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Big Canada vs Small Canada

Thursday May 24, 2012

Right now, a group of expat Canadians are suing the Federal government to have their voting rights restored.  You can find the news here.

Most Canadians probably aren’t even aware that once you have spent five years abroad you are no longer eligible to vote in Federal elections.  I certainly wasn’t when I went abroad in the early part of the last decade.

There are currently, by most estimates, about a million people with Canadian citizenship living abroad.  There are probably Canadians living in almost every country on Earth.  While many are people who immigrated to Canada and obtained Canadian citizenship and then returned to their countries of origin, many more are people born in Canada and raised here, who go abroad for a variety of reasons.

I was one of them.  In my case, I went for no great career opportunity or even a specific interest in the culture of my destination, I merely went for the experience of it, it seemed like (and was largely) a grand adventure.  I was only gone for two years, although during that time I did discover what a painful process it is to vote from overseas.

On Twitter, I happened to catch a conversation between Adam Dormus and gregory alan elliott (both are well worth being followed, by the way) that once again brought the issue of Michael Ignatieff’s status as a long-term expatriate status up again.

I felt compelled to speak out on the issue, both as a former expat myself and as a former Liberal.  Twitter, unfortunately, is a medium that does not encourage a lot of nuance or explanation and there is much to be said on this subject.

I did not support Michael Ignatieff for the leadership of the Federal Liberals and I strongly disapproved of the process by which he was anointed leader after only a short time in politics.  I found Bob Rae to be a more compelling choice (perhaps a sure sign of my eventual socialist conversion) and I was dismayed by his immediate disavowal of the proposed Liberal/NDP Coalition agreement.

From the beginning I believed he was the wrong person to lead the Opposition against the Conservatives and despite their relentless attacks upon him, he continued the Liberals unofficial propping up of the Conservative government.

Despite that, I never once considered him to be ineligible for the highest office in the land due to his work abroad.

The Conservative Party’s attacks on him for being a successful expatriate and returning to Canada to pursue a political career struck me very personally.  While I slowly drifted away from the Liberals for a variety of reasons, not the least being Mr Ignatieff’s contention that only he and Stephen Harper were actually in the contest to become Prime Minister, the Conservative Party’s attacks alienated me and many other Canadians in a fundamental way.

One in five Canadians were born abroad these days.  That will likely be one in four in years to come.  One million Canadian citizens live abroad.

The future of Canada is a Canada made up of global citizens.  People who compete with the best of the best.  People who have a choice of citizenships.

This is the real test that we will face as a country going into the future and it’s a test that the Conservative Party as it exists now has fundamentally failed.  Are we a Big Canada or are we a Small Canada?

More than symbolic issues like the monarchy, this Small Canada attitude that preyed upon xenophobia and attacked success (in our supposed brave new Conservative Canada no less) smacks of a colonial mentality.  Stay home, don’t make waves.

On my blog I’ve been talking a lot about a new political paradigm for this country and how the political party I support, the New Democrats, can make that happen.  We can talk a lot about the structural changes that need to happen in our institutions to make them more responsive, make them more participatory and less confrontational, but we cannot forget that no institutional change will work unless there is a change in the mentality too.

A Big Canada, a country that is open to world, a country that is of the world, whose citizens embrace all of the opportunities of the world and who can bring that knowledge and experience home can be a place that can do more than just be a good place to live, have families, work and build a life.

A Big Canada can lead the world.

There were lots of legitimate reasons why Canadians chose other political parties than the Liberals in the last election.  There were lots of reasons why Canadians did not agree with Mr Ignatieff’s policies or his leadership.

But every time it was reduced to a soundbite criticizing his time abroad, it diminished this country’s future potential.  It said to every Canadian who chose Canada, as immigrants and former expats do, that they were unworthy.

If we embrace the Small Canada mentality, that is the message that we are sending.  And all of the bright, talented people, whether born here or abroad, will look to choose a different country, one that will welcome them.

It’s our choice, which will it be?

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