These 2 Winnipeg newcomers have never voted in a civic election — until now

When Nour Ali votes for mayor in Winnipeg's upcoming election, it will be the first time in his life he's ever cast a ballot — and the first time he's had the opportunity to participate in a democracy he feels a part of.

'Voting is the voice for all of us,' says Awak Duot, who came to Winnipeg from South Sudan

Election day in Winnipeg is Oct. 24. Advanced polling has already opened in some municipalities. (iStock)

When Nour Ali votes for mayor in Winnipeg's upcoming election, it will be the first time in his life he's ever cast a ballot — and the first time he's had the opportunity to participate in a democracy he feels a part of.

Ali is a Syrian community leader and head of a support organization for Kurdish refugees in Winnipeg. He's lived in the city since coming to Canada as a refugee in 2012, but he only got his citizenship a few months ago.

When he lived in Syria, he never voted.

"We never feel we are part of that [system], so we never vote," he said of living in Syria.

"Here is something different. You know you can be part of the change of the policy," he said. "You have to vote, to support ... what you believe."

Roughly a quarter of Winnipeggers are immigrants, according to Statistics Canada data from the 2016 census — more than 176,000 people, although that number includes permanent residents who are not able to vote.

Abdikheir Ahmed, executive director of the newcomer organization Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, said his group knows anecdotally that many new Canadians don't vote. They're trying to change that.

Nour Ali, executive director of Kurdish Initiative for Refugees Inc., will vote for the first time in his life when he casts his ballot in Winnipeg's upcoming election. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Immigration Partnership has distributed thousands of "pledge to vote" cards, signed by newcomers and community leaders like Ali. Each community leader who signed was instructed to ask 10 more people to sign, too.

If all goes according to plan, Ahmed said the group will have 5,000 signatures by election day on Oct. 24.

The initiative comes in addition to other efforts by the organization to encourage newcomers to vote this year.

"If new Canadians vote, it's a game changer for decision-making in our city, because we have a whole new group of people who have not participated in the civic process who [would] participate," he said.

"If we change the course of … the participation of these people in the civic process, then we change how we are governed here in this city."

'I never had that chance'

Many newcomers come to Winnipeg from countries where democracy isn't well established, said Reuben Garang, Immigration Partnership Winnipeg's ethnocultural communities resource co-ordinator. Based on past experiences, some may fear reprisal if their candidate loses, or have the feeling that voting won't make a difference, he said.

"People that come from countries where policies are made by a few people, they think that this is how it's done here," he said. "It's a learning process to some of the people."

Even if that's not the case, some newcomers may have other priorities on their minds, he said. The pledge cards prompt signatories to plan how they'll vote: who will take care of their children, how they'll get to the polling station and back, how they'll tell their employers, and other logistics.

Awak Duot, a business and administration student at University of Winnipeg and mother of two, said she voted for the first time in a federal election after getting her Canadian citizenship in 2015. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

For Awak Duot, who came to Winnipeg from South Sudan in 2009 after her husband moved here as a refugee in 2005, this election is the first time she's participated in a municipal vote.

After she got her citizenship in 2015, she was able to vote in that year's federal election. She remembers bringing her two young daughters with her, and how they asked her if they could vote, too.

"Oh, my God. We never had that opportunity. The opportunity Canada is giving us here, we never got it back home … because of safety, because of the fight going on in our country," she said.

"I remember the time when we were separated from the other part of our country — from the north Sudan — some people had the opportunity to do that, so we can be free. But for me, I never had that chance. But I did here in Canada."

Duot said her kids are still excited about voting, and so is she. She's worried about the rising cost of public transportation in Winnipeg, for instance, and she wants to be a good role model for her kids so they learn about democracy.

'Voting is the voice for all of us'

Duot said she's also observed that many newcomers don't vote. She said it could come down to a lack of information, especially information offered in multiple languages.

She was excited to be included in a video explaining why people should vote made by Immigration Partnership Winnipeg in Dinka, her first language. The video was one of 12, each done in a different language.

"You need to get information for you to understand what you're going to do.… Some people might not know English and they only know their mother tongue," she said.

"I think if they had that opportunity to know the [importance] of voting, then they might come and vote."

For busy mothers like her — she's also a student of business and administration at the University of Winnipeg — there could be a variety of other barriers too, she said.

"Responsibility, families, like mothers with children — I think those are other [things] that make it difficult for people to volunteer and vote."

Her message for other parents in her position?

"Just try your best to come and vote. [If] you have things that are difficult in your life, the solution is to come vote —because voting is the voice for all of us."