Since the birth of democracy, it has had the core principle that the majority decides.

That does not mean that a minority or minorities should be ignored, but that there is power in numbers – either majorities or pluralities.

That has been accepted for generations.

And some of the biggest decisions in Canada’s history have been made by the slimmest of majorities.

In 1995, Quebec voted in a referendum to remain part of Canada with a razor-thin majority of 50.58 per cent. In 1948, Newfoundland voted to join Canada with a majority of 52.3 per cent, which looks like a landslide compared to Quebec.

In both referendums, the results – the will of the majority – were accepted and life went on, despite virtually half of the population being opposed to and probably devastated by the monumental decisions. Whether there will be future referendums in Quebec or Newfoundland (or Alberta) on their place in Canada remains to be seen.

We don’t think that people are quite as willing these days to accept the decisions of the majority.

You see that in issues big and small.

Internationally, the United Kingdom democratically voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, which ignited several years of an intense political struggle about that decision until the country actually left just last month.

Locally, town council was informed on Feb. 17 that the municipality would have to do door-to-door consultations with residents near the proposed Fraser Place land development, not about actually developing the area but about geotechnical testing.

Some councillors looked gobsmacked – not a word we use often – by that requirement from the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board. They could not believe that such testing by a duly-elected municipal government would require consultations with local residents. They were probably thinking, if that is required for testing, what kind of public input will be required to actually develop the land?

It’s an example of the minority (the residents in the area) possibly having as much say as the majority (the people in the whole town).

We’re not saying that’s good or bad, just observing the fact that the minority has increasing power these days.

We should note that we are talking about decisions in the wider society, not specific issues involving Aboriginal people, religious minorities or other groups with treaty rights, historic traditions and/or constitutional protection.

For a decision to be accepted in that wider society, is the will of the majority enough? Will the opposing minority accept the long-standing democratic principle that the majority decides?

For example, will the opponents of the Trans Mountain Pipeline accept the will of the majority – even in British Columbia and among First Nations along the route – and let the project proceed unimpeded? We all know the answer to that question.

The will of the majority is not perfect, but it is one way to decide on contentious issues. There is never going to be unanimous agreement on anything, not even if the Earth is round, but there is most often going to be the will of the majority.

If anyone can offer a better way to make decisions, we’re listening.

Paul Bickford

Paul Bickford is the reporter for Hay River Hub.

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