A new research network: Dissent, Democracy & the Law


Dissent, Democracy & the Law: A Collaborative Research Network for Legal Scholars, Activists and Social Scientists

Convener: Charis Kamphuis, PhD Candidate, Senior Research Fellow, Critical Research Laboratory in Law & Society 

The Research Network on Dissent Democracy & the Law (DDL) is hosted by the Critical Research Laboratory in Law & Society at Osgoode Hall Law School.  It brings together scholars interested in the nexus between civil society and the law, with a focus on legal and political advocacy, dissent and democratic institutions.

In the last two decades, the term civil society has become widely used to describe non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that concern themselves with public issues.  The term includes groups with formal legal status as well as those that are less formal and community-based.  While the proliferation and influence of these groups has generated questions regarding their representative capacities, legitimacy and accountability, it is increasingly recognized that the participation of civil society in public debate is an important component of a robust democracy.  As a result, dissent and advocacy are central elements of civil society’s public participation role. 

The effective public participation of civil society actors is contingent on the existence of a broad set of practices, institutions and norms, sometimes referred to as the “enabling environment”, that govern the relationship between the state and civil society.  For example, Canadian organizations are commonly dependent on the benefits gained by their legal status (not-for-profit/charitable) and often further rely on public funding to sustain their activities.  Another key component of an enabling environment relates to the ability of civil servants and parliamentary officers to undertake and transmit research, information and oversight, free from interference or intimidation.  Unlike civil society, these sectors are located within the state.  However, they are nonetheless key contributors to the creation of an inclusive constitutional democracy in a complex society.  They have the potential to serve as important enablers of civil society’s critical engagement with the state through the provision of information, resources or as conduits of participation. 

The DDL research network aims to theorize the regulatory and constitutional relationship between the Canadian state and civil society, and the role of democratic institutions in the maintenance of this relationship.  In doing so, it examines the nature of civil society’s potential claims to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the relationship between these rights and democratic governance principles. 

The urgent need in Canada for theoretically and politically informed research in this area is increasingly apparent. There is evidence that legal and extralegal measures are being systematically combined to reduce the legal, financial and political space available to Canadian civil society actors who hold policy opinions that differ from those of the federal government.  At the same time, there is evidence that a parallel phenomenon is occurring within the state with regard to individuals and institutions that produce knowledge, publically express opinions/findings, and/or undertake oversight activities that are critical of the actions or agendas of the executive branch.  These institutions’ budgets have been either eliminated or cut back, in some cases their mandates have been radically changed, and in others their independent functions have been significantly interfered with.  On the other hand, certain public servants, often belonging to these institutions, have either resigned or been dismissed.

Emerging research suggests that similar practices and patterns are taking place in a number of jurisdictions around the world.  As such, inquiries into the relationship between the state and civil society must be attentive to its multi-scalar and multi-sectorial character. Civil society organizations regularly undertake activities and participate in policy debates in multiple jurisdictions and at every level of government and governance, from the local neighborhood to the international level. In doing so, these actors may find themselves at odds with their home state’s foreign interests.  Similarly, they may find themselves in conflict with private actors, from private security forces to transnational corporations.  Thus, while domestic law shapes the regulatory relationship between civil society and the state, the dynamics of this relationship may play out in multiple jurisdictions, institutional contexts, and with the participation of a range of actors.

Activities: The Research Network on Dissent, Democracy & the Law convenes an Editorial Board that oversees the Documentation Project of the Voices-Voix civil society coalition. In October 2013 the new Editorial Board will be officially launched at a workshop to be held at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at the University of McGill.