Commentary  Iraq’s lesson in Canada

I want to make the next 12 months the year of the purple thumb. What the fuck is he talking about, you ask? Well, the idea began last Sunday in Baghdad, in Fallujah, and in Kirkuk, where Iraqi voters turned out in unexpectedly huge numbers to vote in parliamentary and presidential elections – 62 per cent of registered voters cast their ballots at the last count.

Still, whence the purple thumb, you prod? I’m getting to it. Iraqis stain one finger purple after they’ve voted, a measure to keep people from voting more than once. This is a cheaper and more crass explanation than is owed, since the purple thumb – or whichever finger the Iraqi chooses to mark – has gained a talismanic quality over the course of Iraq’s turbulent history as a democracy. In elections in 2005, 2009, and now this past week, the purple thumb has been waved defiantly by young professionals, cagey politicians, and hunched old women alike. They are resolute that their will, and their vote, will ultimately be stronger than the forces of sectarian and religious reaction that seek to tear the country at its seams.

Voters have plenty of good reasons to stay home, too. Thirty-eight people were killed on voting day, mostly by gruesome rocket and bomb attacks. One rocket collapsed an entire apartment block, killing 25. The violence was expected. The response to it was not.

Many voters were encouraged by the attacks, seeing it as perfect proof that their vote counted – that the alternative to voting was not a respite from violence, but violence’s triumph. As Ahmed Ali, a voter in Baghdad, put it, “Believe me – I was ready to come to the voting station even if there were missiles.”

I would be embarrassed to compare the relative humility of Canada’s political situation to the viciousness of Iraq’s, but the political conditions here are also dire and shouldn’t be compared away.

The government released its budget last week – you know, the one it used as an excuse to prorogue Parliament. We need time to “recalibrate” our economic agenda, the Tories had said. As it turns out, the budget proposes absolutely no shift in government priorities and almost no new taxes or spending cuts.

So the last fig leaf of respectability behind which Stephen Harper’s arguments for prorogation have hidden has suddenly fluttered off. And it was a pretty skimpy leaf to begin with. There was no “recalibration.” We should be furious.

And in times like these, trying times that threaten to damage our democracy beyond repair, we must look to the elections in Iraq, to the sea of purple ink spilled in the hope that it could wash away real problems. And it can.

The Harper government is rumored to be considering an election before the 2011 budget. We will have the battle that Iraqis had on Sunday. Although we will be spared the danger of physical violence, the risk of being complacent, of giving in to the ease of the status quo – an increasingly autocratic one at that – will be present. After a groundswell, and Facebook-swell, of anger left Conservatives and Liberals with about even public support in January, the Conservatives have again slipped into the lead, according to an EKOS polls.

The election is 12 months away. What can you do now? Register to vote. I just filled out the Elections Canada voter registration slip that had been sitting on my desk for weeks. I had been lazy. The images of voters braving mortar fire, of daring death, to do what I was putting off shamed me.

The simple piece of bureaucratic paper, folded in three, is not as gorgeously symbolic as the purple thumb of the Iraqi voter. But it does represent my commitment to bear witness to the gravity of the situation in Canada right now, and to act on it. This year, I will remember Iraq.

Eric Andrew-Gee is a U0 Arts Legacy student. Show him some thumb at