments and buildings. After the development of a deliberative process that involved extensive tenant participation from the building level up to area-wide tenant councils, tenants decided on budget priorities through dotmocracy. Dotmocracy was an adult education technique used to overcome language and literacy barriers in a very diverse and often marginal and immigrant tenant population. It consisted of placing dots beside pictoral representations of issues. By doing so, the tenants ranked projects by marking dots next to those they support.

This process bears some resemblance to what Sintomer has called Porto adapted for Europe to the extent that it involved marginal citizens, TCHC residents, directly in a co-designed decision-making process. But, unlike Porto, it did not fundamentally shift political priorities of the city of Toronto or affect citizens from other social classes or areas of the city. Lerner and Wagner note that the process was only able to grow because the TCHC is an autonomous corporate entity not directly controlled by senior staff at city hall or Toronto City Council. This meant that the staff who initiated the program were able to do so beyond the reach of senior city hall management and the elected (often right-wing, neoliberal) councillors on City Council. In the context of the neoliberal political climate in Ontario in the Harris years (1995-2002), the politics of the institutionalized City budget process could easily have derailed PB efforts at the TCHC and the city of Guelph.

While the TCHC may be autonomous from the city, it is not monolithic either. In other respects it continues, like other apparatuses of the state, to operate under neoliberal principles of administrative efficiency that are bureaucratically rigid and oriented towards control of the administered tenant population. The 2009 eviction (for missing a rent payment) of 82 year old tenant Al Gosling, and his subsequent death after being ill and homeless on the streets for a week, reflects the belt-tightening and budget-cutting principles of public administration brought in by Mike Harris. These have made tenants more vulnerable and easier to evict. This example contradicts the effort to democratize allocation of part of the TCHC budget by another group of tenants.

The other example, extremely disappointing in both its process and outcomes, was the Listening to Toronto exercise initiated by mayor David Miller shortly after his election in 2004. Miller was a member of the (informal) New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus at City Hall, and was seen as a progressive, moderate social democrat as a city councillor before his run for mayor. Even though a few PB activists from Porto Alegre were initially brought in as advisors for the process, Listening was an exercise that turned out to be consultative only. In this respect, it turned out to resemble the weakest PB variation in Sintomers typology, # 6, Consultation on Public Finances. The new mayor was very aware of the anger of Toronto residents with both the Harris provincial government and Millers mayoral predecessor (the strongly neoliberal Mel Lastman), and was anxious to appear more democratically connected to the citizens who had just elected him.

Toronto community groups such as the Metro Network for Social Justice and social service agencies such as the Community Social Planning Council initially applauded the Listening initiative, which involved seven open community meetings around the city. The meetings involved about 1,100 residents in discussions of budget priorities for Toronto in 2004. But after its first year, the exercise was scaled back by Miller. In 2005, the second Listening year, only one large meeting was held that focused on bigger picture issues that were more symbolic. Examples were, how can we make Toronto clean and beautiful, and how can the city strengthen neighbourhoods? This aspect of the Listening meetings, the limitation of the discussion to these general kinds of cosmetic/local boosterism issues would place it in the proximity participation model, or # 5 in Sintomers typology. On the continuum of the typology, this is the second weakest participatory model.

The process only minimally engaged citizens, there was little active deliberation by participants, and no decision-making power at all. Social justice concerns quickly disappeared from the consultations and many of those that did attend were professional citizens, in Lerner and Van Wagners term. Representation was unequal. That is, the citizens who participated in the consultations tended to be middle class or upper income professionals, well educated and white, and from a social stratum that seem to attend public consultations as a hobby. These professional citizens were much more likely to have either the social capital, such as education, and/or the time to focus on and understand the size and complexity of Torontos budget. Toronto is Canadas biggest city (in 2004, the first year of the Listening exercise, Torontos budget was around $7 billion) and is a bigger fiscal entity than the three smallest provincial governments in Canada. Understanding its byzantine budget process is no simple feat. Those professional citizens were likely to have a better understanding of how the deep cuts inflicted on Toronto by the Harris government threatened the citys fiscal capacity. In fact, the backdrop for phasing out the half-hearted Listening exercise was the citys crushing fiscal deficit. In addition, as Royson James, the municipal affairs columnist for The Toronto Star, a liberal newspaper, pointed out, the moderately social democratic Miller may be as left as a Toronto mayor can be and still hold power. This speaks to the neoliberal context in which the exercise took place. In the end, the short-lived experiment did not produce a radical opening, borderline, or in-between political space in which poor and marginal citizens could actively shape or create a more democratic budget-making process in the way envisioned by Wainwright or Anna Pizzo. Listening cannot even be called an experiment in fugitive democracy; it did not produce, even momentarily, anything that remotely resembled the plebian public sphere Baierle has spoken of in Porto Alegre.

