By announcing his departure, Dion signalled the end of a noble experiment in Canadian politics where a principled politician could concentrate on ideas and policies, rather than imagery and advertising. But his formidable intellectual credentials, his political coourage during the national unity debates, and his impressive commitment to saving the environment and fighting poverty failed to impress voters.
Toronto Star editorial, 21/10/08
Remember when I mentioned the lack of engagement among students with the electoral process? It seems that not all is lost. Today I ran into a good friend of mine who got a new job – she works for Student Vote, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering the habits of democratic citizenship among young Canadians. Whenever there are Canadian elections, the organization work with affiliated schools across the country (there are currently over 4,000 schools in the program) so they can duplicate the entire election process in the schools. Students learn about the parties, candidates, debates, etc, and Student Vote sets up election booths so that the students can vote in a parallel election. The results are announced on CBC, on the night of the elections.
Here’s a blurb from their site:
In 2003, a young couple set out against the odds to reverse the trend of declining youth voter turnout – with a basic idea:
Practice makes perfect.
If we want young people to vote, why not give them a chance to practice first?
The Student Vote parallel election initiative was designed to give students an opportunity to develop and practice the habits of democratic citizenship during official election campaigns.
The initiative was designed for students to discuss and deliberate the current issues, parties and candidates in class and with family and friends. The exercise would culminate in an authentic voting experience where students voted on the real candidates.
In the fall of 2003, a largely volunteer team launched their trial program to coincide with the Ontario provincial election. More than 1000 schools registered to participate; received learning materials, electoral supplies and campaign support. Over the course of the campaign, hundreds of candidate debates took place and political discussion was on the menu at dinner tables across the province.
On October 2nd, students took on the roles of election officials and organized a vote in their school on the candidates running in their electoral district.
More than 335,000 Ontario students cast a ballot from all 103 electoral districts.
The Student Vote results were reported live on CBC television on Election Night and printed in twenty regional daily newspapers the following day.
Since 2003, more than 1.5 million students have participated in Student Vote’s flagship parallel election project.
Student Vote is also responsible for pioneering civic engagement exercises that have occurred outside of elections.
Isn’t it cool?
Who said Canadian politics couldn’t be exciting? After weeks at the top of the polls inching ever closer to a majority and distancing themselves from the Liberals, who were second but sliding, the Conservative party has lost a lot of support in the week after the televised debates and final week of campaigning. The latest polls have the Conservative party with 32% and liberals with 27% (the difference was something like 40% to 21% before).
I can’t help but admit that I’m very excited by this turn of events. There’s much about Stephen Harper and his conservative party that troubles me and this campaign has just confirmed my worst fears. During the whole campaign, Stephen Harper avoided any contact with the public and appeared only in made-for-tv rallies with pre-selected audience. He has used the RCMP to keep the media away from him and conservative candidates all over the country have avoided public debates when they would have to answer questions from the public. It is almost as if they are afraid of answering questions about their policies and platform. But maybe it is because they didn’t have a platform until two days ago and were afraid people would notice? I don’t know. But it troubles me to see our Prime Minister avoiding the people he works for. This is nothing new. During the past three years, the PM has not only avoided the press like the plague but has muzzled members from his own party.
He has also imported a practice that might have marked politics south of the border but was never really prominent here in Canada, which is practice to personally attack political opponents. Canadian politicians and the electorate have for long been very pragmatic in their politics, often discussing issues and skills rather than making political opposition personal. The personal attack ads against Stéphane Dion that were aired days after he won the Liberal leadership two years ago are a case in point.
But I’m still hopeful that Canadians are going to recognize that they are being manipulated. Make your voice heard! Vote on October 14th. Remember, if you are Canadian, you do not need to be registered to be able to vote. Just find your electoral district and show up with appropriate IDs and proof of residence on election day.
I have never seen anything like it in Canadian politics.
Instead of writing a separate commentary about my recent post on immigration and citizenship, I rewrote the original post. Check the revised content.
