It’s everyone’s duty to keep out the extremists

Russell Wangersky
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Sometimes, a realization hits you right between the eyes, so sharply that it almost hurts.

Walking downhill in North River, Cape Breton, in the cool of last weekend, I was catapulted backwards in time by the smell of wood smoke: not like wood smoke here. No.

Like wood smoke in the Annapolis Valley, a particular mix of hardwoods that we don’t get here in any great supply. Sure, being surrounded by heavily-laden apple trees along the North River Road didn’t hurt, either; it made me think about being 20, and about the strange and sudden fact that somehow, in some way, I’m suddenly over 50 now.

But it wasn’t the only realization.

It made me think about the first time I paid much attention to elections and politics, back in the early 1980s, watching the particular political sport that is Nova Scotia elections, a sudden combination of paving projects and election signs. I didn’t vote in that election, but I watched it with interest; I’ve voted in every election I could ever since, arming myself with information and listening to opinions, doing the one single thing that I think of as a requirement of every citizen in a democratic country.

There’s an election on right now in Nova Scotia, too, an election with plenty of signs, among them, signs that the NDP government that has supported Emera and the Maritime Link may find itself out of office, and the Liberals, a party that promises to break Nova Scotia Light and Power’s electrical monopoly, on the way in.

That’s a decision for Nova Scotians — but talking elections with interested voters in that province made me realize something else, and it was a realization that hit home hard, too.

It wasn’t until I was leaving for home, careening down the backside of Cape Breton’s Kelly’s Mountain in a car packed tight with discussion about how, south of the border, American soldiers could be sent into sovereign countries and it could all be described as being in the world’s best interests, while at the same time, a fraction of that same nation’s politicians could halt a vast array of government services without ever being answerable for their actions.

And how closely we seem to be teetering on the same particular kind of electoral stupidity.

What do I mean? As we watch our voting numbers tumble to 50 per cent turnout or less in elections, it takes fewer and fewer votes to put radicals of any stripe into government office.

And zealots will always vote: the great sea of the rest of us are supposed to act the way the ocean does on spiking temperatures. We’re meant to act as a leavening, a way to temper the far right — and the far left, for that matter.

Take away that balance, and we will eventually end up in a not much better spot than our American neighbours: imagine being hostages to a minority of Canadians that hold particularly out-at-the-edge views, simply because we couldn’t be bothered to cast a ballot, while their supporters could.

Perhaps we’re already there: just think about what a small percentage of Canadian voters it takes to make a “majority” government now.

These are troubling times. Driving down Kelly’s Mountain, heading pell-mell for a stopped line of traffic where roadwork was going so election-urgently that it was full steam ahead on overtime on a Sunday, the driver asked a simple question: why do so few people actually take the time to care?

Wake up, people.

You sit on your hands, and on your votes, at your own peril.

There are a lot of things that can go up in smoke. Hardwood smells wonderfully fine in the October chill. Democracy burning through sheer lack of interest?

Much less so.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. Email:

Geographic location: North River Road, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia Annapolis Valley

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