As a golden October sun glowed and red leaves floated gently to the ground, my wife and I walked to our local advance polling station to cast votes in the federal election. I have voted many times over the years but this time a familiar act felt both simple and yet boldly defiant.
First, the campaign has been listless but loud. Party platforms are underwhelming and unimaginative. More of the same from Liberals. Tax cuts from Conservatives. Tax rises for the rich from the NDP. Voters who tuned in to the English language TV debate in the hope of hearing an exchange of ideas instead witnessed leaders delivering empty ad hominem attacks and pre-cooked talking points. Substance was replaced with volume.
As I stood for a few moments under a basketball hoop in a quiet, primary school gym, marked a cross on a flimsy paper, and slotted the folded sheet into a cardboard box, the rancorous election din fell gloriously silent. No shouting. No insults. Just me, a pencil and a ballot.
Second, the world itself is growing increasingly violent and polarized. Fuelled by online algorithms and the anonymity of aggrieved commentators, bots and trolls, politicians of all stripes are under attack, often in highly personal and deeply disturbing ways. Online rhetoric has reified into real life consequences, with Liberal candidate Catherine McKenna compelled to speak out against the harassment and threats she and her family endure, and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau wearing a bullet-proof vest to a campaign event.
Happily, I saw no security at my polling station. Casting my eye down the list of candidates on the ballot, the only screen between me and the outside world was the foldout one provided by Elections Canada.
Third, the mood around Western democracy is, for the first time in my experience as a voter, tenuous and even fearful. Rights established through events such as the 13th-century Magna Carta, the 18th-century French and American Revolutions, and the 20th-century suffrage and civil rights movements now appear threatened in the very places they seemed most secure.
The mood around Western democracy is, for the first time in my experience as a voter, tenuous and even fearful.
Making my mark with a pencil struck me for the first time as an immensely powerful gesture: a chance for one citizen to make a difference. I was reminded that our right to vote is profoundly threatening to vested interests that would love to see it curtailed, rendered meaningless or eliminated altogether. I was struck by the beauty and radical simplicity of an ongoing democratic experiment that sees ordinary people have their say in school gymnasia, community centres and church halls across the country with nothing more than pencils and papers.
This election marked the first time that all of my family members have been eligible to vote. I asked my youngest son how he enjoyed his inaugural visit to the polling station. He was very upbeat. He told the polling officials that he was voting for the first time and they clapped for him.
Is it too much to ask that we lower the volume around democratic debates and actually talk about ideas? Is it too much to ask that the threat of violence, either physical or verbal, be removed from political discourse? Can we be respectful of each other? Can we be kind? I love the Canada that sees a young person applauded by polling officials when they cast their first vote. That’s the country I want to vote for.
Dr. John M. Richardson is an Ottawa educator, writer and proud voter.
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