Canadian expats still feel 'a lot of bitterness' over lack of vote

Pre-election buzz may be strong in Canada, with solid advance turnout numbers, but for the estimated 1.4 million Canadian expats living abroad who won't be allowed to cast a ballot, the feeling is less intense. But that doesn't mean they won't be watching from afar.

Canucks all over the U.S. and beyond will gather Monday to monitor election results — and the Blue Jays

Rally held in N.Y. against Canada's Conservatives

8 years ago
Duration 1:59
Canadians hold event to protest losing their right to vote and to encourage voters back home to vote for a change in government

Pre-election buzz may feel strong in Canada, with officials announcing solid early-voter numbers. But for the estimated 1.4 million Canadian expats living abroad, the prospect of a change in government back home feels less intense.

You don't feel it very much in suburban Atlanta, where Toronto-born Marty Seed co-owns a pub that shows Blue Jays games for baseball-loving Canucks.

Not too much in Phoenix, either, where Bob Keats, a Conservative-leaning tax adviser from Calgary, says he'll have to catch the polling results via Twitter.

And certainly not in the United Arab Emirates, where Montreal-born Aziz Mulay-Shah lectures as a politics and democracy professor at the Canadian University in Dubai.

"I'm definitely not feeling jitters," Mulay-Shah said. "But you're not getting the feeling from the street where you can gauge sentiment, or tell what the mood is like from walking around your riding or into a café or something."

5-year restriction now enforced

Most of the Canadians Mulay-Shah has spoken with in the Emirates will not be voting by special overseas ballot, perhaps understandably so.

While many are wrapped up in their own lives in the UAE, other longtime expats won't be able to vote in this election, owing to federal voting restrictions dating back to 1993 that denied ex-pats the vote if they have lived outside Canada for more than five years.

Canadian Gill Frank, a New Jersey resident at the centre of the suit against the federal government over the loss of voting rights for longtime expats, speaks at a rally in Brooklyn that was attended by nearly 300 people on Thursday. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Those rules, which went largely unenforced until 2007, were briefly overturned by an Ontario court ruling last year. But that decision was reversed by an Ontario Court of Appeal decision in June.

Marty Seed, who has lived in the northern Atlanta suburb of Buckhead for 13 years, doesn't know of any election viewing parties in the South, but adds that "for the majority of us down here, there's a lot of bitterness over losing our rights to vote because we have not resided in country for five years."

The 43-year-old data analyst, who runs a Canadian expats group for Atlanta residents, said he hasn't encountered a lot of Canadian election talk around town, though he has received an uptick in queries in recent weeks about how to vote by special ballot.

"On Facebook, we have a group and also a private website for the ATL Canadians, but we've been fielding a lot more questions. Even up until yesterday, people were asking how they can vote," he said.

Watching the results from afar

The state of Georgia is home to about 15,000 to 20,000 Canadians, said Seed.

His Atlanta bar, Meehan's Public House, will be showing Blue Jays baseball. Seed plans to announce updates on election results that he'll track on his laptop during the game.

Montreal native Pamela Takefman and her friend, Matthew Paluch. Takefman, a 29-year-old lawyer who has lived in New York for three years, voted by mail in this election. 'I'm in one of those swing ridings, so I wanted to make a real effort to vote,' she said. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Although Mulay-Shah, 45, has lived in the UAE since 2008, his nearly four years spent working as a diplomat for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade do not count toward his time abroad. He submitted his ballot in advance polling last weekend at the Dubai consulate.

Election night will be a Tuesday morning his time.

"I'll be at work, but I'll have my computer on and whatever I'm doing, I'll have it on in the background," Mulay-Shah said, adding that he still manages to stream political coverage from the CBC and CTV from his laptop.

An estimated 40,000 Canadians live and work in the UAE, according to the International Trade Department.

Saskatoon-born journalist Craig Courtice, who moved to the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in 2007, appreciates being able to feel "somewhat blissfully unaware" of the political tensions back home.

"Not to sound too expat-y, but I feel like even if you're a political animal, once you move away, it's kind of like this weight has been lifted," said Courtice, who describes himself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal.

Courtice has also been struck by how touchy the niqab debate has become.

"I live in a country where I see the niqab almost every day," he said. "The fact this is an election issue in Canada… you just feel like, 'Geez, I'm not missing out on any great debates.'"

After eight years of living outside Canada, he has "made peace" with not casting a ballot in a Canadian federal election, though he does view the Harper government as the entity that took that democratic right away from him.

The last time he voted, in the 2007 election, he supported a Conservative government. He's not sure which way he would have gone this time.

Either way, on election night, Courtice is more likely to watch the Blue Jays play the Kansas City Royals on TV at 4 a.m. UAE time, though he may check Twitter and other Canadian news sites for election updates.

Another kind of political party

There was no question that any outcome other than a Conservative win would be favourable to a young, urban crowd at a recent "No Harper" event in Brooklyn.

Nearly 300 people, many of them adhering to a "Canadian Tuxedo" dress code of denim shirt and denim pants, arrived at a Williamsburg concert venue on Thursday night for poutine, smoked meat, Canadian indie rock and a massive show of anti-Harper sentiment.

Toronto-born Gill Frank, the New Jersey resident currently suing the Canadian government to restore voting rights of long-time expats, served as a guest of honour, leading the crowd in a charge to "give Steve the heave-ho."

Katie Gemmill, a 29-year-old co-organizer of the No Harper event, said she would have voted in her Ontario riding of Kingston and the Islands had the Appeal Court not restored the five-year restriction. The PhD student in comparative literature at Columbia University said the night was about feeling disenfranchised and not able to help decide her homeland's future.

Katie Gemmill, a 29-year-old Brooklyn resident from Kingston, Ont., helped to organize a No Harper event on Thursday that drew close to 300 people in New York, many of them Canadian expats. Gemmill was one of those who lost her right to vote due to an Ontario Appeal Court ruling this summer. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"We wanted to do something concrete to regain our own political agency, and become visible again, in a way," said Gemmill, who added that she's anxious about the Oct. 19 outcome.

On election night, Gemmill will be joining friends at Ontario, a Canadian-themed bar in Williamsburg, to watch what happens.

At least one election viewing party will take place somewhere in Manhattan. The Canadian Association of New York, which represents an estimated 100,000 Canucks in the metropolitan area, is planning to stream a live CBC feed of the election results at a bar or another location, said Reena Bhatt, vice president of the association.

They're also hoping to make available Game 3 of the Jays-versus-the-Royals baseball game on a separate TV, kept on mute, for politically minded Canucks who are also sports fans.

"We know people will also want to keep an eye on the Jays," Bhatt said.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong