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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

DOUG SAUNDERS

A fast-food lesson: Voting should be by residency, not citizenship Add to ...

As you meander home tonight and consider your nocturnal eating options, spare a moment’s thought for Kadir Nurman, who died this week at age 80, having transformed the urban dining habits of the Western world.

Mr. Nurman is remembered in Germany as Vater des Döners – the father of the doner kebab, the sliced-meat-on-flat-bread sandwich that has become Europe’s, and possibly the world’s, most popular form of fast food. (It’s often spelled “donair” in Canada.)

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Four decades ago, at his lunch counter in Berlin’s Bahnhof Zoo train station, the combination of traditional Turkish cuisine and fast-food portability took off. Today, there are more than 15,000 similar kebab shops in Germany, at least that many in Britain and countless more across the Continent. They are more popular than hamburgers in Hamburg, more popular than frankfurters in Frankfurt.

A great many of the world’s most popular foods are the products of stateless people living hybrid lives in migrant enclaves. The burrito was created by Mexican migrants in California in the 1960s. What we call “Indian food” – tikka masala, butter chicken – was invented by Bengali and Punjabi migrants in Scotland in the 1960s. Earlier, Jewish refugees who fled pogroms to East London learned to combine their fried fish with a potato-frying trick they learned from Huguenot refugees living in Soho, and invented the British fish-and-chips shop.

There is a more important reason to keep Mr. Nurman in mind. Despite having transformed his country’s way of life, he and other Turkish migrants who can claim to have “invented” the doner kebab were almost certainly not allowed to vote in German elections, or call themselves Germans.

After moving from Istanbul to Stuttgart in 1960 as an invited factory labourer through the postwar Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program, Mr. Nurman wandered up to Berlin and became entrepreneurial. Unable to borrow money in Germany (probably because he was not a citizen), he sold some property in Turkey to finance his lunch shop. He was ultimately unable to profit from the doner kebab’s continent-wide popularity, probably because as a non-citizen he couldn’t apply for patent or copyright protection. While he was cagey about his citizenship status, it is almost certain that he, like the other three million Turks and their descendants in Germany, was unable to vote or apply for citizenship until after 1999, because his country considered him “temporary.”

What does it mean when people can live in a city for years, participate fully in its economic life (and tax system), raise a family there and sometimes transform its entire economy, yet are not allowed to participate in its civic life or elect their own representatives?

This isn’t just a 1970s German problem. Today, the United States has 11.1-million well-established residents who have no vote, property rights or ability to send their children to university because they have no pathway to citizenship. Canada is quickly approaching these numbers: This week, I attended a presentation by Chris Brillinger, the head of the city of Toronto’s social development, finance and administration department, who has determined that his city of 2.8-million has 485,000 adult residents who are unable to vote. Because Canada’s temporary-permit immigrants now outnumber its permanent ones, this problem is likely to become worse.

First and foremost, democracy is about making decisions on how one’s tax revenues should be used; these residents have been paying taxes for years but have no representation.

Worse, when countries pretend that their established residents are “temporary,” those people lose the incentive to invest in their communities – to buy houses, to turn small businesses into larger ones, to help improve their neighbourhoods. More alarmingly, they tend to be distant from the health and education systems.

Voting should be granted by residency, not citizenship. (Elections Canada understands this, and rightly denies Canadian citizens the right to vote once they’ve been away five years). New Zealand, Denmark, Israel, Uruguay, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden allow non-resident aliens to vote. In Britain, you can vote as a non-citizen resident if you’re from one of dozens of qualifying EU or Commonwealth countries.

Several Canadian cities, including Toronto, are now asking their provinces permission to give non-citizen residents the vote. This should be uncontroversial and extended nationwide. If we allow these neighbours to change our world, we should give them a voice in changing their government.

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