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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

Just because I was going on a pilgrimage in Spain, I wasn’t going to let that keep me from exercising my democratic right. I have never failed at any opportunity to vote – I have long felt we are obliged to vote (no excuses!) and that we should support the best candidate on the list, the party label is a secondary consideration.

In the fall of 2007, I knew I’d be walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route to the possible tomb of Saint James. Previously, I had walked the Camino from the traditional starting point of Saint Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees, and found that four weeks’ walking was just enough to unwind. That year, though, I thought it might be interesting to leave from another of the traditional starting points for a seven-week journey. I’d start in Montserrat in the hills above Barcelona, walk over the plains of Catalonia into Aragon, then over the Sierra de Loarre to the high altitude Camino Aragones, then join the more popular Camino Francese route at the town of Puente la Reina, and from there to Santiago. What was wrong with crossing Spain from one end to the other? It sounded great on paper. I had remembered the Camino as being gently rolling valleys and quite forgot about the hilly bits. The effort would be much more than I had expected (never mind my determination to vote in the provincial election held in my absence).

Back in those days, voting by proxy under the Ontario Elections Act was fairly simple, and so I asked a friend and neighbour if she would be my proxy. None of the candidates had been formally announced when I left Canada and it was not clear who would be running nor how they looked once on the hustings – but Wendy’s judgment was solid gold. I told her that she should use my proxy for whom she deemed to be the best candidate.

The day before my flight to Barcelona, I went down to the returning office to pick up the forms and stuffed them into my backpack. For some reason, the forms could only be signed a week or 10 days after the writ had been dropped. I started my trek and would go online at various libraries to check on the news from Ontario.

In the hilly medieval cathedral town of Huesca I discovered the election had been called, and after two days’ slogging uphill, I walked into the mountain village of Loarre. But it was only when I unpacked the proxy documents that I realized that I would need help filling them out. Apparently, I had to have the document witnessed – anybody, either an elector in Ontario or a local official wherever I might be, could do this. I started to look around Loarre for an official.

I crossed the plaza to the Ajuntamiento, or town hall. Finding the front office empty, I walked up to the second floor. There I found an official (who resembled a middle-aged and overweight Antonio Banderas) and I did my best to explain to the official my unusual situation.

A mixture of Castilian and French seemed to get the message through (a Spanish friend of mine says that it probably sounded as if I were speaking Aragonese, the local dialect, very badly). This official told me to return at 5 p.m., as the office was going to reopen then. (I should point out that most Spanish offices close for the siesta.)

So I, too, had my siesta and returned to the office at 5. The official I’d met earlier was at the entrance and asked me to follow him to one of the offices upstairs. There I found about a dozen people, the alcalde – a much more elegant title than mayor – two councillors, an officer of the famed and once-dreaded Civil Guard and several more official-looking people. A table at the side had been set up with bottles of cava, mineral water and fruit juice, along with a tray of snacks. I recall little triangles of manchego cheese and some crackers with boquerones, the unsalted marinated anchovies that cheer every Spanish bar with their presence.

The official spoke for about three to four minutes in Spanish about how everyone would be witnessing a signature so that this Canadian pilgrim could vote in his country’s election (correcting him on Canadian federalism would have been unnecessary and invidious at this point). The alcalde would preside and sign in the presence of the two councillors, one a socialist and the other of the Partido Popular, for balance he said (this elicited some laughter), and the Civil Guard was there to keep order, as it was their role at election time (much more laughter, as a difficult past was on the mind of all). The guard was a tall and striking dark blonde and armed with an automatic pistol, so I nodded in acknowledgment for one is always polite to those with sidearms.

The alcalde motioned me to the table, where I signed the proxy authority. He signed as the witness and the seal, or sello, of the town was applied. The two councillors signed to witness his signature and applied their party sellos. The civic guard then opened her sello holster and applied her sello to signify that all had been done in order, without disruption. There was applause. As I looked about to better understand what was going on, the alcalde began to speak in clunky but comprehensible French (because that’s what all Canadians speak, right?). He said they were grateful that they had been privileged to assist me in voting for, as everybody present knew, it was not long ago that they lived in a country where the vote meant nothing. Ruling ourselves was not to be taken for granted.

I now had to offer a formal reply and I was grateful that there was no one who would criticize my use of the conditional and the imperfect in an opening clause. I expressed my thanks for the alcalde’s sentiments. There were few links between Canada and Spain, but we had built another one that day.

There came more applause and the cava was broken out. The first official I met confided to me that it had been a quiet week and he thanked me for the excuse to get the office together for a party.

God alone knows what the Elections Ontario staff thought of the well-stamped, well-sealed document that arrived back in Ottawa. Wendy enjoyed their consternation and then voted on my behalf doing, as always, the right thing.

Austin Cooke lives in Ottawa.

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