Meet 7 Canadian expats who just lost their right to vote

They can still say "zed" and fly the Maple Leaf, but these Canadians living outside the country have lost the right to vote in the Oct. 19 federal election.

Elections Act ruling bars expats from voting if they have lived abroad more than 5 years

We talked to seven Canadian-New Yorkers about what not being able to vote in the upcoming elections means to them, and about what brought them to the U.S. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

This summer, as many as 1.4 million Canadians living abroad lost their right to cast ballots in the Oct. 19 federal election.

The reason? They're expats.

More specifically, they are Canadian citizens who have set up new lives outside their home and native land for more than five years.

In a split decision on July 20, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned a 2014 lower court ruling that undid a so-called "five-year limitation" banning expats from voting.

This ruling means that the previous extension of voting rights to all Canadians, regardless of how long ago they left Canada, was deemed unfair as it would allow long-term expats to help guide the course of the country from afar.

The timing of the reversal, less than three months before the election, left some of the 1.4 million in the cold.

Riffing on the popular blog Humans of New York, we talked to seven Canadian New Yorkers about what this change means to them and about what brought them to the U.S.

Nadia Gomes, 37, from Toronto

Nadia Gomes, 37, from Toronto, says, "In my work, I see other fights for democracy, others fighting for the right to vote and fair elections ... I’m a resident here, but I can’t vote here." (Matt Kwong/CBC)

I came to New York because I wanted to work in strategic philanthropy. I work for a global funder of justice and human rights and their strategy in it. The size of the field in philanthropy is much greater here than it is at home. Some of the largest global foundations in the world are based in New York.

If anything, Americans will tell me, "Oh, you said 'zed!' Are you from Canada?" There's a Canadian flag in my office, a mini one.

In my work, I see other fights for democracy, others fighting for the right to vote and fair elections, so it just hits home. I'm a resident here, but I can't vote here.

I've been in New York for eight years. It's one thing to talk about home as in residence. But no matter where I live, I'll always be Canadian, that's part of my identity.

It sort of infuses the values I represent wherever I live, so regardless of residential ties or anything else, I'm still Canadian, and I think that any democracy warrants you the right to have a say in government and a right to vote. It's my birthright.

Michelle Lemay, 29, from Ottawa

Michelle Lemay (Matt Kwong/CBC)

When they called the election, I was home in Ottawa visiting my dad. We were watching  CBC, actually. Everyone was waiting around for the election to be called.

I was so excited to vote when I was 16, and when I was 16, voting NDP was sort of a throwaway vote. Now they have a legitimate chance of becoming the majority party. I was so, so excited.

I was looking on my phone about how to vote by proxy in the U.S. That's when I saw the guidelines. 

I do computer data analytics at Coach, the bag company. I live in an area called Ditmas Park now. When I'm taking the subway from Brooklyn over the bridge, and depending on the time of the day, I'll get that sunset-or-sunrise moment over the more beautiful bridges, or see the Statue of Liberty, and I'll get hit with this really emotional, I-love-being-here feeling.

The U.S. did not recognize me as a permanent resident. They see me as basically somebody who's a tourist, and I have no say in their culture.

My visa says eventually I'm planning to return to Canada. I voted for every election from municipal to federal with every opportunity. It's not like I'm somebody who's never exercised this right.

Any time I find cheese curds in the grocery store, I'm like, "Attention everyone, I'm making poutine." I'll text all my friends saying, "Poutine on me."

It's more just nationalistic kind of cheesy patriotic pride. It's like, Oh, bagels? They're garbage here, they taste like Wonder Bread. You need Montreal bagels.

Noah Bernamoff, 33, from Montreal

Noah Bernamoff (Matt Kwong/CBC)

I hadn't specifically tried to make smoked meat at home until I was actually down here. 

I originally moved because my McGill University sweetheart — and now my wife — is American. I attended law school in Brooklyn initially and then transitioned into the restaurant business on a whim.

I have restaurants that serve smoked meat and poutine. I have a bagel store that serves a hybrid of a Montreal and a New York-style bagel. We play Montreal Canadiens playoff games, we have pre-parties for Montreal when the Canadiens are in the playoffs, we have a Canada Day party every year.

Mile End is that Canadian Jewish deli oddball restaurant in New York. We don't advertise as, "Come eat Canadian food," but when people describe what we do, there's a close connection between what we do and Canadian identity.