The weekend promises to be quite full of activities to choose from. It’s Pride celebrations in our neighbourhood all weekend, which, as I said before, is an occasion I really enjoy. Sunday is the final for the European Cup (Spain vs Germany!) and then on Tuesday is Canada Day, and event marked by fireworks and many festivities by the waterfront. On top of all of that, I need to do at least five hours of database entry at some point between Saturday and Sunday. Busy times indeed.
On March 30th, Maclean’s brought together Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, two very successful Canadian journalists currently living in NY, to debate the very difficult topic of Canadian identity. The debate was aired on the CBC in its Ideas program and can be heard here. Maclean’s itself published excerpts of the debate on this week’s issue and while I haven’t heard the broadcast itself – and I will – the bits that I read were compelling and interesting enough for me to pass it on.
I particularly identified with Adam Gopnik’s position against a flag-and-fears nationalism and in favour of Canada’s hope-and-holiday nationalism, “rooted in shared hopes that are open to everyone and in a set of secular rituals – holidays in the broadest possible sense – that affirm an open-ended collective identity”.
Earlier on the debate, Gopnik addressed the issue of the individual and his rights:
“The individual and his or her rights is an abstraction. We belong, in reality, to homes, communities, traditions, places, and without them, in a certain sense, we don’t exist as individuals. This is an idea no one has articulated better than the great Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor: the collective is not merely tribal or vestigial. Without a common identity we cannot have an adequate idea of ourselves as individuals. We cannot help but belong to a family, a town, a city, and – in some abstract but real way – to a country. That country may be simply a countryside, a season, a sport, an accent, a habit of absurd good humour and politeness, the choice of speaking two languages, but it is a country and a kind of horizontal connection to others in a room who know those codes as well.”
and he goes on to say:
“Canada, from its very beginning, has been a country that can only turn to a nationalism of hopes and holidays to have any hope at all of making sense of its history and future. From the very first significant handshake between Lafontaine and Baldwin, the idea that what would bind us together was some common, fixed identity, has obviously been impossible. It’s not something you can persuade two very different founding peoples to believe in, to share. So instead you have in Canada, from that beginning in 1842, an idea that the only way we can construct a country is through some kind of shared, civic, humane ideal that doesn’t draw on some imagined commonality, but draws on common values and what are in many respects very abstract ideas of citizenhood. That, I think, is where and only where Canada begins.”
And it is particularly, this sense of a an identity based on shared human values rather than a fixed identity that has allowed many immigrants to quickly identify with Canada and call themselves Canadian:
“In a Canadian Muslim group, nine out of 10 of whom were born out of Canada, 94 per cent describe themselves as proud or very proud to be Canadian. What do they complain about? The weather. What do they admire? Our traditions of tolerance and civility and the enormous Canadian landscape.”
“The glory of Canada is that empirically, pragmatically, without a single binding ideology, but again and again in over 200 years, it has provided a model for the world – not of identity triumphant, but exactly the idea that home-and-hope nationalism encompasses the only values on which we can build a future: common sense, toleration, co-existence. Canada is a glorious notion, a necessary notion, and one that ironically, as the old, doomed idea of a nation comes to an end in our time, is becoming more – not less – of a model for what the nation can be in the future.”
Many immigrants, when they first come to Canada, feel a little lost in their effort to integrate. They want to know how should they dress, act, speak. They want to learn about typical Canadian dishes. They are puzzled when well-intentioned Canadians tell them “just be yourself”. Some newcomers criticize Canada’s tolerance for differences; they feel immigrants should be made to accommodate more. It should be more melting-pot and less mosaic. I’m always surprised and mildly shocked when I hear that. But I hope that they will soon realize that what makes us Canadians is not a particular eating habit, an accent, or dress code, but rather a common set of values based on fairness, social justice, human rights, civility, common sense and multiculturalism.
Of course, no place is perfect, but I do believe the Canadian model is worth emulating. I’m just not sure whether to have a model like that, a country needs to have gone through the kinds of experiences Canada has gone through. At any rate, it is a notion (and nation) that I quickly identified with and in which I feel at home. Although I wasn’t born Canadian, I am certainly Canadian today.