I heard it everywhere I trekked yesterday: “So, are we going to have an election?” My reply that I didn’t have the foggiest idea was met with considerable disappointment, as everywhere people seemed to have an opinion on the matter. It was our first day back to Parliament following our Christmas break and the mood had already been prepped by the media for the last few weeks as various pundits continued to ramp up some kind of ballot showdown.
Regardless of the outcome of a federal election, whenever it occurs, we relentlessly fail to explore the overriding lethargy among the citizenry towards what is supposed to be one of the greatest triumphs of democracy: the vote. In the last federal election, only 54% of adult Canadians took the time to mark their ballot – an embarrassing number which ranked Canada 16th out of 17 “peer countries” in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It was even more troubling to learn that barely one in five of those eligible to vote for the first time chose to do so. In other words, we’re not living up to our democratic heritage and we hardly seem troubled at our failure to recruit a new generation in healthy enough numbers to ensure that our great social experiment in democratic life in Canada continues.
It was interesting yesterday witnessing everyone “talking” about an election when most of the populace didn’t want one. Somehow talk is supposed to substitute for activism. In Ottawa, we are attempting to drive a conversation when nobody other than pundits or politicians are in the chat room. This is the normal state of affairs in Canada at the moment, and given the significant decisions that have to be made concerning our future direction it hardly instills confidence when citizens don’t desire to set those priorities.
Returning from Sudan, where the country recently concluded a referendum that was almost textbook in its execution, was a heady experience. While the international community remained dubious of both the process and the outcome, it’s now apparent that 99% of those eligible to vote actually did so, marking their ballots with their inked fingerprints. And preliminary results point to the reality that over 95% of those voters decisively chose to embark on a journey of nationhood. It was the most remarkable exercise in democracy I have ever witnessed and its memories linger with me still.
But these were a people who had suffered oppression for decades. Their opportunity for personal and collective advancement was stilted and they had just had enough. They didn’t vote in such staggering numbers just for change; they were voting for themselves, for the right to choose priorities that would give their children a shot at a better life.
One MP mentioned to me yesterday that he had read one of my recent blogs where I spoke of lying outside, taking in the stars near the Darfur border, and hearing the footsteps of thousands of people making their way through the night to the polling stations in the distance. “That image will stay with me forever,” he offered, as it obviously will with me. Yet we as Canadians have difficulty just heading down the street to the local school, church or community centre to mark our own ballots. We are in the process of becoming a pessimistic people, while still insisting on our Canadian pride. We are increasingly burdened with our social failings – homelessness, middle-class decline, people without jobs and jobs without people, our failure to take the aboriginal challenge seriously, environmental decay, post-secondary education moving out of reach. These are but some of the issues that should be engaging our minds and convictions and driving us to the spot where, whenever an election transpires, we will bring our priorities to a booth and mark our engagement on a piece of paper.
For all the pessimism out there concerning countries like Sudan, we haven’t been able to maintain our own level of democratic promise. And our collective performance in social cohesion is fraying. Alas, all this talk about an election is proceeding at a furious pace because in reality it is only in that talk that we find any level of excitement – a poor substitute for the real thing.