In a way, Mile End has become sort of the unofficial Canadian consulate, culturally, at least.

Being a citizen who's capable of voting is my constitutional right. Inhibiting my constitutional rights is a big issue, and not just one that some appellate court judge should get to determine.

Just because I don't live in Canada doesn't mean my friends back there are not important to me, and doesn't mean I wouldn't want to participate in the outcome of a vote, which could affect the people that I care about in a way that I don't believe they should be affected.

Debbie Wong, 44, from Vancouver

Debbie Wong and Claire (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Her name is Claire. She was born on April 11, and she's at four months now. I'm putting [in] work for her to have Canadian citizenship.

I don't know if you've heard, but dating here kind of sucks. There's more women in New York than men, I think. Around five years ago, I put in a transfer to go back to Vancouver. It was lonely. I thought, it's time for me to go back to Canada. Two weeks later, I met my future husband.

I've been here 15 years. Right after 9/11, a lot of Canadians left. It was a really sad time. There was a crackdown on immigration, and I mean, a freaking terrorist attack in New York.

I haven't been living in Canada since 1996, and I don't really vote anymore because of that. It's a shame, but you know what? I don't really follow Canadian politics anymore, but not being able to vote absolutely bothers me because there should be no reason we can't exercise this right of ours.

We might go back. We were just in Vancouver a few weeks ago. My husband, who's from Cape Verde, is really into the ocean and mountains and stuff, and it was like, Wow, can we live here?

Stephen Smith, 46, from Toronto

Stephen Smith (Matt Kwong/CBC)

We moved myself, my wife and three kids from the large, suburban confines of Richmond Hill, Ont., to a small Brooklyn Heights apartment. 

I haven't bumped into Hillary Clinton. My neighbours have.

My initial reaction to the voting rules was that doesn't seem fair. But then I gave it some more thought and, as a true Canadian, looked at both sides.

If you're not in the country, you're not affected by those rules, you're not directly impacted on a federal or provincial level, then does it make sense that you'd have a say in the election?

I just started playing ball hockey with some guys here.

A couple years ago, I thought I'd like to get back into hockey, but I didn't have any room for hockey equipment in my apartment. It's all still in Canada. But I did have room for a stick and gloves, so I thought maybe I'd try to find a ball hockey team.

Greg Pinel, 46, from Vancouver

Greg Pinel (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Just a little good old-fashioned Canadian fun, eh?

We've been doing street hockey for a little while, but you saw I switched teams there because I wanted to play against the Canadians.

In the third period, we made a, let's say, mid-season trade, and I joined the other team. We won in overtime, 13-12.

I've lived in England, Scotland, Switzerland, France, Belize. I've been abroad since 1998, but I've been here seven years.

I own and run a small book editing business. I also I run a kids program in New York.

I use any adult registration fees and money I raise from events and formal leagues that I run to help provide after-school sports programming to students in underserved schools in New York City. They don't have the resources or financing to support a sports team. 

My friend told me about the voting thing and I remember saying, "That's pretty shitty."

I have not voted in a federal election since I left Canada in 1998 because I moved around so much. Nevertheless, it's important to have the capability, on principle.

It's like, I kind of like living in a city where there are amazing theatres and Broadway shows, even though I never go. But I like to know that it's there, you know? So that if I feel like it, I can go and benefit from the spoils of a fantastic city.

But no, I've never been to a Broadway show. I'm not a big fan of musicals.

Bram Robinson, 36, from Toronto

Bram Robinson (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The American Dream is real, my friend.

I moved down to help a New York designer run some stores. Then I slowly started my own business four years ago and moved to an E2 visa. I'm an entrepreneur, according to the United States government.

I had to leave the country because I worked in an industry that had a ceiling in Toronto, the fashion industry. It took me four years to create a company I'm happy with and that I'd consider extremely successful.

Canada makes it pretty apparent if you lived outside the country, whether it's losing OHIP or things like that, once you're gone for a while, you're gone.

It's like a jilted girlfriend. It's like if you're not there, you lose your health coverage, you can't vote. Basic Canadian rights; things that define Canada. It's kind of messed up.

I'm not very involved in the political process. I've just sort of become apathetic to it. And I have enough to follow with the politics here, but I'm still very Toronto.

You know, it's The Six! I dream about going home to watch the Blue Jays.


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