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Quebec Elections: A Bad Joke or the End of Democracy As We Know It?

The last week or so has seen a huge number of McGill and Concordia students unable to register to vote in the upcoming provincial elections, on April 7th. Unfortunately, failing to register means not be able to actually vote on said day. As such, the students I mention in this article are being denied one of their fundamental democratic rights, that to have a say in their own government. In the following paragraphs, I will endeavor to use this contentious issue as a springboard to link into crucial underlying political arguments.

We’ve been able to see a wave of indignation in the past few days. Lauren Schmeltzer, a U1 Science student from Ontario put it this way: “they get to use their discretion and decide based on looking at you (or listening to the language you speak) that you’re not “from here” and don’t intend on living here and as such don’t get to vote”. In response, social media and various McGill publications, such as the Bull & Bear, have been in an uproar over the election rules they claim are “killing democracy one student at a time”. The implications of statements such as these for Quebec’s economy and ethno-political relations has been touched on already by numerous writers. Digging a little bit deeper, what interests me here is what this means for the proclaimed democratization of the world. Let me explain why the ongoing mismanagement of the Quebec elections represents a threat to the political institutions of democracy, legitimacy and credibility we hold so dear.

My problem with this whole thing, while it may make me out to be an unrealistic idealist, is the notion that politicians today may be so hopeless as to purposefully rig the democratic process of elections to get the results they want. While I personally do not agree with the idea of an independent Quebec, I wouldn’t find myself credibly having a problem with it if the road taken to achieve it was undeniably democratic. Yet, some people are getting the right to vote, their right to signal their consent, to be participatory citizens, while others are not. Where have our ideals gone? Which tide has washed away our demands for consensual governance?

A anonymous Quebecois source told me that, while students do pay municipal taxes, they don’t automatically pay taxes to the provincial/federal governments through their lease. And in truth, many will claim that those unable to register to vote hence, as non-taxpayers, do not have the right to in the first place. Although this ignores the sales tax that all pay, an argument could be indeed generally made that the fundamental practice of government is to collect taxes and then spend them so as to provide public services.

But then, why specifically do we need a democracy? Any type of government is capable of collecting and spending. We want a choice though in how our money is spent; we want democratic governance. However, all need to realize that we can’t just have the things we like and discard the things we don’t like. And in today’s democracies dictate that getting a say in how the government spends tax dollars means allowing other democratic citizens. The rules of the games can’t just be changed when leaders and those ascribing to their ideals feel that it is convenient.

Others, focusing on the legal aspect of the issue, will stress that voters have to respect the law. I completely ascribe to that line of thinking. However, how is one to follow what the law says when the law does not speak? Much like the absence of a prohibition on Viagra Online nuclear weapons in international law fails to make them unlawful, the absence of a definition of the adjective “domiciled” in Quebec electoral law fails to institute a legal procedure to be followed when granting the right to vote.

Ameya Pendse is a U2 in Arts who created his own business here in Montreal and hence pays more than just sales taxes. Nevertheless, he was denied his right to vote when he went to register at the office on Maisonneuve. However, after calling the Elections Office, he was actually informed he’d always been registered. But just a few hours later, employees of the Office knocked on his door and congratulated him on having just registered. The lack of continuity and logic that this embodies is just aberrant. If at least there was a specific framework laying out explicitly who gets to vote and who doesn’t, current protests would not be so vocal. However, the inherent arbitrariness of the process ends up undermining the legitimacy of all political actors involved.

Some will say that most students trying to register to vote are Anglophones anyways and as such should not even be involved in Quebec politics. And indeed, we can hear this in Matthew Satterthwaite’s recording of himself trying to register to vote in both English and French. While he was welcomed with open arms as a Francophone, English only got him barely veiled disdain.

Moving on from the elections themselves and staying on the subject of Quebec identity generally, let me delve into my last point. Let’s go back to 1648 for a second: the Treaty of Westphalia and the formation of the modern state system. Logically, states form along national lines: a common identity is after all the best ground on which to lay the foundations for a political institution. And so we get the nation-state. This concept of the nation is shaped from and for the contemporary times.

Yet, is this still appropriate, relevant today? We saw the secession of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011. There are secessionist tendencies in Scotland, Quebec, Catalonia, and Tibet as well as other states. While not secession in the democratic sense of the word, Crimea recently left Ukraine and joined Russia. Furthermore, today’s world displays incredible levels of interdependency, whether economic, political, or even legal as international law continues to expand in importance. How credible is, for instance, Quebec’s claim to be able to sustainably secede and carve its own piece of whatever is left of the international pie?

I think it is not. I would like to see Quebec try and use their existing infrastructure at a higher level than provincial government. I would like to see Quebec try and apply for UN, NAFTA, or NATO membership. I think it would struggle. Or am I in the wrong? For me, and many other students, this election has brought many issues generally tied into Quebec politics to the forefront of the debate. Not all of us know what to think. Extrapolating world political trends from what we’ve seen this weekend, here are some (maybe extreme) questions to ponder.

Today, polling booths around Montreal will witness the absence of many out-of-province students who were denied their right to vote. Whether because of tweaks to the definition of “domiciled,” the use of language as a criterion for Quebec identity, or general mismanagement of the system,  the Quebec Election system mishandled the registration process.  So remember, when you check on the results tonight: they are not representative. The constituency has not voted. It has not given its consent.

– Margot Charles


Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Marie Berne

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