Why Canadians matter to the world

As I have watched the new Canadian Cabinet, and Prime Minister, being sworn in and gotten to know more about them, I have felt immense pride in these appointments – and what they say to the world about Canada. Today, I wanted to explain why that is.

Over the past two decades, I have been honoured to serve as an international election observer for Canada in elections held in many post-conflict countries – Bosnia, South Africa, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Sudan, and Libya. I was one of two Canadians who took part in the 1996 international observation of the first post-war Bosnian election; one of three Canadians who took part in the Carter Center’s observation of the first post-Gaddafi Libyan elections; one of a few Canadians who observed voter registration for the referendum on whether South Sudan would become a separate country; a member of Canada’s large delegation to observe the first multi-racial South African election; and one of many Canadians who have participated in OSCE observation of elections in Georgia, Serbia, and Ukraine.

Two particular stories sprang to mind as I was thinking about writing this post, and I wanted to share them, because to me they represent clearly why Canada matters to the world.

The first story is from my time in Bosnia in 1996. I spent two months, alone in the field (now observers have partners, but we didn’t then). I was posted in Trebinje, in southern Bosnia. For two months, I wore a money belt around my waist; it contained the equivalent of $10,000 Canadian in Deutschemarks, which I used to pay for all of my expenses – accommodation, food, and staff. My task was to observe the election preparation process, and the election itself, and to do that, I travelled around the region with my interpreter and driver, watching rallies, talking to parties and communities and the local people who were running the elections. As it got closer to election day, I was responsible for about 20 short-term observers who came from a range of countries, including Canada.

It was a challenging assignment. The area had been extensively mined during the conflict, and visiting the places where voting would be held involved travelling many remote roads that hadn’t yet been inspected for mines. Community infrastructure had been extensively damaged by the conflict, and many bridges had been destroyed;. Peoples’ lives had been extensively disrupted by the years of conflict; and resources in the community were scarce, and stretched thin. Ethnic conflict had forced many people to flee their communities, and while they were able to vote elsewhere, many wanted to return home to vote, despite threats of violence against them. Poverty was rampant, although a few people had become rich as a result of the conflict.

The area for which I was responsible involved travel through Srebrenica and Gorazde, where there had been terrible ‘ethnic cleansing”, as it was called. The conflict and division that had caused the war remained alive in people’s’ minds, even if the actual fighting had ceased after the Dayton Accord was signed. Trebinje was now in the Republika Srpska, the largely Serb populated entity that, with the largely Bosniak populated Federation, made up the post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Many Serb officials, aware that the world knew about atrocities perpetuated by some Serbs, were defensive and aggrieved. They felt the world did not understand that they had felt threatened and needed to defend themselves. I remember two in particular that I met one day as we were travelling around the region. When I explained my role as an observer, they were belligerent.

I should understand why the conflict had happened, they said, because I was from Canada, and in Canada, there was deep division between English and French Canadians. (This was a time when Quebeckers were considering whether their province should separate from Canada). The barely-disguised implication was that as an English-speaking Canadian faced with the threat that Quebec might separate, I should understand why Serbs and Bosniaks could not live together.

I thought for a moment. Then I replied that yes, in Canada, there were different understandings of what our country was and what it meant. Language and culture did create differences between English and French Canadians. But in Canada, despite our differences, we expressed and resolved them peacefully, without war.

(Some years later, while working in Serbia for an American-funded community development project, I faced a similar sort of question about the NATO bombing of Serbia. Travelling around Western Serbia, I heard stories from those who had been bombed, and I saw the damage done to roads and buildings and heard the remembered fear of those who had to seek shelter. Taking a deep breath first, I replied that the world had felt helpless in the face of Milosevic’s actions in Kosovo. The fear that he would order ethnic cleansing, and the inability to get him to stop using any diplomatic means, left the world with no choice but to take strong action, despite (a phrase my Serbian friends hated with a passion) any ‘collateral damage’.)

The second story is from Ukraine, in 2012. My partner Oleg and I had spent two months observing the election in Crimea as part of a bilateral Canadian observation mission known as Mission Canada. This was part of the massive contribution Canada has made in observing elections in Ukraine since independence in 1991, both in sending observers to multilateral OSCE ODIHR missions through Canadem, and sending bilateral missions which included large contingents of Ukrainian-speaking Canadians. (It is, by the way, a record of which Canadians should be very proud.)

Just before we were scheduled to head home, Oleg and I were asked if we would stay on as a kind of ‘flying team’ to follow events in the counting process, which was proving to be problematic in some areas. Oleg and I then spent several weeks observing events at a number of District Election Commissions (18 people who carry out the same sort of work as our Returning Officers and Assistant Returning Officers) where the processing of the PEC protocols that showed the result of voting by precinct was going very slowly.

One of those places was Kaniv, several hours’ drive from Kyiv, the capital. Counting had entirely stopped some days after the election, when more than half of the PEC results had been processed, as many DEC members absented themselves. A group of rather thuggish looking people who seemed to know one another well had replaced those who were absent. One candidate had clearly won the election; his observers had copies of the officially-stamped protocols from all of the Precinct Election Commissions, showing the voting results. But – equally clearly – another candidate, a wealthy businessman, had not given up. Some citizens we spoke with told us it was widely believed he had ‘bought’ most members of the DEC.

Outside the bus terminal, where the DEC premises were located, crowds of people stood in the parking lot. We spoke with some of them during the ensuing days and nights. They said they were ordinary people who worked during the day but stood there at night to protect their votes. Humbly, they said that the educated people – doctors, teachers and lawyers – were not there because they feared for their jobs if they took part. They were pleased that local observers and we, as international observers, were watching the counting closely, as they themselves could not be present inside the DEC.

