Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Good Citizen, Bad Citizen

On May 20, 1980, I was in Geneva Park near Orillia, Ontario, building multi-layered bird houses. These were destined to be placed around the park, in hopes of attracting bug-eating Purple Martins. Meanwhile, back in my hometown Montreal, Good Citizens flocked to the polling stations to decide the future fate of the Province of Quebec in Canada.  That day, my fellow Quebeckers set out to save Canada from disintegration.  I set out to save Geneva Park from mosquitoes.

I was not alone.  Every day, my six fellow Katimavikers and I walked a short, wooded path from our cabins to the Geneva Park workshop.  There, we outfitted the park and its conference centre with birdhouses and beds.  For all this work, we were paid one dollar a day; with the promise of a thousand dollars if we finished the whole nine months of the Katimavik program.  Katimavik was set up, among other reasons, to send groups of young people into communities to do volunteer work.  My group had been together since the previous September, working in three different Canadian locations at whatever job was handed to us.  All this volunteerism might qualify me as a Good Citizen… were it not for my glaring absence from the Province of Quebec that day in May.

When the Quebec government set the date for a provincial referendum on Quebec sovereignty, they made no accommodation for Quebeckers living outside the province.  If a Quebecker wanted to vote in the referendum, she had to go home.   The Katimavik organization sent a notice around to all its Quebec participants, telling us that Katimavik would pay our way home for the referendum but they wouldn’t pay our way back to our current job site.  If we chose to stay home (in other words, leave the program one month early), they would still pay us our thousand dollars.

I could have gone home and voted without consequence. But I was too lazy to leave my cozy little cabin on the shores of Lake Couchiching, and too cheap to buy a bus ticket back.

Fortunately, and despite their claims to the contrary, irresponsible youth are not the only beings in the universe.  Back in Montreal, the mother of one of my friends had become a Canadian citizen specifically so that she could vote in the referendum.  Until then, she had been a landed immigrant, unqualified to vote.  She cared enough about Canada to take the trouble to make sure she could weigh in on its affairs.  The Canadian-born adult was the Bad Citizen; the landed immigrant adult was the Good Citizen.

The outcome of that referendum kept Quebec safely in Canada; a fairly comfortable 60/40 in favour of “No” (to pursuing the idea of secession from Canada).  Fifteen years later, it was time to ask the question again; but by then I was no longer a resident of Quebec.  Canadians outside of Quebec could not vote in the referendum… but they could still speak!  Tens of thousands of them travelled to Montreal to rally in favour of keeping Quebec in Canada. 

I didn’t join them; for the possibly slightly more acceptable reason that I was deep into the care of three small children. But my Good Citizen parents, long since unfettered and still living in Montreal, attended that Unity Rally in Place du Canada.  A giant Canadian flag spent the day travelling around the square, and Mom says that when it passed over their heads it seemed to go on forever.  Three days later the referendum was held, and the outcome was an exquisitely uncomfortable 49.42/50.58 in favour of “No” (to pursuing the idea of secession from Canada).  When it’s that close, decimals matter.