On election day, I greeted people who voted for parties that hate people like me

October 25, 2021
On election day, I greeted people who voted for parties that hate people like me

This First Person column is written by Zeahaa Rehman who worked for Elections Canada as an information officer. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

I’ve always loved the idea of democracy in action, and have voted in every single election since I turned 18. This September, I worked with Elections Canada as an information officer. On election day, I greeted incoming voters, determined if they were at the correct polling address and helped count votes after the polls closed.

During the first hour of my shift, an elderly white woman came in with a walker. After skimming over her voter identity card, I informed her that, unfortunately, she was at the wrong polling address. The correct address was next door but their parking lot was full, she told me. I apologized to her for the inconvenience; she thanked me profusely for directing her to the right place.

I was buoyed both at her dedication to her civic duty as well as her kind words. However, after she left, I couldn’t help but wonder whether — despite our pleasant interaction —she was one of the people who hate people like me.

Obviously, I am well aware that it is unhealthy to distrust people when I have no outward reason to do so. But I am a visibly Muslim, South Asian woman, and also well aware of the rising number of police-reported hate crimes throughout Canada — like the mass murder of a Muslim family in London, Ont., this summer — and the rhetoric that enables it.

While it might be tempting to dismiss that as extreme behaviour from a select few, elections, like the recent results of the 2021 Canadian federal election, give us numerical evidence of the rise of right-wing politics and hateful rhetoric throughout Canada. This evidence, in turn, serves as a reminder that many people in my community hate people like me so much that they want to elect officials who have demonstrated similar hatred.

When I helped count polls during election night, after having interacted with numerous voters throughout the day, it was jarring to realize that many of the people who had seemingly been nice to me throughout the day had chosen to vote for the Conservative Party, whose leader’s slogan was the xenophobic phrase: “Take Canada Back” and whose former leader Stephen Harper sought to ban niqabs and implement a barbaric practices hotline when he was prime minister. In fact, almost six million Canadians voted for the Conservative Party this past election and more than six million in the 2019 federal election. Though the Liberal party won more ridings in both elections, the Conservatives received more overall votes both times.

Voters lined up outside First Ontario Centre in Hamilton, Ont., on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. The PPC received more than 840,000 votes in the 2021 federal election, which Zeahaa Rehman says is a worrying trend for visible minorities like herself. (Daniel Taekema/CBC)

Some of the people I had interacted with had voted for the far right People’s Party of Canada, whose leader, Maxime Bernier, has proposed to end multiculturalism, reduce the number of immigrants and refugees Canada receives, and fosters hate-speech under the guise of free speech as part of his party’s platform. The PPC received more than 840,000 votes in the 2021 federal election. That’s more than double the number of votes they received in the 2019 federal election, and it’s because these policies resonate with at least some Canadians.

I know that many people around the world hate me because of my religion, my ethnicity, my immigrant status, or a combination of all three. When I come across this hate online, I can block and report the  sender, scroll past it or switch to another tab if I don’t want to engage.

But the results of these recent elections is tangible proof that this hatred is not some faceless online entity. They are real people, some of whom are my neighbours. Some of these people might even belong to my community. After all, immigrants and racialized people make up a sizeable chunk of right-wing voters as well as candidates. This is often due to a combination of their economic interests (e.g. less taxes), conservative cultural values (e.g. anti-abortion or anti-LGBT policies), support for a specific politician, or their internalized self-hatred or views on colourism, which outweighs any oppression they may face at the hands of other voters or candidates of their party.

I draw strength from small victories — like the recent election of not one, but two South Asian mayors in Alberta, one of whom replaces Canada’s first Muslim mayor.

Alberta’s two biggest cities have elected new mayors, with Amarjeet Sohi becoming Edmonton’s first South Asian mayor and Jyoti Gondek, also of South Asian origin, becoming the first woman to be elected mayor in Calgary. (Barbara Blakey, Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But that strength is often sapped by large blows. The next provincial and municipal elections are a year away and I am already fearful of what their results might reveal.

I hope I’m wrong to be fearful. And I hope that my neighbours will get to know me and my community before casting their ballots. 

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