In 2010, the situation has changed in Toronto and Guelph, though in opposite directions. In Toronto, the mayoralty of David Miller has collapsed, and the city still labours under a huge budget shortfall. A small, civil society participatory budget network still exists, but it has no influence over the city budget or its complex processes of political negotiation. Nor has there been any attempt to revive the Listening exercise by anyone at City Hall. The Guelph PB has not only survived but has grown to encompass the whole city, thanks to the activism of a diverse group of local citizens, and the support of some progressive city staff and councillors. This has been the case even though staff from other departments in the city administration have not reacted well to the loss of bureaucratic control (and the increase in citizen control) implied in the PB. PB decisions are now made on the municipalitys social and community development spending and are linked to the citys formal budget. Guelph is not Porto Alegre; but the fact that a successful PB (by Canadian standards) has flourished there, in a relatively affluent, well-educated and still largely white community is a sign of the growing disparities produced by neoliberalism in Ontarios heartland. The Guelph example is still an exception, however. It represents a regionally specific, if limited, form of resistance and democratic renewal, an attempt to contest the power of locally elected state officials, many of whom are committed to a more neoliberal Ontario. The city of Guelph is a more progressive pocket in a larger sea of very conservative, nearby rural electoral ridings and municipalities. It is not indicative of a province-wide trend.

With regard to these cases Lerner and Van Wagner make an interesting observation when they note that the participatory processes in Guelph and at the TCHC, were successful precisely because politicians were not involved until the process had been already designed and organized by mid-level bureaucrats working with local citizens. In the Guelph case Lerner and Van Wagner note that the community PB had been underway for a few yearsbefore local politicians noticed it. The growth of the Guelph PB was partly due to the initial political inattention from the city council (some of whom were strongly neoliberal) and the mayor.

In contrast, many of the EU cases have been initiated by leftist mayors and their municipal parties. Margit Mayer reminds us that in the EU the party system is much more active at the municipal level. As Sintomer and Allegretti note, leadership from social democratic or socialist mayors has been crucial in facilitating more extensive and democratic citizen participation in PBs. In 16 of 19 EU cases studied by Allegretti, the process was top-down, either initiated or directed by leftist mayors and their officials.

In contrast to Guelph, and similar to some of the EU cases, the recently established Montreal PB was initiated by the Mayor of the borough of Plateau Mont Royal, Helen Fotopulous, in 2006. The three year capital program covers areas such as parks, cultural centers and facilities, and the maintenance of streets and sidewalks. Within only a few years the allocation decided by citizens has grown to $ 4.5 million. The opening or space for the mayor to even conceive of such an initiative was created by the amalgamation (by the provincial government) of the city of Montreal with smaller surrounding municipalities in 2002. The amalgamation created a more decentralized borough structure which opened the potential to increase citizen participation in urban management. Luc Rabouin, coordinator of the community group, Urban Ecology Centre of Montreal, put it in an interesting way when he said, We must recognize the boldness of the mayor of the Plateau. She took the risk of sharing power with citizens [emphasis added!]. The Plateau PB has allowed residents of the borough to invent a new relationship between citizens and elected officials, a hint of the reinvention of the relationship between elected officials and citizens suggested by Anna Pizzo. On a note that is more in tune with the spirit of Porto Alegre, Lorraine Decelles, director of the community action centre Aurora House, said, We had concerns to give a voice to those who have not. Though this sentiment may seem to have an affinity with Foucaults idea of restoring citizens right to speak for themselves, an important component of a democratic, transformative experience, there are other considerations that complicate this in the case of the Mont Royal PB.

