Elections and Expats: Watching your country change 8000 km’s away

It was a warm, orange morning out here in Japan, when I set off for work and the poles were closing in Eastern Canada. The leaves were finally beginning to turn lighter shades, and the sun’s light was slanted across the pavement more horizontally than it had ever been before at 7 AM. It was the first day that properly felt like Autumn out here, and as I rode along, change was in the air. “Changeling/Transmission 1” by DJ Shadow was playing, giving it all a spaced-out feel, like I wasn’t really here, was really split across the world in three different places. It was then that I knew we’d have a new Prime Minister by the end of the day; change was coming to Canada.

My friends and enemies, family and teachers, were all making their last minute runs to the poling stations as I prepared for another day at work in Japan, a day later than everyone back home. I passed over the bridge, went by the factories and elementary schools, slowly kicking my brain into gear as the pedals sped up.

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And probably right around the time the votes started being counted in Atlantic Canada, right when the crash of red began to splatter across the country, a car crashed against my side as it took a sudden turn onto the freeway. And after it had all been sorted—the lady apologizing profusely and checking to make sure I was okay (after, naturally, she made sure her car was okay first), and me just saying ‘Daijobu, daijobu’ so we could both go on our merry way–and I had made it to school, red had already sunk the eastern seaboard, CBC was already calling it a win. The big win.

Just like that car whacking me against the pavement, it’s certainly an incredible roundabout. Voter turnout climbed to 70%, the highest numbers since 1993, with the highest demographic growth being in Aboriginal communities (and also leading to record-setting 10 Indigenous MP’s). Trudeau is far from who I’d consider the ideal Prime Minister for 2015—he really isn’t very experienced, and frankly I haven’t seen a ton of conviction in the things he’s said so far—but with 183 other MP’s, he’s got a pretty fantastic team behind him, with some amazing politicians like Point Grey’s Joyce Murray, who I’d gotten a chance to meet. So I watched Canada transform through a computer screen, approximately 7600 kilometres away from the country’s most western point.

But even from Japan, Kitty-chan welcomes you Mr Trudeau!
But even from Japan, Kitty-chan welcomes you Mr Trudeau!

It’s a strange feeling, having your country’s future be decided while you’re not in it. Especially considering this was the first Canadian election I truly got involved with: sure, I voted in 2011, but this one I really cared about. In the space of those four years, I grew up as I watched Harper’s majority government transform the country, taking away all the things I was only beginning to cherish as I grew up: intellectual freedom, environmental sustainability, Indigenous self-determination—all this (and so much more) became a subject of attack for Harper.

Canada was turning into a very scary place by the start of 2015, and this is before he unveiled the truly terrifying Bill C-51 and 24. Bill C-24 declared that all Canadians with two citizenships would find they would become “second-class Canadian citizens,” a ridiculous notion which allows the government the power to “arbitrarily revoke” that citizen’s citizenship. My Dad, with his Irish nationality, became a so-called ‘second-tier citizen’ through these measures. Meanwhile, the notorious Bill C-51 allowed Harper to restrict the citizen’s Habeas Corpus for an allotted number of days if that person was determined to be a ‘terrorist.’ It was later revealed that this could theoretically apply to environmental activists, and so my involvement protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline poised to run through Burnaby technically put me at risk as well. Now, even though my Dad and I are on the far end of the blast-radius of these bombs-of-a-bills, it’s the first time I’ve ever felt unsafe in Canada.

It’s scary to lose trust in your government. I left Canada this July ashamed at what it had become, and I was angry and bitter, less so at Harper (I mean, c’mon, he’s clearly good at whatever he set out to do), and much more so at the Canadian voting demographic—angry at everyone who voted a Conservative into parliament, that they care so much about the economy that they’re willing to sacrifice every other aspect of Canadian culture, but maybe even angrier at people my age, everyone who spouted profanities towards Harper but then refused to vote, saying that the system was too broken to do anything or that “all the candidates are mops anyway.” Really? We all let Canada become what it is today.

And so, I decided to fight for it, in my own little way. I joined UBC’s oil divestment club and campaigned in our area, asking people if climate change impacted their vote (spoiler alert: it didn’t). I went to various meetings brainstorming how to get the youth more motivated, and how to prevent the left from vote splitting. I skipped class to watch Justin Trudeau give a talk at UBC, and was so enraged at how weak he was I said I would refuse to vote Liberal under all circumstances (that did change, but so did he, over the course of the year). I’m definitely not saying I played a big role in any sphere of the game, but in the first half of 2015, for the first time in my life, I became an active citizen of Canada. I probably realized how much I really loved the place when I saw how much I was willing to fight for it.

One of the many environmental protest I ended up going to last summer
One of the many environmental protest I ended up going to last summer

And of course I came to this realization on the doorstep of Japan. There was a moment, in the height of the divestment campaign in March, where a part of me hoped I wouldn’t get into the JET Programme so that I could continue to play an increasingly active role as the election rolled around. I realized this was crazy since, not only would this only keep me occupied until October, but I’d be feeling particularly bad about not being in Japan if Harper ended up winning. Get me outta Canada, right? So the election bubble grew in my periphery, with me taking little snippets of the polls when I got the chance in a quiet moment, about as patriotic as some random British guy who’s suddenly taken way too much of an interest in Canada. Other than that awful week when Harper used banning the Niqab as a last-ditch political weapon, which immediately reminded me why I hated him so deeply, the election didn’t have the resonance—the suspense, the drama—it would in Canada.

The election day itself, when the votes came in and Trudeau scored himself a shocking majority, highlights why it never could. I watched the election unfold between classes that morning on my buggy ancient work computer, which crashed every time the National Post elections map updated itself. When the Liberal seats finally climbed past 170, I bit my lip and got just a little bit emotional. But around me the ringing of telephones and the drawl of that Tottori-dialect Japanese continued, so I kept it in. When I told my coworkers about Canada’s big day, they gave a reassuring smile and went back to work. It’s not like I expected anything different, but it’s a far cry from the parties my friends and campaign buddies would be going to as a I prepared for the next round of rambunctious teenagers (most of whom hate learning English with a passion). And this is the choice I’ve made.

Staring out my school, thinking of home
Staring out my school, thinking of home

And this is what it means to be an expat. Japan, as a vastly more important country on the world stage, has much bigger things to worry about than who’s leading the leash of America’s neighbor (things like, oh I dunno, Abe’s move to re-create Japan’s military?).

How many years does it take in a foreign country before you stop looking back at daily poles, how many years before you start caring about the country that’s not so foreign to you anymore and is starting to become your home—really care, get so enraged you crumple up the newspaper? Could something Abe did ever give me such an immediate gut reaction? Is that even possible for a white guy in a country where citizenship is so distinctly drawn along racial lines? Really, what does it mean to be a Canadian outside of Canada? Isn’t my Dad, the Brit, much more of a Canadian than I am by this point, since he’s not taking every chance he can to get out of the country?

These aren’t the things I think about on a daily basis: in case you haven’t noticed from the last eight posts, Japan’s a rather distracting country. But a day when the rest of the world is suddenly watching the country—your country, yes, your country—I start to notice. Notice that I cheer alone, celebrate alone, and then have a silent moment of gratitude that I can feel comfortable going back there when the Japan adventure finally ends. And I realize how much of a bubble I’m really in over here.

Wait, you'll take me back, won'cha Canada? I STILL LOVE YOU
Wait, you’ll take me back, won’cha Canada? I STILL LOVE YOU
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