For several decades, the Manitoba Branch of the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CACManitoba) has championed a fair, just and sustainable marketplace. In particular, promoting the consumer interest through the education and information opportunities of regulatory tribunals, such as those established for public utility, environmental or telecommunications reviews, is a significant part of the organization’s mandate.
The simple phrase, “have your say” is a central theme of a two year research project conducted by CAC Manitoba between May, 2019 and March 2021. The project, a comprehensive examination of public participation and engagement in a regulatory environment, highlighted several interesting goals including, defining participation best practices, identifying barriers to and enhancements for participation, and evaluating the process, the public participation and the outcomes from a sample of previously held hearings and tribunals.
An extensive literature review provided an overview of key terms and definitions of public participation and engagement common in related fields such as healthcare and political science. Further, the necessity to recognize the rights, challenges and diversity of a population or citizen group in order to promote procedural success, was also highlighted. Recognizing and respecting the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples as guiding principles in the definitions and mandate of hearings and tribunals, and recognizing the unique challenges of minority groups, reduces barriers and promotes inclusion, fairness and justice. In addition to the literature review and case studies analysis, the research method included panel presentations, workshops and consumer focus groups. To further reveal best practices and barriers, a judicial review of regulations and legislation for public consultation was carried out citing examples from Canadian and international jurisdictions.
Based on the research results and analysis, CAC Manitoba proposed several recommendations including, capturing the promotion and information benefits of social media, recognizing the need for sustainable funding to help “level the playing field” and providing participants with opportunities to examine and appeal decisions. Further, revisiting the formal application requirements for oral hearings and lengthening the notice period, would also enhance participation.
Finally, a “digital divide” exists in Canada strictly limiting access to technology, and thus, further imposing additional barriers to citizen participation for many. The right to cast a ballot in municipal, provincial and federal elections is an important cornerstone of citizen participation. Nonetheless, relying on the broad scope of an election platform poses the risk that critical decisions are made contrary to the public interest. Regrettably, if Canada’s public interest voice is not supported and raised, many creative and thoughtful solutions to the technological, environmental and financial challenges of the future will be lost.