Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sara's Sunday Rant: An American Abroad

Sara Robinson

One of our favorite Canadian blogs is We Move To Canada, the continuing saga of an American family's experience as they emigrate to the True North Strong and Free. (And a necessary first stop for those of you murmuring to yourselves, "That's it. This is crazy. I'm moving to Canada. No, I really mean it this time….")

Yesterday, WMTC's L-Girl weighed in on the upcoming U.S. elections with a sentiment I've heard from many Americans who've lived here for a while, and have let Uncle Sam drop off their Christmas card list:

For the first time since turning 18, I'm not voting in a US election. I'll probably never vote in one again.

I feel that, having chosen to leave the country, I have forfeited my right to have any say in how it is governed. Of course I know that I still have a legal right because I am still an American citizen, but I feel I have no moral or ethical right.

The second, related reason is that I view the entire US election system as utterly, totally broken and bankrupt. I don't want anything to do with such a corrupt and undemocratic system.

Some months ago another move-to-Canada blogger urged me to tell wmtc readers that the deadline to apply for absentee ballots was approaching. I did not, because I'm not comfortable asking people to do something I myself am not doing. And people who have managed to emigrate to Canada can figure out how to vote if they want to. They don't need my help.

In two more years, when we can apply for Canadian citizenship, we'll begin to decide whether or not to give up our US citizenship altogether. Everyone makes such a fuss over the US passport. While we were in the application process, another American also applying said to me (by email), "Why would you give up your US passport? Half the world would give anything to have one!!"

I have no doubt that if you're Somali or Afghan or whatever, a US passport would make your life much easier. But for my purposes, a Canadian passport will do just fine. I will be proud to carry one.

The only reason to hold onto US citizenship, and thus my US passport, would be for easy entry into the US. But we'll burn that bridge when we come to it - or not.

I realize that many Americans who moved to Canada for political reasons are voting in this election. I hope I don't need to say that I respect their decisions as their own. For my part, I feel I already voted - with my feet.

In the fall of 2004, I spent every weekend -- and quite a few weekdays -- working with BC Democrats Abroad, which was then chest-deep in an all-out effort to find and register the estimated 250,000 US expats thought to be living in the province. The registration process was often complicated to the point of daunting, especially for people who had been gone from the U.S. for several decades. But through months of hard work, the registration teams added tens of thousands of new voters -- almost all of them Democrat -- to voter rolls in every state in the Union.

During those weeks, I heard the above speech in every key and pitch. And this was the line that always bothered me most: "I feel that, having chosen to leave the country, I have forfeited my right to have any say in how it is governed."

Here's what I told them then (and would tell L-Girl now):

"Look. There are only about 200 million American voters who get to make this decision -- and over six billion people on this planet who will have to live with the results. This isn't about a moral or ethical "right" to say what goes on in America. It's about your responsibility to everyone who has to live with the choices made by the American government. You and I may have only tiny voices -- but wherever we live, we're still obligated to raise them on behalf of those billions of other people who don't get a say at all."

That's why I vote. And blog. And drag other ex-pats over the border to spend their Saturdays walking precincts and putting up yard signs in in Our Swing State Next Door. And it's why, as soon as I get this posted, I'll be making a few phone calls to voters in the U.S. this afternoon, asking them to help create the changes we want to see.

Legal and moral issues aside, there's also a cultural piece of this. The hard fact is that, no matter where I live, I could no more stop being American than I could stop being female. I was born American to American parents, spent 45 years there, gave birth to American children (one on the Fourth of July, even), went to American universities, lived and breathed American history and American politics. My story, and that of my family, is an American story. Repudiating that would be like repudiating my own mother.

America is knitted into my identity -- my blood and bones -- in a way Canada can't ever be, even if I'm blessed to spend another 45 years here. I can learn the words to O Canada, order tea instead of coffee, sew a maple leaf onto my backpack, and stuff a bit of the Canadian rising into my neutral California accent; but none of that will ever change the fact that I'll always be a first-generation landed immigrant, a stranger from Somewhere Else. Canadians are so fast to spot the unruly edge of a ruffled star-spangled slip peeking out under the hem of my warm, sleek, and tweedy new Canadian clothes that I've given up even making an effort to keep it all tucked in. I don’t doubt it'll be hanging out there for the rest of my days.

And, in fairness, this is probably true for my children as well. Anti-Americanism is the last acceptable prejudice in Canada, as every American mother and child I know can tell you first-hand. Our kids are reminded of this daily, enduring schoolyard and classroom taunts that would be firmly smacked down by teachers if they were directed toward their Persian, Indian, or Korean classmates. Sometimes, our kids let it roll off their backs. Sometimes, they feel the brunt of knowing that they, too, will never really belong here. But at least, over the years, they will still have memory and history on their side in a way that I never will.

Being American is a daily source of pride and pain, wonder and frustration, intense love and equally devastating disappointment. It is not something I could just hand over along with my voting rights and my passport. It is also, clearly, a dream I'm not yet ready to stop dreaming.

Which is not to say that some rude awakening might not yet lie ahead. But even if it comes, I'll have the small comfort of knowing I did everything I could to prevent it. I may have left -- but I never stopped fighting.

Some links:
If you're thinking about moving north yourself, We Move To Canada has some excellent links to immigration and cultural sites that will help you work through your options.

It's too late for overseas voters to register for the 2006 elections. But if you live abroad and don't want to get left out next time, go to the Overseas Vote Foundation website and get yourself signed on.

No matter where you live, you can make a difference this weekend. has identified Democratic voters in key districts who may need encouragement to get to the polls on Tuesday. If you've got some time to make a few calls, their easy-to-use site will get you up and calling in minutes.

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