Unlike Ontario, Quebec has municipal parties. From the perspective of John Loxley, a long-time PB/academic activist, in Canada, the lack of a clearly defined party system at the civic level has been a long-term obstacle to producing coherent PBs or ABs. Yet the Mont Royal PB has already become enmeshed in local partisan politics. Fotopulous ran on Montreal Mayor Gerard Tremblays Union Montreal ticket. In 2009 the Plateau borough elected a progressive environmental activist/consultant from a new municipal party, Project Montreal, as mayor. In the 2009 borough election, the Project party accused Fotopulous of using/subverting the PB for partisan electoral purposes, and for defining it too narrowly. Information has not been made widely available and, as Rabuoin notes, The participation rate has remained very low—about 250 people—and the commitment of the community is relatively soft because many groups watch without intervening. In what form the Mont Royal PB will continue remains to be seen. Even with these tensions, against the backdrop of the democratic deficit in neoliberal Canada, it has still gained widespread attention among the citizens of Montreal, PB activists and researchers.

The Plateau has historically been a francophone working class, multi-cultural area, but some neighbourhoods have undergone significant gentrification in recent years. Parts of the borough have a high proportion of artists and university students. One local newsletter asserts that 40% of the boroughs residents have university degrees; part of it borders McGill University. This has recently led urban guru Richard Florida, author of the neoliberal-friendly The Rise of the Creative Class, to suggest that Plateau Mont Royal is a potential hub for creative class settlement and activity. Further study of who participates in the citizen PB budget deliberations would likely show that a high proportion are the professional citizens–largely white, educated, male and middle class—like those who dominated the Listening exercise in Toronto.

This reflects what Pinnington, Lerner and Shugurensky have noted about PBs in Canada; that they have been formed in conditions of relative urban affluence, where middle class citizens have the leisure and resources to get involved. Both the Guelph and Mont Royal PBs emerged in areas in which universities are located; levels of education and income are higher than the Canadian average. These areas are not Porto Alegre, but Mont Royal is, besides Guelph, one of the few PBs in Canada that has given local citizens some semi- autonomous control over part of a sub-municipal budget. In addition, within the realm of provincial electoral politics, the riding which includes the Plateau borough has recently elected what the conservative Globe and Mail calls a champagne socialist, a rebel provincial MNA, Amir Khadir, an avowed anti-capitalist activist and community organizer. The PB may thus have found a supporter in an unlikely place.

The few PB Canadian examples provide a window onto the complexity and difficulty of creating autonomous spaces for democratic transformation in the context of a thoroughly, and still relatively affluent, neoliberal Canadian environment. They also point to issues related to the autonomy of democratic citizen action from the state. Yet the PBs in Latin America, the EU and Canada, do share one thing in common: they are all reactions to the implementation of the neoliberal agenda in historically and culturally specific contexts. They all represent attempts, of different degrees, to resist and challenge, at least to some degree, the neoliberal agenda. Despite their obvious differences from the Latin American PBs, the Canadian versions have also contested the power of the state to allocate resources away from citizens needs, or to remove public financial resources from citizens control. They have sought to build new alliances and affinities within and between communities on the borderline of the neoliberal state, as well as alliances with sympathetic officials inside the municipal state apparatus.

The appearance of state officials in the discussion – either bureaucrats or politicians – indicates that the state is not a monolithic organization. It is an extremely complex, multi-faceted set of apparatuses that has cracks and pockets which can, to a limited degree, be mobilized for more democratic projects. This is so in spite of the continuing, though no longer unquestioned, hegemony of the system of representative democracy. These alliances are not without their tensions or dangers. At the same time they point to aspects of a transformative democratic impulse aimed not only at transforming the state but experiencing other forms of democracy beyond its constraints. They are also examples of affinity-based organizations, involving a diverse array of citizens, activists, academics, policy makers and occasionally even politicians, who have come together to shape common democratic causes.

