Saturday, April 30, 2011

Not voting is not an option

My special ballot finally arrived in the mail this week. Never before has voting felt so unsatisfying. Never before have I had to choose from a more lackluster list of candidates.

I voted in the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, in the middle-class Toronto neighbourhood where I grew up and where my parents still live. The strange thing about voting from abroad is that you get to choose the riding you want to vote in. You can either vote in the riding where you last lived or where a spouse or family member currently lives.

You can even choose the dubious option of registering an address of "a person with whom you would live if you were not residing outside of Canada." This seems highly subjective. I mean, I would totally live with my friend Annelle in Vancouver. She has a nice house and a cute cat. The fact that she probably wouldn't want me to move in with her is irrelevant. I could register her address anyway. Which means that those of us living overseas can pretty much vote in any riding we want.

But I decided to keep it simple and cast my ballot in the place where my emotional roots run deepest. I may have lived in Vancouver for seven years but Toronto is home.

Like any good civically minded citizen, I did a little bit of research before I voted. This is what I found out about the five candidates running in Etobicoke-Lakeshore:

Bernard Trottier, Conservative: His key issues are (surprise, surprise) lower taxes and continued economic growth. If he had a slogan, it would be Business as Usual. The environment and social justice are nowhere to be found on his website. He's a senior consulting manager, "working with Canadian and international companies to improve their competitiveness and profitability" (words that deaden the soul). He claims to regularly mix with the immigrant community by attending religious celebrations at Polish and Ukrainian churches. The guy is a shortsighted, out-of-touch relic from the last century. Next!

Michael Erickson, New Democrat: His two big issues are increased funding for public transit and the environment. He has solid community-activist credentials (works as a high school teacher, takes teens on social justice trips to Ghana, served on the LGBT Youth Line Board of Directors, worked with the Metro Network for Social Justice, and volunteered as a poverty and disability activist). Of all the candidates, he is the kind of politician I'd most like to clone. Ottawa needs more compassionate and socially progressive people in power. But he's running in the wrong riding. He doesn't have a hope in hell in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. No one here votes NDP. The first and last time Etobicoke-Lakeshore elected an NDP Member of Parliament was in 1972.

David Corail, Green: He wants increased federal funding for public transit. He wants to build a community centre for young people. But he's too inexperienced. According to his website, he's lived in the area for almost 20 years and is raising his family there. And that seems to be all he has done. Also, his website contains horribly worded and utterly meaningless phrases like, "We must also invest in peace. And we must shockproof our society against unforeseeable events by building in resilience." Huh? He's probably a nice guy but he's not a serious contender.

Janice Murray, Marxist-Leninist: She is "calling on the women, workers and youth in the riding to join her in organizing to empower themselves and elect an anti-war government." Workers of Etobicoke-Lakeshore unite! The only problem is that the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada is supportive of North Korea and batshit crazy Kim Jong-il. Next!

Michael Ignatieff, Liberal: The incumbent. The leader of the Liberal Party. The potential prime minister. Ignatieff is the heavyweight in this riding and he casts a long shadow over all of the other candidates. His intelligence borders on brilliance (he's an award-winning writer and deep thinker who has held senior academic posts at Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard). His background is extraordinarily, intimidatingly impressive (check out his wiki page for all of the eye-popping details). But his campaign has been safe, inoffensive and banal. He talks about the importance of families, jobs, health care and seniors. But there's no substance behind the spin. No fresh ideas. The Liberal Party is just so middle-of-the-road. Not quite left wing. Not quite right wing. I'm sure Ignatieff would be a competent and strong prime minister, just not an inspiring one.

So there you have it. The lackluster list of candidates I had to choose from. Not that my vote is going to make much of a difference. The Liberals consistently win this riding and they win it by a large margin. According to unscientific research conducted by my mom, Ignatieff's lawn signs currently outnumber all others by about 99 to one.

I voted with a sense of resignation, not feeling particularly inspired by any of the Parties. The Liberals are too dated, the Conservatives too out-of-touch, the Greens too amateurish, the NDP too idealistic. I say this in the most non-partisan way possible. I always vote based on the merit of the individual candidates, not based on an allegiance to a particular Party. And that's why I decided to vote for Michael Ignatieff this time around. I don't particularly like the Liberal Party. I do, however, like Michael Ignatieff. Or, rather, I like the gravitas of his experience. He is ready to govern.

Having said that, I think Jack Layton would make the best prime minister of the bunch. Of all the leaders, he is the most appealing. I like his focus on social justice and the environment. I like his sincerity. I like his emphasis on hope. I think he would be the one to best steer Canada back to its compassionate roots, both at home and abroad. Stephen Harper has steered us so far in the opposite direction that we need to take a hard left to bring us back on track.

But I'm not telling you who to vote for. The most important thing is to vote. Just vote! If every single one of us voted, then we'd have a truly democratic government -- one that actually represents the majority of Canadians. Not voting is not an option.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A post in which I compare the Canadian federal election to high-school calculus (or, two things that make me cringe and want to vomit)

The Canadian federal election is about as painful, as uninspired, and as humourless (unless you count the unintentional hilarity of watching wooden politicians try to deliver barn-burner speeches as if said speeches were on par with Martin Luther King-inspired greatness when they're nothing more than pandering, partisan gibberish devoid of any real meaning or substance) as high-school calculus.

