Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadian election? Pass the poutine

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Los ANGELES -- The night air was cool, the breeze salty. It was the sign that gave it away. "Deli Montreal Smoked Meat" it read and here at the Redondo Beach Cafe, hundreds of metres from California surf and thousands of kilometres away from Canada, I'd found the regional hangout for Canadian expatriates.

With the American vice-presidential debate and the Canadian leaders' debate airing live on Thursday night, a crammed table of expats was on double duty.

There was a nurse from Sudbury, an entertainment accountant from Ottawa, the café's co-owner, who was from Montreal and had spent the early '90s in Winnipeg playing for the Blue Bombers.

There was the person who'd lived in the Los Angeles area for 30 years, the one who'd been here for two.

More than 600,000 expatriate Canadians live in Southern California. If you hauled them in one clump north of the 49th, they'd easily make the top-10 list of largest cities.

But don't expect many to exercise their civic duty. In the last federal election, which saw 64.7 per cent of Canadians head to a voting booth, only 9,208 expats cast a ballot.

In 2004, the results were even lower, with 7,736 special ballots returned before the deadline.

The poor numbers are largely due to rules stating that expats who have lived more than five consecutive years outside of Canada are ineligible to vote.

Lee Fraser, president of the expat group Canadians Abroad, scratches his head over that one. He moved to Los Angeles nine years ago.

"It's like, 'Yeah, you're a citizen,'" said Fraser, clapping his hands. "They'll give me a passport and fly me out in an emergency, but I can't vote."

Still, that didn't stop the discussion or the Molson flowing at the table.

As Wall Street woes trickle into Main Street pocketbooks, the economy permeated conversation much like in the debates.

Maureen LaPoint, 57, worried about her retirement savings. Renata Weir from Calgary fretted that she'd made the wrong decision in bringing her two teenagers down to L.A. only to see jobs vanish and her children head back to Alberta in search of work.

"The next president is going to take on that [economic] responsibility and we're all going to be affected," said Jane Figueiredo, a 31-year-old cancer epidemiologist from Toronto. "And trying to recover is going to be the most important thing because it's been so abysmal that we really have a huge cliff to climb."

For Roland Luke, a 38-year-old records manager from Oakville, Ont., the decision Canadian voters have to make is clear. Now living in a country where Stephen Harper's brand of conservatism more resembles that of a jackass than an elephant, Luke said Canadians should place fiscal responsibility first during this time of instability.

"The Canadian economy lags on the U.S. economy," he said. "And the worst thing that you can do is take the surplus that you have and spend, spend, spend."

But what about the other election issues? Stéphane Dion's Green Shift? Stephen Harper's arts cuts? The NDP possibly snatching away Opposition status from the Liberals?

The glass bottles of Molson lowered, forks paused in poutine platters, the chatter stalled.

Chantal Nikkel Allan is a former Manitoba broadcaster now working in Los Angeles.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2008

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