Monday, March 28, 2011

Cherry blossoms and spring votes

In comparison with the bulk of humanity, Canadians have things pretty good. And I am inclined to think that in late March, few have it as good as those Canadians who live in Vancouver. Saturday morning a Prius taxi took me quietly from my hotel room, with its view of the Coast mountains and Burrard Inlet, along streets lined with green lawns and blossoming cherries, to the airport, where my flight home to Ottawa’s backyard snowpiles and minus-8 degree temperatures. The snowcap of Mount Baker, which once inspired me to write a short story about escaping to its forests, gleamed in the sun.

It has been over a decade since I lived in the Pacific Northwest, and my visit rekindled many fond memories and, I must confess, more than a little envy of those who still live there. Don’t get me wrong; despite its mindless urban sprawl and residents’ bizarre obsession with waiting in long lines to swill low-quality coffee, I am fond of my cold and stuffy old province of Ontario. Sure, it will be cold and muddy for a few more weeks in Ottawa, and I’ll miss the sight of the ocean, and the mountains on my horizon. But soon enough I will be bobbing on the Ottawa River in my kayak, or just watching the kids play at the neighbourhood park, and thinking to myself how I have things pretty good.

Unfortunately, the next six weeks will see four grey-haired nincompoops named Stephen, Michael, Jack and Gilles bombarding us with messages of how life isn’t so good in Canada, how messed-up things are, and how only they and their power-hungry followers can set things right. The mere thought of our new federal election campaign makes me feel queasier than did the rough landing at Ottawa airport. Federal politics in Canada has devolved to a very unfunny joke. There are no issues of any importance being discussed by the campaigners, only a childish sniping and bickering among people who are capable of better, but have forgotten why they entered politics in the first place. For I believe that most people who become politicians do so with good intentions, with ideas that they sincerely believe might improve things, and with way more energy than most of us could ever muster. But like a basket of live crabs that needs no lid, politicians who can see the blue sky seem inevitably to get pulled down by the clutching ones.

While none of the parties have any particular causes or programs to tell us about, that could turn out to be a good thing. In fact, it’s a great opportunity. If the politicians have no good ideas, I know lots of us non-politicians who do. So instead of them telling us all the great things they’re going to do for us, as is usually the case, we have a chance to tell them what we want done. It’s going to be a close vote in many ridings, and they’re going to be scrambling for every single vote. And every one of us who is not wedded to any particular party needs to be saying loudly, clearly, and daily over the next six weeks: If you want my vote, here’s what you’re going to need to do to get it [insert your best idea here]. And if you, the candidate, promise to do what I ask, I promise to come out and vote for you, and I promise to badger my friends and family members to vote, too. And I also promise to remember your promise, and to send you packing for good next time if you fail to keep your promise.

My own idea for making life in Canada even better is to get more Canadians under the age of 25 to vote, starting with the 300 students I teach. I can’t say I blame them for their apathy and low turnout at the polls. My students come from all different walks of life and many cultural backgrounds. Half are women. They are thoughtful, compassionate, concerned, and owned by no one. They have big ideas. In other words, they have little in common with Stephen, Michael, Jack and Gilles. My students also have little interest in what is said in the mainstream media, which does not speak their language nor discuss things about which they care. My students can, however, be rapidly roused to action when an issue takes their interest, and they use their own social networks, communications and media to mobilize. Political parties delude themselves if they think to influence my students by issuing press releases on Twitter and counting friends on Facebook; uncool and out-of-touch in real life is not made cool and hip by getting LinkedIn. However, social media is a 2-way street, and if my students do take it upon themselves to act, the politicians can expect some very pointed tags on their Facebook walls.

Life is good in Canada this spring. Not only is spring bringing cherry blossoms and better weather, it’s bringing us a chance to do some serious cleaning of the People’s house in Ottawa. My election promise is to badger my students to vote on May 2, and to mobilize their friends to do the same. I also promise not to try and sway them to vote for any particular party or candidate. They ultimately need to be the ones to generate the ideas they want advanced at the federal level, and to decide for themselves which politicians might actually deliver. I trust their judgement on this.

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