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The unsung heroes of elections

in Through the Fog by

Although the federal election ended almost a month ago, there are a lot of people across this country who are only now beginning to feel like their lives are getting back to normal. I’m not talking about those who put their names on the ballots; neither am I talking about the political staffers who lived and breathed their work for 40 days; and I’m certainly not referencing the media who followed the former and bugged the latter for a month. I am talking about the unsung heroes of elections – those that care enough about our democracy to actually get involved: the volunteers.

Campaign volunteerism is the gas that keeps an election engine running, the most crucial element of any campaign. Where the candidate is the product and their party the brand, where the campaign manager and his or her staff are the strategists and the planners, the volunteers are the foot soldiers that put the plan into action and make it all happen. Volunteers are the ones that put the election signs up (and take them down); phone your home on the candidate’s behalf for polling or just to chat; canvass the streets door-to-door to talk their candidate up; distribute flyers in the neighbourhood; and even keep the campaign team fed and its office clean.

An experience in Ontario

I had the opportunity to see the impact volunteers have on a campaign first hand during the 2008 election when I was a member of Ruby Dhalla’s campaign team in the riding of Brampton-Springdale in Ontario. The experience was a unique one for me in that the riding was predominantly populated by South Asian immigrants and 2nd generation Canadians. I was by far a minority on the team, as I was one of three Caucasians – a reversal of sorts from what I was used to in native Newfoundland. One of my roles on the team was to define the canvassing strategies across the entire riding for in-person, telephone, and mail-out communications – activities that obviously could not have been completed effectively without the help of volunteers on the ground and on the phones. But what struck me was the impact volunteers had on each and every facet of the campaign’s operations and not just where manpower is a requirement. A candidate bbq could be made to look like a huge community success if it had enough volunteers and their friends showing up for a hamburger. One volunteer with graphic design skills can turn campaign materials into professional and polished communications tools – without having to spend thousands of dollars. Volunteers can even keep morale of the entire team sky high by simply dropping by with baked goods.

The strength of the candidate’s team of volunteers is dependent on their numbers, their individual strengths, their availability, their dedication, their own personal networks, and the leadership and management which they are given. The strength of the volunteer base can often mean the difference between a campaign that can’t seem to get its message out in the community, and a campaign that citizens can’t seem to escape if they tried. The number of volunteers a candidate can round up is of course the major factor but, as I found out when Ruby was given constant positive coverage by a volunteer who happened to run a radio station, the specific skills and connections of each volunteer individually is vitally important too. Volunteers come from all segments of the community, including those who care deeply about politics, those who feel it is their civic duty to contribute, those who are close friends or acquaintances of the candidate, those in the business community who feel they have something to gain or lose in the election, those who are volunteers of other organizations whom the candidate or their party supports, and youth. Some volunteers are solicited, while others seemingly show up at random. A volunteer team is a mixed bag of nuts.

As is typical for incumbent MPs, staff in their Ottawa office come from anywhere in Canada, but are expected to relocate to the home riding for an election – and that is how Brampton became home for me for 2 months. Thus the biggest impact Ruby’s campaign volunteers had on me personally was the way in which I was welcomed into the community. As a white – not to mention as a Newfoundlander – I was like a fish out of water. But during those two months I learned more about Sikh culture, ate more Indian food, and participated in more religious traditions than I think I ever will again. Yet at every turn I was welcomed and educated by volunteers of the campaign who made the experience enjoyable. In return for being taught so much about Indian culture, during my time in Brampton I tried my best to convey what Newfoundland and Labrador was all about. I decided to give my office a name appropriate for its size and location in our campaign building; I named it Logy Bay and decorated it with the pink-white-green and pictures from the province. For the ‘grand opening’ of the office, I had seating for 16, the Masterless Men on the speakers, and Purity Jam-Jams with birch beer as refreshments. I had Ruby’s own mother cut the ribbon. I’m not sure what I was able to teach on that day, but I do know I had a much-needed break from Indian food.

The determining factor

Going into my first election as a participant, I thought it was the candidate’s actions, the team’s strategies, and the performance of the national party that would determine victory or defeat. But throughout the course of the campaign I began to realize, that although this was to some extent true, it was in fact the strength of the volunteer team that really made the difference. At the end of a gut-wrenching election night, Ruby managed to squeak out victory – by a mere 773 votes, or 1.7%. As the numbers were coming in poll by poll that night, knowing how close the vote was going to be, I wondered how many votes I personally and directly won or lost for the campaign by my actions. And looking around at the hundreds of volunteers at the victory party – I realized that if each one of them had managed to convince just one person to vote for Ruby, that was the election right there. It dawned on me that without the strong core of volunteers Ruby had, she would have been defeated, I would have been out of a job, and the Conservatives would have won one more seat in the GTA.

Quite simply, volunteers are the difference in an election. They spend their days working their jobs and their evenings and weekends dedicated to something they believe to be much larger. On the night of May 2nd of this year some volunteers in this province felt the jubilation of victory; some felt the devastation of defeat; others felt pride in their contribution and their candidate; and some – like I had in 2008 – felt the relief of just being able to hang on. We should salute those who gave their time and energy this time around, and we should all consider doing the same the next time around. Win or lose, volunteers are the true heroes of our democracy.

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