International Papers

Canadians Vote—or Not

… But does anybody notice?

If you aren’t Canadian, you might be excused for not knowing that America’s northern neighbors are choosing a new government today. Understandably, Canada’s English-language media have been busy dissecting the campaign and assessing the possible outcomes, but they’ve also been lamenting—in typical Canadian fashion—the fact that nobody outside their own country seems to have noticed.

“The world doesn’t care about Canada and our little election,” a comedian wrote in the Globe and Mail. “Oh, yes, some anonymous Pentagon pigeons in the U.S. State Department, apparently, were worried about a minority government on June 29. Heck, someone should have called me. I’d be happy to tell them everyone should be worried about a minority government, which is about as effective as a red traffic light in Montreal, or a ski hill in Saskatchewan or an election promise in Ontario.”

But speaking among themselves, and to their own populace, Canadian papers have plenty to say about the election, the choices, and, yes, the prospect—quite likely, it seems—of a minority government.

The two leading candidates—incumbent Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin and Conservative challenger Stephen Harper—wrapped up five weeks of intensive campaigning on Sunday. Martin made a seven-stop, coast-to-coast whirlwind campaign finale that included a stop in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “We’re not going to take a single riding for granted,” the Winnipeg Sun quoted him as saying in his 20-minute campaign stop. Harper limited his final day of campaigning to the western province of Alberta, where the Globe and Mail quoted him telling a rally, “We’re going to bring this part of the country into power in Ottawa.”

A few weeks ago, Martin didn’t seem very worried by Harper’s challenge, but that changed in the final days of the race. “The campaign of the once seemingly unbeatable Liberals that was to be centered on Mr. Martin’s promise to fix Canadian health care ended with a warning that Conservative Leader Stephen Harper would threaten the Charter of Rights, hurt the environment and have Canada join in U.S. military adventures,” the Globe and Mail reported.

A National Post editorial termed the election “the most competitive in 16 years” and noted that issues “such as health care, the military, taxes, the environment, the gun registry and our relations with the United States hang in the balance.” The National Post, like many other Canadian papers, focused much of its effort on urging its readers to take part in the election process. “More important than the question of which party one supports is the fact that each citizen ought to support someone.”

Voter apathy is a crucial issue in Canada this week, with commentators lamenting the low turnout in the last national election, in 2000. A young columnist for the Toronto Sun told the story of her own political awakening—at age 6—and noted, “I’ve never missed an election.” Others in her demographic, however, aren’t so dedicated to the democratic ritual. In the 2000 federal election, she wrote, “only 22% of eligible voters aged 18-24 voted, a slide down from 38% in the 1993 election. Apathy and cynicism are contributing factors, but one study for Elections Canada said those things were no greater for young people than they were for older ones. One difference was that the younger set had a lower sense of civic responsibility.”

She pointed to a new program that requires all 10th-graders in the province of Ontario to take a civics class as an important initiative aimed at battling apathy, but concluded, “The schools try their best. But like a lot of things, civic responsibility begins at home.”

And judging by some of the debate under way in other Canadian newspaper columns, the home environment may not be any more supportive of the importance of civic responsibility than it is in the United States. In an editorial, the Toronto Star lamented the sharp drop in voter turnout over the past 30 years—from 80 percent to 60 percent today—but cautioned against adopting a mandatory voting law. It noted that Australia, which has had such a law for 80 years, enjoys a 95 percent voter turnout in national elections and that Australians tend to be more engaged politically than their Canadian counterparts. Nonetheless, the paper rejected such a law as undemocratic and called voting “a right, not an obligation. As wrong as we believe it to be, citizens should be allowed to take no interest in politics.”