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Voting power to the people

Elections Manitoba spreads word on need to cast a ballot

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To a poor inner-city neighbourhood struggling with a laundry list of tangled issues, Angela Chalmers arrived bearing a strong and simple message: "You need to get out and vote."

On Wednesday, Chalmers, the education co-ordinator for Elections Manitoba, spoke to about 30 students at the University of Manitoba's social work facility on Selkirk Avenue. It was the first in a planned series of workshops to boost the lagging North End vote -- and Chalmers was pumped.

"If we can... impact just a few of these people, then they can be powerful ambassadors," raved Chalmers, after delivering an energetic 40-minute presentation on the how-tos of voting.

Elections can be dry, but Chalmers' presentation cut right to the nuts and bolts of daily life. If you take a shower, Chalmers said, you need the city's water. If you need the bus to get around, that's a city issue, too. She talked about how to vote -- yes, you can take your kids with you -- and how to gather information about candidates. "Bringing it down to the personal level is what needs to happen," Chalmers explained.

"People who live in these areas are directly affected by the choices councillors are making. A lot of people take the bus, a lot of people have kids in daycares. They're almost more impacted than people in other areas."

And yet, they vote the least. In 2006, only 28 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in Mynarski, the lowest turn-out in all of the city's 15 wards.

"Ninety per cent of people in this area are just trying to keep their head above water," sighed Roanna Hepburn, who works at the School of Inner-City Social Work and helped arrange Wednesday's workshop.

"People around here have a very hard life and they don't stop to think about how they can improve it by voting."

That's especially true this election since the Mynarski race is wide open after Harry Lazarenko retired after 30 years following a brain aneurysm last May. Six candidates are vying for his council seat and organizers hope the open race could drive more voters to the polls.

Enter North End Votes. An initiative of a group of north Winnipeg resident associations, NEV is working to get people more engaged in this election. They organized a September Mynarski council candidate forum, have a mayoral debate planned for Oct. 18 and are planning four more voting 101 sessions before election day on Oct. 27, which will also be hosted by Chalmers. (Anyone interested in attending can email for details.)

If the response to the first workshop is any indication, all these efforts might boost turnout. Jamie Monkman, 27, was among the students watching Chalmers' presentation. She lives in the Point Douglas ward, which also struggled with low turnout in 2006 and hasn't voted for a while, she said.

The last time Monkman voted, she took an "eeny, meeny, miney mo" approach to a slate of candidates who hadn't taken any information to her door. Now, she's inspired to take a different approach. "(Chalmers) made some important points," Monkman said. "I never thought of making a list of things that are important in my community. I'll probably go online and take a look at their ideas (this time)."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 8, 2010 B2

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