We are well into the political season, gearing up to vote in a short number of days. By now, we are exhausted and probably disgusted by the negative ads and vacuous campaign rhetoric. No matter the collective cynicism we hold now for politics and politicians, please remember to vote. I can’t, and each election cycle that passes me by reminds me of how much I value the opportunity.
My first opportunity to vote was in the 1995 Quebec Referendum. I had just turned 18 that summer. Obviously, I was on the “No” side, the side that was not in favor of Quebec separating. I say obviously for a few reasons. The most important was that my mother’s family is from the same small Quebec town as the then-Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. My great-grandmother taught him English. My grandfather employed some of his younger sibling in his store. He was a hometown hero for our family, and thus there was never any question as to which way I would vote when the time came.
I was at the Unity Rally in downtown Montreal with tens of thousands of other Canadians who had come to show Quebec that they were loved. Three days later, on October 30, we voted. We watched all night as the numbers fluctuated between “Yes” and “No” being in the lead. In the end, Quebec remained a part of Canada by the slimmest of margins, a couple of thousand votes. Voter turnout was over 90%. Our votes, my vote, had clearly made a difference.
I was naïve then. The Unity Rally was a huge point of contention, with major corporations basically giving plane, train, and bus tickets away so people would attend. A large number of ballots in certain ridings were deemed spoiled, ridings where the “No” side was in the lead. Jean Chretien was implicated in what became known as the Sponsorship Scandal, directing huge amounts of Federal money to his supporters and inner-circle members, in the name of unity. Some in the rest of Canada were fed up with Quebec monopolizing federal politics and opposition parties from the Western provinces began to gain real strength; in 1997, the Reform Party became the Official Opposition in Parliament.
The real eye-opening experience for me, however, came a year later when I left to attend a French university in Quebec. Most of my classmates were “sovereignists,” or in favor of Quebec’s independence from Canada. Politics is as much about vilifying the opposing side, and while we were all burnt out from the previous year’s battle and avoided politics as much as possible, it was important that we met, became friends, and earned each other’s respect. I’ll admit that I had never met and gotten to know a “real” separatist, while many of them told me that I was the first English person they had ever really known. Gradually, the certainty of my “No” vote wasn’t as easy as it had once been.
None of this shook my belief in democracy. Nor did living in California whose state government has lurched to a standstill, unable to pass a budget. I had the privilege of working at an HBCU when President Obama was elected and saw the same feeling of pride and wonder on these young students’ faces, many of whom had voted for the first time. I saw a little of myself in them. It broke my heart to hear so many of them discouraged and disillusioned less than a year after the historic event.
The cynicism and “dirty” politics we witness today is not a reason to give up on democracy and voting, but a reason to invest more fully in the process. I wish I had known more than the simple rhetoric of separatist politics, or been able to see the larger implications of the debate. As a professor, I believe it is part of my job to teach critical thinking, civility, and tolerance to my students, to try and inoculate them against a debilitating feeling of futility. My idealism was shattered; in its place, I rebuilt something much more meaningful and valuable.
I just can’t do anything about it. Go out and vote.