Nearly as far as I can remember back, I had an interest in politics. As a teenager, I rarely shied away from heated debates on public or ethical topics at home or at school. When I reached the age of maturity, I considered it my citizen duty to keep up to date with major developments, contribute to discussions on political matters after engaging with at least two sides and make sure no travel plans would get into the way of attending the polls, whenever I was called on to cast my vote. This was true as long as I lived in Germany, my home country, which I left for Canada in 2009. I arrived with a work permit and gladly became a Permanent Resident (PR) a few years later. Thanks to this respectable status, my job is safe, I can enjoy family and friendships, and I have many personal rights protected by a functional legal system. Indeed, a lot to be grateful for! But it still pains me that I cannot vote. The upcoming provincial election on June 2, 2022 is a reminder of this limitation.
While this exclusion makes me feel uneasy, I knew what to expect when I immigrated. I accepted my status with a deep understanding of the privileges that come with citizenship in a democratic society. Much of my research as a historian has been on the legal and political advantages of citizens in ancient Greece and Rome. One of the lessons I learned from those past societies is that democracy does not mean ‘the rule of all, but rather ‘the rule of the people’, with ‘people’ being defined as the ‘political body’. This definition has remained the same over the millennia, regardless of the variations we find in the laws of modern states that regulate access to citizenship and citizen rights.
PRs in Canada come from the most diverse backgrounds. For many, the freedom we enjoy here is so welcome that nagging about any limitation would appear to be a lack of gratitude. The most frequent response to my lamentation has been: why not apply for citizenship? This is indeed an easy process in Canada I’ve been contemplating for a long time. But I have chosen not to forfeit my German citizenship, which is part of my identity. Germany (typically) requires its emigrants to live for twenty years in a foreign country before they can request permission to maintain their German nationality while applying for another citizenship.
I have not taken my condition stoically. I could not help but talk about it. I often started conversations with neighbours and students: “I am not a citizen and I think I should withhold from commenting on Canadian politics, but perhaps you can help me understand …” In part, these questions were honest, because I really did (and still do) not understand some peculiarities: a monarch, who has no say; a democracy with a first-past-the-post system where up to two thirds of the votes are just dumped; a secular system that has a publicly funded Catholic School Board…Admittedly, even with the limited knowledge I had, I could not hold back from becoming part of the political conversation, (ever less) indirectly advocating themes that mattered to me, such as a more sustainable approach to the environment or better funding for health care and education. I thus effectively formed part of the political discourse—long before I began writing for The Community Edition last year. It is worthwhile acknowledging that only free, secular, and democratic states grant such freedom to its foreign residents.
But the story does not yet end here. During the last provincial election campaign, I was upset about the signs popping up in the front yards of my neighbourhood: I felt they were all from the wrong party. This is when I broke another self-imposed ‘taboo’ and ordered a garden sign of the party that seemed closest to my own views. It came with the kind request to donate. To my big surprise, the response to my small gift was the offer of a complementary party membership. My PR status was no hindrance, and I did not have to subscribe to any principles but was asked instead to communicate my own political priorities that the party should advocate.
Last year, during the federal elections, I was invited to join the local party for sign-waving events. There was once again that hesitation in me, since I was still wondering whether such an active role might be appropriate for a PR. I overcame my doubts after meeting the local candidate: a caring, creative, and energetic PhD candidate, the daughter of immigrants from Latin America. She was about half my age, and I looked up to her, thinking: “I wish I would have had her courage when I had her age”.
A few weeks ago, when the new local candidate for the upcoming provincial elections was announced, I once more did something I had never thought of before: I wrote her an email and invited her for a tea. The one hour became three. Another edifying encounter with another powerful woman, this time from Tanzania. As a geographer, she is an expert in many fields, yet she impressed me even more through her listening skills. We identified many shared views irrespective of our different cultural backgrounds. A few days later, I felt truly honoured when she asked me to support her campaign by doing something atypical for an electoral campaign, but so close to my heart: to write a blogpost on democracy and respect. My political journey, so it would seem, has just begun: there is no status restriction and no age limit, whether upper or lower.
Democracy is not just a constitution, it is an open process that requires patience, dedication and creativity. Citizenship is not just a legal status, but it is something that an inclusive democracy invites people to embrace and fill with meaning. Although there are different conditions for different statuses, Canada allows everyone to have a political voice. So, please, make your voices heard at the upcoming elections, to help improve what you think needs improvement, or to preserve what you think is worthwhile preserving.
Altay Coskun is a professor in Classical Studies at the University of Waterloo. He is interested in constitutional and legal matters, interstate and intercultural relations, imperial policy and propaganda, as well as the status of migrants and foreigners. Every third Wednesday, he hosts the Seleukid Lecture Series with guest speakers.