Why your vote counts

By Cheryl Thomas, October 2015

Halting the decay of our democracy isn’t difficult. It starts with valuing your vote. UPDATED

On September 30, 2015 Cheryl Thomas announced she had resigned her candidacy, stating:

"I want to take this moment to apologize unreservedly for past comments on social media that have come to light. When looking back at them, I understand that they are offensive and have no place in our political discourse. I want to apologize particularly to the Jewish and Muslim communities for these insensitive statements. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have utmost respect for all religions and communities and those past comments do not truly reflect who I am. As someone who has worked in the Middle East and interacted with the various communities, I know firsthand that my comments were inappropriate.

I understand that my past comments have become a distraction from the real issues of this campaign. For that reason, I will immediately cease my campaign. This includes closing my campaign office and ending all my political activities.

The last thing I want to do is distract from the incredible work Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada are undertaking. This election is too important and Canadians deserve better with a new government."

Cheryl Thomas

 

Below is the text of Cheryl Thomas' comment piece that appears in the October 2015 edition of Focus:

Let me tell you a story about my passion for our democracy. For eight years, I lived in Iran, teaching in and managing an MBA program while I consulted for public and private groups. I was there during the 2009 (s)election that “re-elected” Ahmadinejad as president.

In the weeks prior, many people were excited at the prospect for even incremental reform. Every candidate was vetted and approved by the Guardian Council of senior Ayatollahs yet, presidential candidate Seyyed Mir-Hossein Mousavi was campaigning for democratic reform and greater openness. The “Green Movement” was born. Supporters wore green scarves, green ribbons, anything to show that they backed the change movement. Leadership debates were held and follow-up discussions occurred in homes, coffee houses, classrooms, parks, taxis—everywhere Iranians gathered.

The night before the election, excited people were hitting the streets and my housemate exclaimed, “I can’t stay in!” so I responded “Let’s go!” We found ourselves on one of Tehran’s main freeways, chockablock with honking cars moving at parade speed. Rich, poor, young, old; energized throngs filled the streets. 

Two memories stick with me. The first was of an elderly couple driving an old Iranian-made Paykan. The woman in full chador, her spouse sporting the scruffy beard many Iranian men wear to at least outwardly show support for the Revolution. A small Mousavi sign was visible in the window and the old gentleman’s fingers flashed surreptitious “V” signs. A youth on roller blades leaned into the car and said “Thank you, Grandfather, for being here.” The old man replied, “It is my obligation.”

My second memory is of a very large garbage truck, draped with an enormous Mousavi banner and driven by a man enthusiastically honking his VERY LOUD horn. Police surveyed the scene, but I heard some on mobile phones saying, “There are thousands of cars out, but there is no problem; they are all for Mousavi.” They waved at the crowds and some joined the festivities.

People lined up for hours the next day to vote, many for the first time since the Islamic Republic was born three decades earlier. They believed participating would finally count. People organized Election Day parties and the air was electric. Ballots ran out at polling stations and voting times were extended, even as rumours began circulating that Mousavi scrutineers were being excluded. But people were still hopeful because everyone they knew had voted for Mousavi. 

Forty-five minutes after the polls closed, an overwhelming majority was announced for Ahmadinejad. The insultingly quick victory proclamation, in a nation where nearly 40 million ballots had to be tabulated by hand, only confirmed to people that the regime would not allow democracy to take hold.

During my meetings the next day, I was confronted with the heartbreaking sight of dejected colleagues. Back outside, I reflected how people don’t typically smile on the streets of Tehran, but during the campaign, they had. Now the optimism was gone and everyone looked dreary and depressed again. 

A wave of anger quickly grew and I was moved to a safe compound so I wasn’t in the streets as protests accelerated. Day one saw me tune into the only available English TV, a channel known for spouting government propaganda. On this occasion, the coverage was different. The anchor was speaking to a field reporter on his cell phone who had lost his cameraman in the crush but had climbed a pole for a better view. His animated account described thousands, if not millions of people walking silently, holding signs that said, “Where is my vote?” Suddenly, the channel died, returning about 30 minutes later, with a different announcer who declared, “There are only a few hundred people on the streets and they all support Ahmadinejad.”

The protests continued for a week. Every day I would work until mid-afternoon before returning to the compound where, from up high, I could survey the streets. I saw Basiji, the undercover militia charged with protecting the Islamic Republic, slash at people with knives, strike them with batons and toss explosives in garbage cans. The violence escalated, people started fighting back. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, spoke out the next Friday at prayers saying, “If you go to the streets again, your blood is on your own hands!” I turned to the people I was with and said, “He just started a revolution and I’d be foolish to stay here!”

I moved up my departure to the next day, arriving at the airport late due to the difficulties in getting around the protests at Azadi (Freedom) Square, but the plane was waiting because so many passengers were delayed. The flight attendant echoed my impatience to depart, exclaiming “We drew straws to see who had to fly into Iran today!” The pilots clearly shared that sentiment because we were airborne before the overhead luggage was fully secured, or the safety announcements completed. There was a collective sigh of relief as we levelled off and passengers began recounting stories of the mayhem they’d seen. 

The murder of Neda occurred the day I left. You may remember her last moments, recorded and shared with a shocked world. The protests were brutally suppressed and many were killed. The years have lessened the impact for Canadians, but the events remain seared in my memory.  

It is through the lens of my Iranian experience that I challenge every reader of this article to ask themselves if they think Canadian democracy has grown more robust. What I learned, seeing Iranians sacrifice their lives attempting to gain even a sliver of the freedom that we enjoy, confirmed to me once again how much public participation matters. That’s why I’ve entered politics and why I believe we all have a role to play in building a healthy democratic process; one where every citizen is empowered to take part in political decision-making and contribute to our public institutions; one where dissenting voices are not just tolerated, but encouraged. 

Lately, we’ve seen audits directed at non-profits that are out of step with government policy, while targeted cuts prevent public and charitable organizations from espousing contrary viewpoints. We understand through the degradation of Question Period, and the abuse of the committee system, that our parliamentary processes are under attack. Canadians hear government critics vilified daily by the very officials elected to represent them, and citizens from all walks of life recount how public access to information is increasingly limited. Perhaps most flagrant of all is the relentless hostility we see directed at scientists producing research that doesn’t support the government’s political agenda.

These are only a few examples, but halting this decay isn’t difficult; everyone can contribute, and even small deeds are significant. For me, it’s seeking to make a difference through volunteerism and political action. For others it may be as simple as speaking up for marginalized groups, donating time or money to promote worthy causes, or advocating for change online or in your neighbourhood. 

That said, nothing shapes democracy like voting! Voting connects citizens to their political process and demands accountability from our leaders. Remember, we are their bosses; they are not ours. I suspect it’s no coincidence that the increasing erosion of our democratic institutions mirrors our declining voter turnout. 

Let’s turn it around! Election day is your opportunity to swap poor performers for achievers and I urge you to support our precious democracy by letting politicians know that you’re watching, you care, and that you will hold them accountable.

Cheryl Thomas is the Liberal Party of Canada candidate for Victoria and a community activist whose leadership and teamwork development expertise has empowered thousands in Canada, Latin America and the Middle East.