The wide variety of PBs globally, and even the differences between the Canadian PBs, also reflect the diverse and multiple ways the demos, or the public, can constitute or build itself in different temporal and spatial contexts. This is facilitated by the extensive global networks of electronic, digital and other means of communication, the same infrastructure used by states, corporations and the elites who want to contain the nascent yet recurring democratic impulse found in PBs and other global movements for progressive change. In contrast to all of this, I now want to compare these instances to the emergence of the provincial and federal Alternative Budgets (ABs) produced by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

The CCPA Alternative Budgets

One of the earliest protests against neoliberal restructuring in Canada took the form of the AB that emerged in the province of Manitoba in the late 1980s. Citizens formed a municipal alternative budget group in response to one of the first neoliberal provincial governments in western Canada, that of Conservative Premier Gary Filmon. This coalition of activists, community groups, labour council representatives and unions created a grassroots collective, Cho!ces, that formulated an AB at the municipal level in Winnipeg, Manitobas capital city. Cho!ces took on the city of Winnipeg and the Filmon government over a range of social justice issues such as cuts to social housing, womens shelters, and social and community services and health care for the urban poor, including Winnipegs large indigenous population.

This experiment in participatory/alternative budgeting, very much a grassroots effort in its early days, caught the eye of progressive activists, trade unions and academics across the country. With the help of trade union economists – Jim Stanford from the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Hugh MacKenzie from the United Steel Workers (USWA) – the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives organized a similar exercise on the national level. The CCPA formulated its first Alternative Federal Budget (AFB) in 1995 to counter the neoliberal austerity budget of Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin, which cut over $6 billion in transfer payments for health care, post-secondary education and social assistance to the provinces. At the same time, Premier Mike Harris attempt to launch a neoliberal revolution in Ontario led, among other things, to interest in producing an AB in Ontario. Following the CCPAs AFB, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), along with community and civil society groups, produced its first provincial AB in 1997.

The labour-sponsored CCPA, as one of the few left-leaning think tanks in Canada, has offered a progressive critique of neoliberal federal and provincial budgets for more than a decade now. It has done so in response not only to the budgets themselves, but as a counter to the right-wing think tanks that dominate the field of expert policy commentary on state budgets. Those think tanks – the C.D. Howe Institute, the Conference Board of Canada, the Atlantic Institute for Market Research, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and the most ideologically right-wing and explicitly neo-liberal of this group, the Fraser Institute – all offer annual budget and policy commentary that is strongly neoliberal.

Instead of budgets that offer tax cuts, smaller government and other pro-business policies the CCPA ABs have, as Loxley (one of the academic activists who started the Winnipeg Alternative Budget process) has put it, a pronounced emphasis on reducing poverty, a plausible position on the environment, in terms of both expenditure and revenue initiatives, and a clear gender component with respect to the spending side. The CCPA ABs offer a historically specific translation, in the context of the constraints of Canadas political economy, of PBs in a wealthy northern capitalist democracy dominated by its close relation to the imperial American superpower. What is lost in the CCPAs AFB is the democratic, participatory processes that produce what Wright and Fung have called, empowered participatory governance, the practices that have allowed the idea of people-centered budgeting to have substantive depth and more radically egalitarian outcomes elsewhere.

According to Loxley, the ABs seek to achieve two objectives. First, they show that there are alternatives to neoliberal economic and social policies. Second, they can enhance economic literacy, thus building political education and mobilization. They have certainly done this to an extent, but not necessarily for broad parts of the demos – the working and middle classes, or the poor. They have not been able to establish a broadly based, cross-class process of citizen-based budget decision-making (even to challenge neoliberal governments). In this respect they differ significantly from the Porto Alegre experience/model. They have tried to reach a broader public by simplifying volumes of budget material and making them accessible through the use of popular pamphlets, tabloids, and published summaries. Their material and briefs are now accessible on the CCPA website and are disseminated through alternative, progressive media, and to an increasing extent in the mainstream media.

The CCPA ABs have come to fill a void in democratic participation on budget issues in Canada. Daniel Shugurensky, a PB researcher and activist at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, is critical, however, saying that, The PB goes beyond alternative budgets, which are mainly academic exercises that do not deal with real budgets. He thus differentiates ABs from the more radical PBs that have tried follow the Porto Alegre practices of citizen inclusion, participation and decision-making. Yet this is not the whole story. The CCPA Alternative Budgets do deal with, and are mostly critical of, real neoliberal government budgets. But Shugurensky is right in his suggestion that the CCPA ABs do not produce a realparticipatory budget that involves citizens from different classes and communities who deliberate as equals, make decisions, and then have the outcomes implemented by supportive governments.

