January 18, 2006

Canadian election candidate takes stand for FOSS

Author: Bruce Byfield

Free and open source software (FOSS) is not a major issue in the Canadian election
scheduled for January 23. None of the major political parties -- the Liberals,
Conservatives, New Democratic Party (NDP), or Bloc Québécois --
has taken a position on FOSS. The up and coming Green Party is rumored to be
announcing a FOSS platform shortly, but even that may be only be token support, considering that the Green Party Web site includes downloads of current policy in Microsoft Word format. The only candidate for a major party who is openly advocating FOSS is Mathieu Allard, the young NDP candidate for the Francophone riding of Saint Boniface in Manitoba. Recently, I talked to him about his advocacy and the role that FOSS plays in his campaign.

Allard is an executive assistant in the Ministry of Housing and Social Services in the
Manitoba NDP government. In his spare time, he is following up his Bachelor's degree
in political science with a Master's program in public administration at the University of
Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. A member of the executive for the Manitoba
Young New Democrats, he is no stranger to politics, having finished third in Saint
Boniface in the June 2004 federal election. In March 2005, he also spearheaded a
resolution at the Manitoba NDP's annual convention to make adaptation of FOSS part of provincial policy. Many people believe that the passing of this resolution made the Manitoba provincial NDP the first ruling party in North America to take a pro-FOSS position.

Mathieu Allard

Allard's introduction to FOSS came in his first year of university at the Collège
Universitaire de Saint-Boniface. "My laptop, which was running Microsoft Windows 95 or
98, crashed one day because of something to do with the registry," he remembers. "After
that, I started looking for alternatives." He became a member of the Winnipeg-based
Prairie Linux User Group, which described him as a "long-time member" in its coverage of the provincial resolution. After trying several distributions, he finally
settled on Debian. "[I] found that it was a distribution that I was able to maintain
without having to reinstall," he says. He adds that he also appreciates the number of
packages available in Debian. It remains his main operating system at home.

Social democracy and FOSS

Allard's party, the New Democrats, is a social democratic party. It is running on a platform that includes reformation of immigration policy, the preservation of the nationalist health care system, environmentalism, and greater accessibility to post-secondary education. While acknowledging that FOSS supporters have a broad array of political positions, Allard sees FOSS advocacy as fitting naturally into his party's platform.

"Those political systems that put an emphasis on civil rights and liberties are attracted to FOSS," Allard says. "And I think that those who are farther along the left of the political
spectrum are interested in FOSS because of the more collaborative, cooperative way in
which the software is developed."

Allard's suggestion seems to be supported by his experience with the provincial resolution.
Allard says that he was well-known within the Manitoba NDP for FOSS advocacy, but that
he was "surprised" at the number of people who spoke in favor of the resolution, including
some people whom he did not know were aware of the issues. "I don't know that it
required that much explanation or lobbying," he recalls. Although some delegates to the
convention expressed concerns about security, the resolution passed with "a big majority."

Eventually, Allard would like to see FOSS endorsed by the federal NDP as well. Already, he
says, "They are aware of what it is, and they do try to use it when possible. But it's not part of the formal bylaws of the party." While being careful to stress that he cannot speak for the federal party, he believes that a federal FOSS resolution would probably pass. The main trouble he foresees is that a FOSS motion might not reach the floor for debate because of
the high number of issues competing for time.

FOSS comes to the Saint Boniface election campaign

"In our own campaign," Allard says, "We've used software like Firefox and Thunderbird and
OpenOffice.org." At first, the NDP riding executive was concerned that using FOSS programs
might require more setup and maintenance, and create problems sharing files with other
campaigns or community groups relying on Microsoft Office formats. However, he was able to
prove to the executive that there would be no problems. The applications that his campaign
are using, as he points out, are "all drop-in replacements for the proprietary equivalents."

Allard also mentions that the contents of his Web site are released under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives licence. The exception are elements borrowed from the federal NDP, such as its logo.

Personally, he adds, he would have liked to use GNU/Linux as well, and perhaps applications such as MySQL. However, the NDP riding executive was concerned that campaign workers might have trouble learning the programs, so he agreed on the compromise of running FOSS programs on Windows.

Asked how volunteers have responded to the use of FOSS in the campaign office, Allard says
simply, "I haven't heard any complaints."

Despite his advocacy, Allard admits, FOSS issues have not been a large part of the campaign. They have not been raised at all-candidate's meetings, nor by the voters he has met.
"I don't think it's something that's come up," he says. "And I have knocked on thousands of

Still, indirectly, Allard believes that FOSS advocacy may have helped his campaign. He suggests that his well-known interest in FOSS may have encouraged some people to become involved. "Political parties are always trying to find ways of reaching out to more voters," he says, "And this is definitely one of those issues that resonate with people who are not necessarily involved [already]."

Future plans for FOSS advocacy

Saint Boniface is a traditionally Liberal riding. Still, with voters disgruntled over allegations of scandal in the federal Liberal government, Allard may have a chance this time. If elected, Allard says, he would like to promote FOSS within the NDP caucus. In addition, he says, "I would definitely work with different groups to talk about the issues and the free software community. I'd be willing to work with different groups to talk about what they think is the way to go." And although the NDP is unlikely to form the Canadian federal government, the strong possibility of Allard's party being the junior partner in a minority government could put FOSS on the Canadian national agenda for the first time. If nothing else, a government FOSS policy might seem a relatively easy concession for a ruling partner to give the NDP in return for its support in Parliament.

Should Allard lose, he would consider standing for election again, but is currently undecided. However, he is confident that he will remain an advocate for FOSS in government. "As a free software user," he says, "I just naturally support it. When I come across barriers, like when I go to a Web site that isn't behaving properly because it doesn't respect standards, that's something that I have an interest in communicating."

Free software, he concludes, "Is much more popular in Europe than it is in Canada." And
obviously, Allard believes that a lot of work is still needed to promote it.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.


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