I’ve had mixed feelings about this election from day one. On the one hand, I’ve seen more posts about Canadian politics on my social media feeds in the last couple months than I’ve seen in my entire life. I’ve seen mentions of the controversial police state…ahem I mean anti-terrorism act, Bill C-51, as well as Bill C-24, the new immigration law that makes it harder to qualify for citizenship and easier to take it away, posts about the failure of our government to call an inquiry into the shocking numbers of murdered and missing Indigenous women, articles about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the terrifying implications of giving new powers to multinational corporations to override democracy, posts decrying the Islamophobia that is being whipped up by right-wing parties throughout Europe and North America, and a few that essentially amount to: “Stephen Harper is an unrelatable douchebag and he’s running this country into the ground.” Honestly though, what I’m most afraid of is not that the Conservatives will be re-elected (although that is admittedly a scary prospect), but that the moment they’re kicked out of office, this whole conversation will grind to a halt, and people will go back to living their ordinary lives. I’m afraid that all these calls for people to get out and vote will ultimately be limited to just that. I’m afraid that the notion we’ve been fed that voting is the only legitimate form of political participation available to the masses is going to have precisely the effect it was intended to have, siphoning off all that critical energy and desire for “real change,” and pumping it into a rigged system designed to have only one outcome: politicians from neoliberal party X continue cutting essential public services and polluting our environment in order to feed the insatiable machine that is global capitalism.
Part of the problem is that I don’t see the Liberals or the New Democratic Party as significant alternatives to the Conservatives. All three parties are pro-capitalist and nationalist, all three support the expansion of the tar sands, and all three are running on promises that they are unlikely to keep once they step into office, thanks to corporate power and lobbying, and the pressures of maintaining control during periods of capitalist crisis. As far as I’m concerned, the difference between the three major parties, like the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States, is based on talking points and little else. The Liberals, who are poised to play their traditional role as the “lesser of two evils,” have a pretty bad track-record when it comes to fulfilling campaign promises and defending public services, and the party voted in favour of both C-51 and the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. Meanwhile the NDP have been drifting further and further to the right as they come closer to winning their first federal election. If even parties like Greece’s Syriza, which positioned themselves significantly further to the left than either the Liberals or the NDP, failed to live up to their promise to reverse austerity measures, what hope is there that two parties that are openly in favour of “business-friendly” policies will challenge the directives of business owners and investors, who are increasingly desperate to keep their profit margins up at any cost?
This on its own is frustrating enough, but my uneasiness with the hubbub around the current election runs deeper than that. For one, the emphasis on voting, and the shaming of people who don’t, implicitly ignores and devalues the crucial role played by social movements and collective struggles in applying the necessary pressure behind almost every progressive reform that ever actually been implemented, including women’s suffrage, civil rights reforms, shorter work weeks, the right to collective bargaining, environmental regulations and workplace safety standards, unemployment insurance and parental leave, state-sponsored health care and child care, etc. In doing so, it alienates a large portion of the population, who don’t vote for one reason or another, but who often contribute in much more significant ways to enacting social change. This group disproportionately includes Indigenous peoples, recent immigrants, single parents, and poor folks who are already disenfranchised and may be (understandably) disillusioned by the current system that provides them little or no room for direct participation. As the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde put it, “When you don’t feel part of a system, when you don’t feel part of a society, you don’t feel you want to go out and vote. And you’re not going to be concerned about voting and politics when you’re looking for a place to live, when you’re trying to put food on the table.”
Behind this statement is the pernicious effect of liberal ideology, which limits politics and democracy to a specific set of “respectable” people, statements, and actions, providing a comforting (if fragile) illusion of personal freedom and choice for some (the privileged), while repressing anything that is too material, too direct, too real, too threatening to the status quo. By creating a simple equivalence between voting and democracy, we’re steered away from a broader definition of politics that goes beyond the electoral system to incorporate all areas where power is felt and exercised, from classrooms to workplaces to prisons, to comment sections and public squares. It’s this broader sense of politics that we need to tap into if we’re going to put a stop to austerity, climate change, the rise of police states, and imperialism, all of which pose mortal threats to millions if not billions of people, not just in Canada, but around the globe.
We can’t afford to put our hopes in politicians who have repeatedly failed to address fundamental questions of power and wealth. We can’t afford to limit ourselves to symbolic gestures or pat ourselves on the back for a job well done just because we’ve managed not to elect the worst possible government. If real change is what we want, then real action is required, and real solidarity. While I don’t know what that action will look like, I do know that none of us can do it alone. So please, please, please, please, DON’T STOP rallying your friends and family to take action just because the election is over and voting is off the table. DO stand alongside those who are already on the front lines, battling against corporate giants and repressive governments, including our own. DO hold on to the belief that you have the power to change the world around you. DO learn as much as you can from the history of oppression and collective struggle (but don’t forget to look after yourself as well—self-care is important!). DO view this election, not as the finish line, but the starting point for mobilization. There’s a lot riding on it.