Many of the headlines this past month have read, “Crisis in the Ukraine”. I have been following these stories closely. Sixteen months ago, I was in Ukraine, part of Canada’s mission to observe the national election. Along with 500 other Canadians, we formed Canada’s largest observation mission in history.
Our role there was to help citizens grow and strengthen their 20-year-old democracy by being experienced outside eyes to their electoral relationship with those in power. It was sad to finally report that the elections were not free and fair. Intimidation tactics of public and press were widespread, concerns of corruption and electoral fraud were real, and the imprisonment of the opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshencko, was politically motivated.
Today, many people of Ukrainian and Russian ancestry — like my husband’s grandfather — have made Canada their home. They are watching the news, worried for the welfare of their families and friends. As clashes increase and become more intense, as Crimea votes to secede and as western powers express their opposition to Russia’s military moves, we all wonder what is to come.
So what started all this? You could go into a long history of imperialism in eastern Europe and how this part of the region has been fought over for centuries. You could look at the unravelling of the Soviet Union and how Crimea was a gift to Ukraine under soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. And while that is all relevant, at the heart of the current situation is the people’s drive for a democratic society.
In my observations, I saw a people with a deep desire for democracy. Parents took their children to the polls to show them democracy in action, non-governmental organizations took part in the democratic discourse and election workers at the local level were diligent in their tasks. There was no doubt in my mind that people wanted democracy.
That is what brought people to the streets this winter — the ongoing movement for a democratic government and a democratic society. They were in those streets and the Maidan day after day to have what I do every day, which is freely debate and disagree with others in government. I don’t have to agree with Christy Clark. You don’t have to agree with Christy Clark, and we won’t go to jail for that disagreement.
So when local students recently came to see the legislature and told me how they enjoyed the debates, I was reminded that for good or for worse, our democracy is the envy of many people in this world. Right now, it is the envy of many Ukrainians.
Yet, it is also a work in progress and comes under attack here too. In B.C., the Liberals are attempting to influence the electoral boundary distribution for their political gain. Nationally, the Harper Conservatives are systematically disenfranchising many people with the Fair Elections Act. Thankfully, we all still have the right to debate and disagree with these pieces of legislation. Thankfully we have the right to vote and choose a new government if we don’t like the current governments’ records.
However, democracy isn’t a spectator sport. They get that in Ukraine. With 50 per cent voter turnout, do we?
Michelle Mungall is the member of the legislative assembly for the Nelson-Creston provincial riding, and is the Opposition critic for social development.