On Feb. 22, 2012, following the 2011 Arab Spring, a presidential election was held in Yemen. Yemen is an impoverished and conflict-stricken country on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula which, like many other countries in 2011, experienced a youth-led revolution.
It was a buoyant moment in Yemen following the long-awaited end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s oppressive and dictatorial two-decade rule.
On Feb. 22, 2012 there was only one candidate on the ballot: former vice president to Saleh, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
There was only one candidate on the ballot, but Yemenis were relieved — Yemenis were excited. That day could have been marked by violence, protests, or brutal and bloody attacks by any number of opposition groups, including the most dangerous branch of Al Qaeda — Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — but on Feb. 22, 2012 Yemenis could not wait to cast their vote.
That day a shopkeeper in the capital city, Sana’a, told an American journalist: “It doesn’t bother me that there is only one candidate. If there had been several, they would have started to kill each other, and we’re tired of killing.”
And so they should be. It is 2015 and Yemenis are still tired of the killing. They have yet to see another democratic election, even though one was scheduled for the beginning of this year — before the Houthi takeover of the capital and most of the country following September 2014.
In March 2015, amid the Houthi takeover and fears of a regional power struggle with Iran, Saudi Arabia launched a brutal, unrelenting air assault on Yemen which has reduced the terrorized country to ashes. The sight of peace once again blurred by bombs.
The 2015 election was supposed to see leadership campaigns, more than one candidate on the ballot, inclusive policy negotiation and a redrafting of Yemen’s constitution; a monumental step in this country’s sluggardly and bloody march towards democracy. People took to the streets, but the march was silenced by the deafening cracks of AK-47s. It continues to amaze me that even after all of this, Yemenis still believe that one day their country will see democracy.
This story isn’t unique or novel. In dozens of countries around the world people champion, fight, and die for a glimpse of democracy, no matter how elusive it might seem. In dozens of countries around the world corruption, greed and terrorism make democracy a cruel joke that people still line up to die for. In dozens of countries around the world, like Yemen, people are tired of the killing.
I write about Yemen because it is what I know. I know Yemen. I called Yemen home before a sudden coup brought danger, literally, to my doorstep. Right now I’m living in Iraq. I don’t know Iraq yet, but I know that, like Yemen, their story of democracy is also a grim one.
I also called Canada home, for most of my 27 years of life. I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I grew up in Canada, I got my education in Canada and I have paid my taxes in Canada. I am a Canadian, but I come to realize I don’t know Canada. I don’t understand Canada anymore.
I am young, but not too young to remember when Canada was a beacon of hope and opportunity for those from other countries. When Canadians were thought of as good-natured, educated, critical, warm, welcoming, open-minded peace-keepers. When Canada was a leader in freedom of speech, free press, freedom of religious and other forms of cultural expression. It has since become disfigured by the thick fog of a push for ultra-conservative policies and bureaucratic bickering that has left many Canadians, native and immigrants alike, scratching their heads in confusion and concern.
We live in a nation that has been completely alienated from it’s own identity.
Where did we go wrong?
“Harper sucks.” Or, “Our electoral system is broken and in need of reform.”
Without rejecting the extremely nuanced nature of a functioning democracy, these seem to be the two arguments loosely threaded through our electoral discourse. But where did we, as Canadians, go wrong? Because surely while people around the world in their 20s are suffering at the deadly end of a gun for the right to vote, we can do more than sit back, wipe our hands and lament that democracy has failed us.
Surely while people around the world in their 20s are suffering at the deadly end of a gun for the right to vote, we can do more than sit back, wipe our hands and lament that democracy has failed us.
While living in Sana’a, people would often ask me, “Where are you from?” When I told them Canada, they would sometimes reply “Oh, America!”.
“No,” I would say adamantly, “Canada!”
“Same thing,” they would casually respond.
I could feel my blood boiling. It’s not the same thing, we’re different, we’re better.
We’ve been better, guys. We could be better. So on Oct. 19, 2015, vote.
Vote because you have an idea. Vote because you have an ideal. Vote because you’re a small business owner, a student, a mother of five, a single father, an immigrant, a former refugee, a veteran. Vote because you fought, and still fight, for this country. Vote because you’ve been homeless. Vote because you’re jobless. Vote because you want someone to be accountable to thousands of missing Indigenous women and girls. Vote because you’re a Canadian and it’s your right. Vote because it’s your responsibility.
Vote with excitement, with anger, with frustration, with cautious hope, with unbridled optimism, with love or with hatred. Vote with compassion.
I don’t care how or why, just vote. Please.
We have wasted our own democracy while complaining that we don’t have one. Don’t let waste become our story, and don’t let apathy become our legacy. We are, and have always been, too good for that.
Don’t wait for Stephen, Tom and Justin to tell you what our country needs. You tell them. Tell them what you need, what we need and what future Canadians need — those born in Canada and those who will choose Canada for a better life.
Tell them because you can tell them—you can demand it—without the threat of losing your job, your freedom or your life. We need to make sure our government is ready to step up and give us that better life. Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, so we can create a forum and platform where they will be able to speak. Speak for those who are tired of the killing. Speak for yourselves. Ask your government to do better, ask your government to set an example, ask your government to change our story. Vote.
Vote so that when you find yourself in another country, and someone compares us to America, you can proudly say, “No, we’re different.”
Maria Mulcahy is a 27-year-old teacher from St. John’s, Newfoundland who has worked in education in Canada, Qatar and Yemen. She currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq and helps run the Castle Art Project, which engages young teenage girls in art therapy at the Akre Syrian Refugee Camp in northwestern Iraq.