You can’t hide from politics
“Ingen kommer undan politiken”, is one of the few refrains from the early 80’s that stuck with me. “No one ever gets away from politics”, Marie Bergman sang to repetitive ska-rhythms, grinding on her message that even if you don’t give a damn, politics will affect you. Whether you work in a factory or play music for a living, politics will affect you.
I believed it when I heard Marie Bergman sing all those years ago, and I believe it now, many years later. But the conditions around my own political participation have changed to a point that my natural position would have been that of a side commentator at best. For most of the past 20 years I’ve been residing in countries where I’ve been fully integrated linguistically, economically and socially, but where I in reality had no political rights. This has led to an ongoing process of testing the limits to of my denizenship, feeling excluded and refusing to bow to the forces of exclusion.
Not too many months ago we had an election of a new mayor here in Toronto. For the first time in years there was a real sense of choosing between clear alternatives, of public participation. For months I’d been following the mayoral race, becoming more and more worried about the possible outcome. I had participated in debates on the Internet, among friends and at public meetings; I was deeply involved in the issues in the campaign, such as environmental policies and public transit, but on the morning of election day I felt a long way from home: While everyone (well, not everyone, about 50 %) went out to the ballots, I didn’t have the right to vote.
I had participated thus far, but on the decisive day, I was left out.
There are certainly worse things in life than not being able to vote, there are people living with great uncertainty, that are stateless, and enjoy none of the protection or social benefits I enjoy.
Nevertheless, my lack of political rights leaves me with strange predicaments:
- If I have an issue locally and I want it to reach the attention of my local member of the city council, do I even have the moral right to contact him/her when I’m just a denizen?
- And if I do, will s/he listen to me or just ignore me since I’m not actually represented by them, as a non-citizen?
- If non-citizens are denied political rights, does it mean that it is not legitimate of me as a denizen to even use other channels for voicing my opinions, such as petitions, demonstrations and all other direct political action?
- Am I as a non-citizen supposed to just “grin and bear it”, or leave the country if I don’t like the way things are done here?
The discussion about extending voting rights to resident non-citizens across Europe, has been on since the late 70s. Locally in Toronto it’s taken hold in the past 10 years. And, boy, has it stirred some emotion.
One of the city council members, Michael Walker, put forward a simple argument “Just become a citizen”.
That would have been a solution even for me, only my native country of citizenship doesn’t allow me to keep my passport if I obtain citizenship somewhere else. And it’s a big step to take to renounce of your birthright, just ask anyone who’s done just that.
There are other’s who’ve had the same predicament I do. In the summer of 2006, a non-citizen resident of the city of Mississauga – a suburb of Toronto, Canada – made a formal request to city council to allow him and other non-citizen residents the right to participate on official municipal boards and committees – a right not currently extended to non-citizen residents. The resident in question was German citizen who, despite having lived nearly 30 years of his life in Canada, has not obtained Canadian citizenship for reasons having to do with German citizenship laws (double citizenship wasn’t legal until 2001 and is still rather restricted with infringements on certain rights as a result).
The request was rejected by a majority of Mississauga city councilors with many expressing disbelief that a non-citizen would even make such a request. One councilor went so far as to say that immigrants who have not yet obtained citizenship should stop treating Canada as if it is a “buffet table” of “rights and other good things” .
It is hard for me to see how political partecipation can be likened with a buffet table. Political activity is in itself frustrating, time-consuming, at times boring, and often with little reward in the end. But it does make you feel a part of the “we” of the society you live in. And feeling part of the “we” certainly must voucher for a healthier society, than keeping groups excluded.
I reflected on these issues again in Mid-February when a spontaneous movement of women in one of my adoptive countries, Italy, decided to organize a protest in every square in Italy to say “enough is enough” to Berlusconi’s scandals and general view of women.
I spent 10 years of my life in Italy. I know its political history. I follow it on the news. But I’ve never been a citizen, never will be probably. When I saw my Italian friends in Italy burn with excitement, I stayed on the side, urging them to keep going. It wasn’t until I realized that I have two Italian daughters that deserve better than the state of affairs in Italy that I threw myself into the campaign. In 4 days we managed to organize a protest under the common banner Se non ora, quando (If not now, when), so show solidarity with women in Italy.