The right to vote must not be taken lightly

By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

The provincial election is two weeks away and there are some people in our community who still do not know who the candidates are in their riding. This is one of the reasons that even though African Canadians have been voting in elections at least since 1837 we are still not a force to be reckoned with in 2011. Information from the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia states: “Although Black men in Canada received the right to vote on March 24, 1837, it did not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that they were equally involved or fully engaged in the electoral process.”

However, having the right to vote in this country was not always a “right”. At one point it was a privilege granted only to rich White men. The privilege became a right after a series of struggle by various disenfranchised groups. Therefore the right to vote in elections and have a hand in choosing who will govern us for the next four years is not to be taken lightly. For centuries our ancestors did not have that opportunity and some of us now squander this hard-fought-for right. It did not come easily especially for our brothers and sisters in the USA and in South Africa.

To vote in any election, municipal, provincial and federal, you have to be a Canadian citizen at least 18 years old. There are many of our young people who were born in this country and are citizens by birth yet they are apathetic about voting. It is sometimes disheartening to observe the apathy of some members of our community during elections at whatever level of government is being elected. Even some of us who do exercise our right to vote seem to vote without educating ourselves about the candidates who are running for election. Recent conversations have had me shaking my head if not in despair, at least on one occasion in “shock and awe”. I walked away wondering if I had just left a parallel dimension because I was told by a brethren that his reason for voting Conservative since becoming a Canadian citizen is the fact that when he immigrated to Canada in 1984 Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister and the Conservatives were in power.

This poor misguided soul is convinced that Mulroney is personally responsible for his success in immigrating to Canada. It made no difference when I pointed out that he had never met Mulroney, the man would have no interest in meeting him even if he knew of his existence and that he needed to investigate the platform of the Conservative candidate and all the other candidates in his riding before making a decision on who to support in the election on October 6.

I was mostly surprised by this stance because when I immigrated to Canada many Caribbean people supported the Liberals because they were convinced that (former Prime Minister) Pierre Elliot Trudeau had been responsible for their success in immigrating to Canada. The fact that it was the previous Conservative government led by John Diefenbaker (1957-1963) who, through the passing of the Canadian Bill of Rights in August 1960, opened the door to African, Asian and Caribbean immigration was lost on most immigrants.

Canadian immigration policy had long discriminated against racialized people until Diefenbaker’s Canadian Bill of Rights reduced barriers to most types of immigration on racial and ethnic grounds, making the skills of immigrants and family reunification the major criteria for admission. Canada then began accepting large numbers of African, Asian and Caribbean immigrants. People forgot or did not know that the previous Liberal governments led by William Lyon Mackenzie King (1935-1948) and Louis St. Laurent (1948-1957) were just as White supremacist as the Conservative and Liberal governments before them stretching as far back as John A. McDonald in 1867. There was not much to choose between these governments as far as having the interest of racialized Canadians at heart. Somehow Trudeau seemed to capture the imagination of the new immigrants arriving after he was elected. Similar to the descendants of enslaved Africans who for years sang praises to England’s monarch Victoria in the mistaken idea that she was responsible for the abolition of slavery on August 1, 1834.

Some political parties have begun their campaign with mud slinging instead of addressing the issues. When or if the candidates arrive at your door seeking your vote ask them about their stand/platform on issues that affect you, your family and your community. The municipal government is bent on eliminating subsidized day care spaces and suggestions have been made that the provincial government should take up the slack. If the candidate in your riding is elected will she or he support giving money to keep those subsidies for lower income families? Ask about their stand on raising the minimum wage and on employment equity.

While you may have habitually voted for a particular political party because you thought that party had served the interest of your community at some point in the past, do some investigation and get the facts. Then ask, like Janet Jackson in her popular 1986 song, “What have you done for me lately?” Depending on their answers make a decision on which candidate you will support on October 6.

The numbers of African immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean joining the African Canadians who can trace their ancestry back several generations swelled our numbers but the increased numbers do not seem to make much difference in our influence on the politics of Canada. Maybe knowing our history in this great white north might make a difference in this lackadaisical attitude to voting. We did not just arrive here, although that history is not documented as much as it should be and that might be one of the reasons many of us feel we have no history and do not belong.

In a recent conversation with African Canadian history activist and advocate, Ms Wilma Morrison of Niagara, whose ancestors arrived in Canada many generations ago, about the first recognized African Canadian elected to political office in Canada (Burr Lockhart Plato) we acknowledged that it is unfortunate that there are no books written about this man. It was not until 1998 that Plato was honoured by the City government of Niagara Falls even though he was elected to the Council of the Village of Niagara Falls in 1886 and held the position until he retired in 1901.

Whether you are a recent naturalized citizen, a descendant of Africans who were enslaved in this country since the 1600s, a descendant of Africans who fled slavery in the United States during the 18th or 19th century and arrived here seeking freedom or a descendant of Africans who arrived here from the continent or the Caribbean after Diefenbaker’s Canadian Bill of Rights in August 1960, if you are over 18 years old, get out and vote on October 6 or earlier during the advance polls September 21-30.

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