I have never voted for any Prime Minister of Canada or Premier of Ontario in any national or provincial election; yet I have never missed an election since I turned eighteen and became eligible to vote.
In the last election, in fact, only 24,727 people voted for Justin Trudeau, representing 51.2% of the votes in the riding of Papineau, Quebec which has a population of 110,750 according to the 2016 census. Such is the reality of a Parliamentary democracy, perhaps the most confusing electoral system in the world. I did not vote for Justin Trudeau or Rob Ford or any of their predecessors because their names were not on my ballot.
Nor did I vote for their rivals because none of the candidates in my riding have ever been the leader of their respective parties. There have been a couple cabinet members: Michael Wilson was the Progressive Conservative finance minister(prior to the hijacking by the Reform/Alliance) and Allan Rock was the Justice Minister for the prevailing Liberal party. I did not vote for either of them, sort of, which is precisely the problem.
Allan Rock, the Liberal party incumbent, arrived on our doorstep during the federal campaign, oh so many years ago, seeking our vote. The Reform/Alliance/Conservative appeared to be a legitimate threat and given the conservative tendencies in Etobicoke Central in our first-past-the-post system, I decided to vote Liberal knowing the NDP were a virtual non-entity in our neighbourhood. I responded to Allan Rock by saying, “I am voting Liberal to ensure the Conservatives don’t get to power.” To which he replied, “I hope that is not the only reason.”
“Nope, that is the only reason.”
My selection was not for the leader at the time, Jean Chretian; I did not choose the candidate; technically I voted Liberal which itself is a dubious interpretation. So when the analysts come on TV and begin to proffer their version of the results, they realistically have no clue as to whether the votes are for the party, the candidate, or the leader of the party. All three are possible, which makes the reality of who forms the government maddening.
The Liberal party with Justin Trudeau as its leader formed the government after acquiring 33.1% of the popular vote, 1.3 percentage points less than the Conservative party; yet, the seats won were 157 and 121 respectively. Indeed, in only five elections since 1867 did the winning party garner more than 50% of the electorate. In other words, the majority of eligible voters in Canada did not cast their ballot for the ruling government, regardless of party colour, for 38 of the 43 elections held in Canada. By all accounts the 44th parliament will be the same; approximately two thirds of the voters will not have voted for the party forming the next government. Never mind that only 67% of those eligible actually cast a ballot in the last election which means the ruling government was selected by 22% of registered voters and by only 17% of the entire population.
The numbers work out approximately the same regardless of who forms the government. These same issues arise when we examine other electoral systems, but I digress. On Monday, I will walk to our local polling station, bring my own pencil, don the mask and place an X beside one name because my parents taught us early: you cannot complain if you don’t vote.
My parents were exceedingly proud of becoming Canadian Citizens and able to exercise their right to vote. They could not understand why people did not bother and even advocated for a law which would fine those who did not cast a ballot. Mom and Dad had close friends who refrained from voting or could not because they had not applied for citizenship. My parents would bluntly tell them to stop bitching about this or that decision – you didn’t vote!
Dad was open about his choices. He voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP) because it is the workers party. Dad became disenchanted with them after the NDP government in Ontario under Bob Rae taxed auto insurance, something they promised not to do during the election campaign. Breaking that promise was the bone my Dad could not let go. Mom was more coy about her choices, never really trusting the NDP, probably voted Liberal most of the time but I would not be surprised if the occasional ballot was for a Conservative party.
Neither of them voted on the basis of the candidate in their riding. I expect they did not even know the name, nor cared. Their focus was on the leader and therefore, checked the box beside the associated party, much along the line of proportional representation to which they were accustomed back in the Netherlands. Politics was common fodder for conversations at home over the dinner table, spilling into the evenings and heating up during an election campaign all the way up to voting day. Not voting was a non-starter.
Beyond casting a ballot, however, they did not get involved with parties, campaigns, or issues. On one occasion, Dad and the neighbour, Fred Hoornick, called in sick as part of an organized, one day labour protest of Pierre Trudeau’s national wage and price freeze legislation. It would be the only day Dad would miss work. He and Fred went to the local forest and transplanted several trees on their respective properties to mark the day. One still survives at the back edge of our Kostis Avenue home. I cannot recall any other manner in which Mom or Dad participated in any form of political activity.
My experience has not been much different in terms of participation. Yes, I have voted in every election; I have signed petitions, written the occasional form letter to my local representative; and I have protested in a handful of rallies, one large one marching along University Avenue to Queens Park in Toronto. I have never contributed money to a political party much to the surprise of at least one relative. I keep close tabs on political news, reading opinion pieces, and am aware of the party philosophies and platforms so I can engage in intelligent conversation and make an informed choice.
I am not proud of my own inactivity and am grateful for the passionate few who bring awareness to issues with their efforts and work. Their work is important. Voting is the minimum requirement and represents the most passive form of democracy. The least I can do is cast a ballot in a manner which will help support and reflect my values.