Oleg and I spent days there, often 21 hours a day. (Increasingly, so did elected MPs from the opposition party concerned.) It took us a while to sort out why the counting was going so slowly. We watched, and occasionally we asked questions. We learned, finally, that the DEC had had the second copies of all the PEC protocols all along – but somehow, the first copies of protocols from precincts where the opposition candidate had won had either not been entered into the database (the computer room being the one place observers were not permitted to enter) or had not been received. Finally, one night about 2 a.m., one PEC representative appeared with a protocol giving the party result in her area (Ukrainians vote both for parties and for individual candidates). When the DEC chair asked for the protocol giving the candidates’ results, she replied that the DEC had already received it and sent it to the computer room for data entry.

After sending the second copy of that PEC protocol upstairs for data entry, the DEC chair packed in the proceedings for the night – without sending up the second copies of the other PEC results that had not yet been data-entered and sent to the Central Election Commission. At 3 in the morning, Oleg and I headed to our local hotel for much-needed sleep before the DEC proceedings were scheduled to resume again at 8 am. But when that time rolled around, the DEC was empty and unguarded (except by one policeman) and the computer room was empty. The results on the CEC computer, we were told, showed that the wealthy businessman had defeated the opposition candidate – even though we knew that the DEC had not yet processed all the PEC returns.

Oleg and I spent much of the day at the DEC. We looked at, and photographed, every piece of paper left behind, and left it all in a tidy pile on the DEC table. We observed television crews arriving as the news spread of the vote ‘result’. As we had dinner in a local restaurant, we heard news reports that the CEC had decided that it was impossible to determine the election results in Kaniv. Although the ballots had been stored in the DEC since they were brought there by the PECs (and watched over for more than a week by a religious icon someone had placed in front of the door),  the CEC apparently would not have them recounted to determine the result. (Subsequently, a by-election was held, one of five such by-elections held about a year later.)

Oleg and I decided to go back to Kyiv, but we didn’t feel we could leave without saying goodbye to the local observers who, like us, had been watching the proceedings for extremely long days. So we drove back to the bus station, and said goodbye to them. As we emerged, members of the crowd which still stood in front of the bus station came over and asked us: “Would this happen in Canada?”

This was a tough question to answer with respect and honesty. Long term observers are careful about what we say, because the only comment about elections that counts is the overall mission report and the Head of Mission is the only official spokesperson for the mission. (LTOs observe a particular area, and we see only a small part of what happens in the whole country during an election.) After having seen these people, many of them elderly, stand outside the bus station night and day for more than a week, we felt a need to respond as honestly as we could; we did not want to sound patronizing or glib in our reply.

I took a deep breath and said that Canada was firmly committed to the belief that Ukrainians were entitled to elect their leaders freely and fairly, and that was why our country had funded the observation mission which had made it possible for Oleg and I to be there to watch the process for the past five days. We shook hands, and then we got in the car. Oleg said he was pleased I had been able to reply to the question – he was too choked up to speak.

This is only a small part of a much larger story, of course. I have tried to sketch the context in which that question was asked, in order to show something important about how the world sees Canada, and about the importance of our participation in world affairs as citizens of the world. As in Bosnia in 1996, I saw clearly that people – even in post-conflict situations – knew a lot about Canada, and that what we did and said mattered.

Canadians have participated in international election observation missions for more than two decades because we believe in the fundamental importance of people being able to freely choose their leaders in fair electoral processes. Canada funds our participation in such missions for the same reason. It is hard work, and Canada should be immensely proud of the thousands of Canadians who have observed elections around the world on a short or long-term basis over the years, for a range of agencies. (We are not ‘election tourists’, as I was once called in Bosnia in 1996).

Only the official reports of election observation missions are definitive. And so I have rarely written about my experiences as an observer, as I know that what I have observed is only a small part of a much bigger picture and represents my perception of events, often mediated by translation from another language. The official conclusions about the two elections I mentioned can be found in those official reports.

I told these two stories because I wanted to explain why it matters to me that, as a Canadian citizen, I can feel proud of my government, and feel that my government represents me. It matters to me that, even when we have deep divisions or disagreements about policy or actions, we resolve them by dialogue and honest discussion that engages as deeply with differences as with commonalities, and arrives at a solution all of us can live with. It matters that we do our best to include all voices in the governance conversation. It matters to me that money or influence does not limit who takes part in that conversation.

It matters to me that my government is inclusive, engaging as many people as possible in the process of governing. It matters to me that my government looks like my country. It matters to me that all voices count in our democracy. It matters to me that we engage honestly and collaboratively in our own governance challenges, whatever they may be, and that we model for the world a way of honouring our individual selves while coming together to govern the country in a way that honours all of us. It matters to me – and to people in the countries where we observe elections – that we “walk our talk”.

I came to international election observation from a decade of experience in running elections in one of Canada’s largest and most remote electoral districts. Over the years, hundreds of people (many of them women) worked locally in running those elections; I was proud to see them grow in capacity and knowledge. Many went on to become great resources to their communities, running local and band elections.

I would love to see this local Canadian capacity-building experience replicated as part of our international election observation participation. As so many people have said over the years, election day is only a part of the democratic process. Reforming the governance of countries is a long-term endeavour; helping to build the local capacity to govern, beyond observing the elections themselves, is a valuable contribution we could – as part of the international community – make in so many parts of the world.

PS. A final comment. The stories I have told in this post are only a very small part of the elections they concern; they represent what I saw, and what I thought it meant, at a particular time and place. Official reports of the international or bilateral observation of these elections are the authoritative statements on the elections. What I saw may not reflect what happened anywhere else in the country. But it was necessary to tell a small part of their stories to make the point that I wanted to make in this post.