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Getting vote out in Point Douglas a challenge

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WINNIPEG -- This is what democracy looks like: on one of the more ragged blocks of Magnus Avenue, Liberal candidate Mary Lou Bourgeois smiled as she walked toward a house, pamphlets in hand.

A woman in the front yard hushed her children’s giggles to greet the candidate. "Is this about the voting thing?"

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The voting thing doesn’t happen enough, here. For everything wonderful about this colourful stretch of the North End — notably, the warmth of the residents, the resilient sense of community — there are challenges.

Voting is but one of them.

This is still one of the poorest spots in Manitoba. The average household income of just over $30,000 is less than half that of Winnipeg’s as a whole; residents are among the most vulnerable to shifts in governments and policies.

And yet, most people here don’t vote. In 2007, only 40 per cent of voters in the provincial Point Douglas riding made it to the ballot box, one of the lowest rates in Manitoba. At polling stations near the riding’s core of William Whyte and Lord Selkirk, some polls saw only one in five registered voters cast their ballot.

That is not what democracy looks like.

Neither is this: next door to that house on Magnus sits an empty garage smeared with graffiti, black marks advertising one gang’s pride for killing members of another. The woman who lives there said she’s called police about the drug den down the street, or the handfuls of angry kids skulking the sidewalk with knives.

But on this corner of Winnipeg’s core, nothing seems to change — even when governments do.

"(Politicians) all say the same thing," the woman said. "They say they’re gonna stop the violence, stop the gangs. But once they get in, then it’s like, ‘screw you.’ Once they get your vote, they forget about you."

That frustration echoed across the riding. Back on Bourgeois’ campaign swing, a man leaned on his Magnus Avenue porch railing. Yes, he said, he’s going to vote for sure — and he planned to take his children to teach them about the importance of voting.

After all, the work-at-home dad remembers his first lesson in democracy, shortly after he moved into the city from his home reserve.

"When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was really advocating for it," he said. "He had a large impact on how I view history, and issues. Since then I’ve only missed one election I was able to vote in."

But many of his neighbours are "so disenfranchised," he agreed. "They just figure their voice doesn’t count anymore."

Even advocates run up against that wall. In Point Douglas, community organizer Michael Champagne has spent much of the election drumming up interest, especially among youth. He put together a youth-oriented candidates’ debate, he blogged furiously about issues in Point Douglas and he helped lead a grassroots group, Aboriginal Youth Options, in an effort get young North End residents to the ballot box.

Still, even he’s frustrated with the way the campaign has played out — especially the attack ads that surged forth.

"I did a lot of stuff in the election out of a sense of duty," he said. "I try really hard to believe in these things, because I’m hoping maybe from the inside (the winning candidate) can start making waves."

Because, Champagne said, the voter turnout in Point Douglas will start to recover only when residents feel they have power in their choice. "Politics is often all talk... the results (of voting) have to be immediate and visible," he said. "When I ask people what they want in an elected official, all the answers I’ve been getting are the same: We just want someone not to bull---- us sometime. We want real. That’s all."

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