Wednesday, September 2, 2015

on losing my right to vote

This is a story about citizenship, told by a Canadian barred from voting for working outside of the country.

My grandmother was born in 1911, in Leofeld, Saskatchewan, Canada. My grandfather was born in Germany in 1907, and immigrated to Canada in 1912 before he turned five years old. Following their marriage, my grandparents worked the Canadian prairie as farmers. For the first two years of their marriage, they walked to church, because their horses needed rest from the six days of fieldwork. They purchased their own farm in 1942, and they brought some of that land under cultivation for the first time. My grandfather died in 1959, leaving my grandmother to take care of a farm and support seven of their twelve children.

My parents met each other while working in a hospital in the remote northern village of Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan. The same spirit of adventure that drove them to live in the North led them in the 1970s to New Zealand. During my parents time there, my grandmother applied for a Canadian passport in order to visit them. Her passport application was denied because, in the words of the passport office, she was “no longer a Canadian citizen”.

The Canadian government considered my Grandfather an alien during the Second World War, and revoked his citizenship. This meant that my grandmother (who remember was born in Canada) was also no longer a Canadian citizen because… well, because women weren’t entirely people yet in those days, as far as many governments were concerned. As my grandmother had no other citizenship, this meant that she had actually been a stateless person for several decades!

We don’t know if my grandfather was informed about the revocation of his citizenship. If he was, he never told his wife. Imagine the shock and sense of loss she must have felt at being told that she was no longer a citizen of the only country she’d ever known! Thankfully, the wrong was righted, and my grandmother eventually had her Canadian citizenship restored.

I was born in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, and lived there until I moved to Edmonton to go to the U of A. In 2000, I moved from Canada to USA, to do a PhD in particle physics. The experiment I worked on was oddly enough located in Sudbury, Ontario, so in some years I actually spent over 100 days in Canada! While living In the USA as an international student, I met my wife, who is German. We moved to Germany in 2008, because I wanted to learn to be able speak fluently with my family. (It worked.)

I love Canada. I’ve been to every province (seven of them multiple times), and I hope to have the chance to someday visit my family living in Nunavut. We travel to Canada with our two children as often as we can, usually a bit less than once per year. Our children are both proud Canadians who listen to Raffi, are learning to ski and skate, and can sing “O Canada” at the drop of a touque. I hope that at some point in the future, academic jobs will open up for my wife and I, and we’ll be able to return to my home and native land.

Unfortunately, because I’ve resided outside of Canada for over five years, Canada’s election law bars me from voting in Canadian federal elections. Voting is one of the most fundamental rights and responsibilities of a citizen, so when you are barred from voting it means that you are in a very real sense not a full citizen of your country.

It’s hard for me to describe how it feels to be disenfranchised. It certainly makes me very angry. Sometimes it feels almost painful, like somehow, spiritually, a part of me is missing. There is also sadness at being excluded. Prevented from expressing my true patriot love. Unable to stand on guard for the country, by helping to choose its leadership.

The most frustrating part about this exclusion is that it is so unnecessary. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spells it out in black and white:

3. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons

The Canada Elections Act is clearly unconstitutional, and I hope that the Supreme Court will find it so when a challenge eventually comes. (You can help with that!) In the meantime, I hope that whenever you hear about Canadian expats, you’ll think about people like me. We are people with deep roots in Canada. We love our country, and we want to continue to be a part of it. It’s just that for reasons of family, occupation, or adventure, we happen to be away for a while.

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