Last night I watched the leader’s debate for the upcoming Canadian election. Well, I say watched, but what I really mean is I caught the last 20 minutes after spending an hour talking to a friend. Did I know the debate was on? Of course I knew; I had many reminders throughout the day, from CBC.ca to texts from friends. I’m a politics major who spent 4 weeks drilling her class of immigrants and new Canadians on government; of all people I should be interested. Why didn’t I watch?
To be honest, I feel a little apathetic towards this whole election. I’ve probably felt this way for several years, actually. The Canadian governments of the past 10 years seem to be getting more pathetic all the time, and minority governing is so frustrating! We’re bound to be spending our $300 billion for something that’s only going to happen again in another 24 months.
But wait a minute! Aren’t I the one who has been stressing that we have a civic duty to vote and a responsibility not to take our rights for granted since I knew what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was? Sometimes I need a wake-up call as much as the rest of my apathetic generation.
That wake-up call has come, on many occasions, from my amazingly resilient and unintentionally inspiring students.
One day last fall, during the first month of my new job, I innocently gave my students a news article to read about a couple of Canadian university students who had been expelled for cheating. The evidence for expulsion was a facebook group the students had created to share study material in order to better prepare for their tests. The students were suing the school on the grounds that they had a right to freedom of speech, and according to the article, it looked as if their case was strong enough to win.
While I had expected the article to be an interesting starting point for discussion, I was surprised and unprepared for the twist it soon took. According to many of my students, the young men had no business questioning the authority of academia; if they were told they were wrong, they should accept it and keep quiet. When I questioned them further as to why they wouldn’t challenge the decision when they only stood to benefit, they explained that in their countries, questioning authority is the fastest way to ruin your future. People in positions of power will not only deny you, they will likely thwart you at every turn, simply out of spite.
It’s probably relevant to add, at this point, that my students are from around the world. However the ones who followed this line of thought came from authoritarian regimes, including China, Algeria, and Iraq. One man, an Algerian, was actually a syndicated journalist. Others were educated professionals in other fields. Needless to say, things got even more interesting as the discussion moved into the topic of free speech.
“You realize,” I said to them, “that in Canada you have a right to freedom of speech. If you think you are being wronged, even if it comes from an authority figure, you have the right to speak out against that person without fear for your livelihood or future prospects.”
I was surrounded by blank stares.
“Don’t you know these are fundamental rights? In the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?”
More blank stares. And then I realized: these people had no idea what fundamental rights even meant, let alone how their existence would affect their daily lives. Heart and mind racing, I quickly photocopied the preamble and first two sections of the Charter for my class during the break, and handed them out once class resumed.
Together we read over the short passage, and I tried my best to explain that they were holding the ‘trump cards’ of Canadian law. “These rights and freedoms,” I said, “are what make Canada so special. We fought hard for them; the Charter was only established in 1982. This is the reason my father immigrated to Canada.”
“We know,” said an outspoken Muslim woman. “This is why I came to Canada, too. Canada is the best country in the world, you should be very proud of that. But you have to understand: where I come from, democracy and freedom are only ideas to most people. They sound nice, but people don’t think they are real. We came for freedom, but we are still learning how to live with it.”
More recently, I had a conversation with a student, an Iraqi woman who has been living in Canada for over a decade. As part of a lesson I’d had the students use the Vote Compass tool on CBC, which many found informative even if they can’t yet vote. Since this woman has her citizenship, I asked her if she would be voting in the upcoming election.
“No,” she said, “I don’t vote. I would rather pray about it.”
Although I cringed inwardly, I wasn’t really surprised, knowing that this woman was particularly devout. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself from saying, “Well, that’s not really how democracy works. By all means pray for guidance, but if you want to make a difference you need to cast a ballot.”
“I know, but I don’t want the responsibility of choosing a leader. What if the person I pick does a bad job? Then I am to blame for making a bad choice.”
As she spoke, I realized how naïve I was for not understanding: this woman came from Iraq, a country that had allowed Saddam Hussein’s rise to power through so-called ‘democracy.’ Her decision not to participate in the electoral process had nothing to do with misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the system, and everything to do with personal precedents. I found myself, once again, closing my mouth and nodding my respect to her decision; after all, we must all act based on a combination of knowledge and experience, and who am I to question hers?
These are just a few of the times that I have been stunned to humbled silence by the profound differences between the life that I’ve always known and the lives that my students knew before arriving in this country. As a socially and politically aware young person, I never thought I took democracy for granted. But as a born-and-raised Canadian, I didn’t realize that I had essentially become a trust fund kid, born after the sweat equity had been put in by my forefathers and handed down to me as an inheritance. I have benefited from and come to expect democracy, and would only truly recognize its value if it were taken away and I had to work to get it back. These conversations with my students remind me that while I should indeed be proud of the country that raised me with high expectations, it is up to me and the work that I do to maintain the value of my inheritance, and not, for lack of appreciation, to fritter it away.