These new Canadians cast their first federal ballots. Here's what they thought

New Canadians say voting for the first time in a Canadian federal election was a formative experience.

Voting for the first time can be an emotional and informative experience

Tareq Hadhad at his citizenship ceremony on Jan. 15, 2020. He's already voted in the federal election, an experience he says was one of the most significant of his life. (Tom Murphy/CBC)

Tareq Hadhad never had a chance to vote in a free and democratic election in his birth country of Syria.

That's why the moment, earlier this week, when he cast a ballot in Canada will always be special to him. 

"I am so honoured," he said in a Twitter video on Monday. "I will cherish this memory forever and I will tell my grandkids that the 2021 election mattered, and I am proud to know that my vote makes a difference."

Hadhad, who resides in Antigonish, N.S., came to Canada as a refugee in 2015, and is the founder of Peace by Chocolate, a local confectionery. He became a citizen in 2020 and is one of millions of Canadians who have cast an advance ballot in the federal election.

"I don't take anything for granted since I arrived in Canada, and that was one of the reasons why I celebrated voting for the first time," Hadhad said in an interview. "I will never forget that feeling of being able to create change by casting your vote."

He said he and his family "saw that our home country, Syria, was burned in a war where people were just asking for this simple act of freedom."

But it wasn't just casting a ballot that was a new experience for Hadhad. In Syria, his family would not dare engage in a dinner table conversation about politics. But now, conversations over issues in the news, such as gun control, have been common.

He says casting a ballot made him excited to see who wins. In his home country, the outcome was never in doubt.

"This is the excitement of voting — you vote and you want to see what happens, while in dictatorships, in tyrannies, it doesn't matter because you know the winner ahead, because it's so corrupted," he said.

He adds that he hopes his celebration of voting will encourage other Canadians to head to the polls.

Different democracies

Even Canadians from other democracies can find the voting experience informative about their new home.

Simon Hørup Eskildsen came to Ottawa eight years ago from Denmark. Like Hadhad, he became a citizen in 2020. He voted by mail. 

But Hørup Eskildsen didn't want to just "mail in" his ballot, figuratively speaking — he wanted to learn as much as he could about the parties and Canada's political system before he voted. 

He says that, while he learned about voting while acquiring his citizenship, the process left some important things out.

"They don't really tell you very much about the different parties and their histories and so on, so of course you have to read up on that yourself," he said.

Hørup Eskildsen was also surprised that, in Canada, minority governments are often disparaged since, in Denmark's parliament, there's no such thing as a majority government. 

Then there was the practice of strategic voting, and the prospect that a ballot cast for a losing candidate in a riding does not go toward a party's representation in Parliament.

"Because of the 'first past the post' principle of voting, there's all of these complexities that people employ," he said. 

"You can vote for the party that you agree with, but you might as well in some cases burn your vote — which is not ideal."

He was also surprised and puzzled by the Bloc Quebecois.

"I've never heard of a party like that, which represents one province," he said. "Maybe it's similar to in Denmark how we have representatives from Faroe Islands and Greenland."

Simple, super quick

Chelsey Harmon, a graduate student originally from California, also became a citizen in 2020, and voted in an advance poll in Vancouver. She has cast absentee ballots in American elections, but this was her first time voting in a Canadian election, and her first time voting in person.

"I mentioned that I was a first-time voter as a new citizen, and they were very thorough in giving me all the instructions in making sure that I knew what was happening, what I was doing and what they were doing," she said.

"It went super quick. It took me longer to walk there than to actually vote."

Chelsey Harmon, a recent arrival from California, says the ballot she cast in Vancouver was a lot less crowded than the absentee ballots she has sent in for U.S. elections. (Submitted by Chelsey Harmon)

Something that stood out is how much simpler the Canadian ballot is — her ballot for the recent California recall election had 44 names on it.

"There's a lot less material on the Canadian ballot," she said, adding that it's likely because American ballots tend to feature state and local elections as well as referendums.

But, she says, she feels Canadian politics is starting to become more similar to that of the U.S. in a significant way.

"We're meant to be voting for our local riding representatives, but it really has become much more about who the leader of the party is."


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