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Mark MacKinnon

Mark MacKinnon

Mark MacKinnon

I am Canadian – but now not as much as I used to be Add to ...

On Monday, I lost my right to vote in the next federal election. So did some 1.4 million other Canadians, many of whom moved abroad to pursue their careers.

They are aid workers, teachers, business people, entertainers. More than a few names on Canada’s Walk of Fame were just deprived of part of their Canadian-ness because they followed their careers across a border.

Section Three of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons.” It follows that those of us without a right to vote feel a little less like citizens now.

It’s hard to understand why the government and now the Ontario Court of Appeal felt it necessary to again disenfranchise those Canadians who happen to live beyond the country’s borders. (The law barring expats who have lived abroad for more than five years from voting was initially introduced in 1993, then softened so that the clock reset after each visit home. Now – after a brief period during which the ban was ruled unconstitutional by the Ontario Superior Court – the tougher law is back.)

Is Wayne Gretzky, a primary resident of Southern California, still allowed to vote in Canada? It seems unlikely. What about Las Vegas-based Céline Dion, to pick another cultural icon and Companion of the Order of Canada?

The new restrictions also affect thousands of lesser-known Canadians who went abroad to follow wherever their careers lead next, often working in difficult places and situations as a result. If you’re a top academic in your field, or want to get more involved in a big international issue like climate change, sometimes the path leads outside Canada. That doesn’t mean those who take it feel any less invested in Canada.

Most expats are also interested in, and affected by, government policies. Many pay Canadian taxes: collectively, about $6-billion in each year, while using few of the government services they’re helping to pay for.

We also have parents, grandparents, nephews and nieces who live in Canada, and who are affected by the government policies on health care, pensions and child care. Most of us come home every year (I type this from my parents’ home in the suburbs of Ottawa) and believe we will one day return to the country. I, for one, carry only a Canadian passport.

And yet a surprising number of Canadians are fine with denying us a say in how our home country is governed. The editorial board of this newspaper, among others, has agreed with the Court of Appeal’s logic that allowing Canadian expats to vote “would allow them to participate in making laws that affect Canadian residents on a daily basis, but have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives.”

Given that our electoral system is designed in such a way that voters in, for instance, Prince Edward Island send representatives to the House of Commons, who then vote on their behalf on issues as distant and unrelated to daily life in P.E.I. as fisheries policy in the Fraser River, it seems an odd complaint.

That such thinking finds support at so many levels reflects the island mentality that has swept much of Canada during the 13 years I’ve been posted abroad, all spent working for The Globe and Mail. It’s as if the business of government begins and ends with taxation and public spending. Foreign policy, as usual, is an accessory, an afterthought.

Unlike the vast majority of the electorate, expatriate Canadians are directly (and sometimes dangerously) affected by the foreign policies of the government of the day. In the last six months alone, I’ve been sent to Northern Iraq to report on the Canadian special forces deployed there, as well as to eastern Ukraine, to trace the delivery of Canadian government aid to the Ukrainian army battling pro-Russian separatists.

When the government’s policies have you wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, it feels a lot like decisions made in the House of Commons have “practical consequence” for your daily life.

Similarly, the Canadians who feel most passionate about our government’s unquestioning support for Israel are ones living and working in the Middle East, because they’re the ones who have to explain that to the Israelis and the Arabs they encounter. A Canadian business person living in Eastern Europe likely has strong opinions about the government’s policies toward Russia and Ukraine, because those policies very directly affect their livelihood.

At worst, expats are single-issue voters because of our focus on foreign policy and attached issues of international trade. But does that make us any different from the many Canadians who vote solely on how they perceive the environmental platforms of the various parties? Or those who cast their ballots for the party they believe will deliver the most business-friendly policies?

Of course, the truth is that many long-term expats didn’t know they were entitled to vote until now – barely 6,000 voted in the 2011 election – and most probably wouldn’t have bothered to go through the rigmarole of registering ahead of time and getting a special ballot sent to the nearest Canadian diplomatic mission.

And, yes, the right to vote, like all those enunciated in the Charter, is “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

But can “reasonable limits” be applied to something as fundamental as the right to help choose the government of the country of which you are a citizen?

Ontario Superior Court Justice Michael Penny, when he struck down part of the Canada Elections Act last May, found it untenable to allow mass murderers to vote from their prison cells while denying the same right to Canadians living abroad. Now that absurdity is again the law.

As a witty contact of mine, himself a long-time expat, advised when I complained on social media about losing my right to vote: “If you get jailed overseas and extradited to a Canadian prison, you’ll have a chance to vote again.”

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Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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