It occurred to me to make the connection between the campaign and calculus a couple of weeks ago. It was the first day of the spring semester at Kyoto University and I decided to take a graduate-level class on economics. The class started with a pop quiz. We were asked to answer a bunch of questions. Stuff like "calculate dy/dx where y = f[x, z(x)]" and "solve the following optimization problem where max z = -x squared + 2x."

Two full pages of math problems. I left the whole thing blank. Those of us who failed the quiz were advised to brush up on high-school calculus. But how do you "brush up" on calculus when you never learned it in the first place? I dropped the class immediately.

I'm just not wired for math. I love words. I hate numbers. I love stories. I hate formulas. I love ideas. I hate details. I love improvisation. I hate memorization.

I was thinking about all of this as I made my way out of the classroom when it hit me. I suddenly understood why I was so turned off by the Canadian election and by each of the federal leaders. This campaign is too much like calculus.

A formula calculated to win votes

Just like numbers on a page, the federal leaders' words are cold and calculated. Their messages don't come from the heart. They come from the head. Each message is carefully crafted and controlled. Each message is brought to life not by inspiration but by polls and focus groups. Each message is shaped and massaged by campaign strategists and communications experts. It's a formula calculated to win votes.

The end result is messages devoid of meaning but full of partisanship and pandering. All spin, no substance. Do they think we're idiots? To speak of "family values" is to insult our collective intelligence. What does "family values" mean anyway? I'm pretty sure that Stephen Harper, who voted against gay marriage, has a very different concept of "family values" than Jack Layton, who makes a point of marching in Toronto's Gay Pride Parade every summer.

But it's too easy to just pick on Stephen Harper. All of the leaders are aiming low. They're all trying to woo us with talk of families and health care and jobs and money for seniors. I mean, how can anyone be opposed to any of that? I suppose that's the point. It's banal and safe and inoffensive. It's how you win votes in Canada.

Ordinary Canadians

I can't stand the way they call us "ordinary Canadians" as if we are some sort of homogeneous blob that thinks and acts the same way. When the leaders want to get in touch with us ordinary Canadians, they go to Tim Hortons and hockey rinks and churches and mosques and synagogues. They loosen their ties, undo a button or two, roll up their sleeves, maybe even wear a baseball cap.

It's an image contrived to make us think, "They're just like us!" Except it's an "us" I don't identify with. I'm not religious, I don't watch hockey, and I don't think anyone over the age of 10 should wear a baseball cap unless they are actually playing baseball. You can't generalize about the tastes and habits and hobbies of average Canadians. We're all different. (Although, I will admit to a fondness for the occasional double-double and chocolate dip donut from Tim Hortons).

I'm starting to think our political leaders have a low opinion of us "ordinary Canadians." It seems they think the only thing we care about is protecting our jobs, our high standard of living and our families. Could they be any more insulting? Oh, yes, they could. They bombard us with attack ads that are so amateurish and silly that it feels less like an attack on the other parties and more like an attack on our intelligence. I don't care about how much of a loser you think your opponent is. Drop the ads and spend the time and money on something else, like a well-designed website with detailed information on your policies and your long-term vision for Canada.

This what I would tell the leaders

Be bold. Be brave. Say something you really mean. Say something off-message and unscripted. Say something controversial and original. Say something that touches our hearts. And say it in plain English. Answer journalists' questions honestly and directly. Tell us about your policies. Tell us about your dreams. Stop pandering. We're not stupid.

I'm tired of only hearing about the safe stuff. Let's talk about corporate tax hikes. Let's talk about ending government subsidies to the Alberta oil sands. Let's talk about public transit. Let's talk about bullet trains. Let's talk about a carbon tax. Let's talk about the shameful living conditions on First Nations reserves. Let's talk about compulsory voting legislation. Let's talk about universal daycare. Let's talk about poverty. Let's talk about secularism. Let's talk about art and books and poetry.

I'm not naive. I know that if the federal leaders talk about this stuff their opponents would tear them to pieces. And they would lose credibility and votes. I think this is why they play it so safe during the election campaign. Better to offend as few people as possible in order to get as many seats as possible. Then, once you're in Parliament, you'll have real power to push your real agenda forward.

I just wish it didn't have to be this way. I wish we could elect sincere, honest politicians who don't stick to a script when they talk. Campaigning needs to be less like math and more like life. Stop calculating every move, every word. Make your speeches messy, emotional, moving. Touch our hearts and stir our emotions. Inspire us to follow you. Create a vision for Canada that leaves no one behind and makes our hearts soar with hope and possibility.

But what do I know? I'm just an ordinary Canadian.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stories for Japan

Write for Tohoku is a collection of stories about Japan, with 100% of the proceeds going directly to the Red Cross to help the earthquake and tsunami survivors rebuild their lives.

The project's website describes the book's content and goals in a concise and lovely way.

"The ebook contains stories of Japan from over sixty writers, both Japanese and foreign. We share our memories of adjusting to Japanese culture, experiencing the kindness of strangers, forming close friendships, discovering the country’s natural beauty, challenging ourselves through new experiences, and coming to feel at home in whatever corner of Japan we find ourselves.

We have two goals for this project: to raise funds for disaster relief, and to share with overseas readers the beauty and warmth of Japan."

The book costs $9.99. You can buy it here.