The political/institutional context in Canada, with its tight control of public fiscal resources by a small group of elected and non-elected officials at the top of the representative state-party system, has not allowed this possibility to become a reality, even after sustained criticism of the system and repeated calls to change it. Loxley notes that the nature of Canadas parliamentary system makes decision making highly centralized, particularly at the federal and provincial levels. This is the Canadian version of the complaint we cited earlier by Wainwright and Anna Pizzo regarding the bankruptcy of representative democracy in the EU. The existing structure of party-state representation makes it extremely difficult for ordinary citizens and groups outside of the parliamentary party system to meaningfully influence the process of budget-making. These factors have conspired to limit the impact of ABs, and the emergence of more radical PBs in Canada.

The ABs are example, in the terms of Sintomers typology, of # 2, participation by organized interests. Those who design and produce the alternative budgets are often full-time staff from unions and civil society groups. The final document is produced by (highly trained, skilled and over-worked) trade union economists. Constructed in this way, the ABs seek to influence public discussion and ultimately the redistribution of public financial resources by federal and provincial governments. This strategy is based on the pragmatic, reform-oriented acceptance of the existing institutional arrangements of representative democracy that underlie the current state-led budget process. The CCPA AFBs policy proposals focus more on Keynesian outcomes, and not on democratizing the budget process itself or constructing alternative processes outside of the state. Governments in Canada have either dismissed AFB policy, taxation and spending proposals, or have ignored them. Despite their lack of success in Canada in influencing state policy, ABs can still be seen as projects undertaken by affinity-based organizations, thought not perhaps ones as democratically extensive, or autonomous, as those that Cote, Day and de Peuter have in mind.

This lack of success indicates the difficulty, in the Canadian context, of working even on what Wainwright calls the borderline space between the movements and government. Criticisms of the CCPAs AFB from the far left – that it isnt radical enough and that its AFB is reformist – also show the tension in the two-track strategy Wainwright pointed to earlier. The difficulty is one of trying to create both parallel, autonomous democratic spaces controlled by the demos, on the one hand, and working to reform the existing, and increasingly dysfunctional system of representative democracy on the other.

Whether more broadly based participatory budget exercises can significantly challenge the existing institutional/political complex of neoliberalism, even at the local level in Canada, is uncertain. As Mayer notes, whennew coalitions for social justice [such as PBs] are picked up by supportive local politicians, they still confront the problem of the very real limits of municipal policy in an age of capital mobility and neo-liberal hegemony.

This does not mean, though, that all anti-globalization, anti-capitalist activism and critiques have been silenced in Canada; there are still pockets of activism, resistance, education and mobilization. From more radical local efforts grounded in direct action, occupations and squats, such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), to the work of the Center for Social Justice in Toronto or the journal/collective Alternatives in Quebec, or No One is Illegal, critiques of neoliberalism are still alive. But they are increasingly outside of, and disengaged from, the state and the structures of representative democracy, even at the level of local/municipal politics. They are also not attached to, or engaged with, the official budget process which is still one of the key activities that occurs within the state sphere.



Porto Alegre, Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, Toronto, 1968. Protests and practices that have not supplanted the institutions of representative democracy and global capital, but have, in their affinities, pointed to a plethora of other, more radically democratic possibilities. Whether the current PBs in Canada will, through struggle and praxis, be transformed into more radically democratic spaces, whether the memory of Porto Alegre can be kept alive here, or will be co-opted to give our historically specific brand of neoliberalism a more participatory patina, remains to be seen.

Wolin, in an echo of Rosa Luxembourg, captures the broader spirit of these now global struggles, a vivid reminder of what the radical imagination can be, when he says:

democracy needs to be reconceived as something other than a form of government: as a mode of being that is conditioned by bitter experience, doomed to succeed only temporarily, but is a recurrent possibility as long as the memory of the political survives.

Read full article at Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action, Vol 4, No 2 (2010)

Terry Maley teaches in the Political Science department at York University. He has been/is a policy researcher, organizer, activist and theorist who works on issues of democratic change. He has also been involved with the alternative budget movement in Canada, which led to his interest in participatory budgeting globally.

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