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Canadians come together online to ring in U.S. election with cross-border stakes

·5 min read

In 2008, avid politico Daniel Roukema was moved to tears while watching the U.S. election at an Ottawa pub, the elated crowd around him breaking into cheers, when the newscaster announced that Barack Obama had been elected the first Black president of the United States.

As Obama's two-term tenure drew to a close, Roukema, who is Black, expected American voters would build on that progress by making his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the first woman to lead the White House. 

The polls backed up his optimism, projecting that the Democratic candidate would defeat businessman-turned-Republican nominee Donald Trump in a landslide.

And on Nov. 8, 2016, as Roukema gathered his friends in his living room to share in the heady excitement as they watched history unfold — just not in the way he was expecting. 

As one swing state after the next turned red, Roukema likened the mood in the room to watching the Toronto Maple Leafs bungle an all-but-certain bid for the Stanley Cup.

"It goes from excitement and jubilation, to probably having a few too many beers, to you can hear a pin drop in the house," he said. "People just want to go home. They don't want to be there."

Now, Roukema is hoping for a communal catharsis as former Democratic vice-president Joe Biden tries to unseat Trump from the Oval Office.

While the COVID-19 pandemic will preclude in-person festivities for the U.S. election in much of Canada, Canadian political junkies and American expatriates are finding new ways to come together next Tuesday, as the cross-border consequences of the presidential race seem as stark as ever.

Roukema won't be having an election party at his home in Burlington, Ont., where COVID-19 cases have been surging in recent weeks. Instead, the communications specialist is trying to keep the civic discourse alive by hosting informal political forums on his Facebook page. 

Over the course of the campaign, he said, these "political jibber-jabber" posts have attracted hundreds of comments, and he expects to see even more chatter come voting day.

While his aim is to educate people about the American electoral process, Roukema said the online discussions can turn into collective venting sessions.

"One of the things that is really important to me is validating people's feelings," Roukema said. "Because even though the United States is another country, people recognize the impact on a global level."

Aidan Link and Wiley De Paiva, who are among the student leaders of Western University's Political Science Association, are also turning to digital platforms to discuss with their peers what the U.S. election means to them.

The association's virtual voting-day lineup includes a series of Zoom debates featuring commentators from an ideological array of student groups. As moderators, Link and De Paiva said they welcome the spirited exchange of views, but they're prepared to step in if disagreements run afoul of decorum.

Professors will pop in to provide context as the night unfolds, and attendees will have a chance to weigh in through interactive polls and a live chat over Zoom.

Link said the event has garnered more interest than the association's previous functions. But he suspects that may have as much to do with student engagement as it does the listlessness of university life under lockdown.

"A lot of it's probably just convenience," said Link. "Now that we don't have as much to do with extracurriculars at school, a lot of people are willing to take two to three hours and come to an election party."

Meanwhile, left-leaning U.S. citizens living in Canada don't need to be reminded that the impacts of a second Trump term won't stop at the 49th parallel, said Dianna English, the Canadian spokeswoman for Democrats Abroad, an international offshoot of the American political party.

Normally, English said, the organization's election-day festivities would consist of a series of small gatherings hosted by local chapters across the country.

This cycle, however, English said the rise of online organizing has allowed for unprecedented countrywide mobilization to get out the mail-in vote over the past few weeks. 

She said members plan to celebrate the fruits of their efforts with a Zoom bash that will be capped off with a DJed virtual dance party.

The group's conservative counterpart, Republicans Overseas, has opted out of hosting election-night events this year, said Canadian chairman Mark Feigenbaum.

However, American-Canadians of all political stripes are welcome to tune in to a virtual Q-and-A hosted by the U.S. Embassy.

In parts of Canada with laxer lockdown restrictions, a few in-person election-night events are going forward.

Kevin Warner, a manager at the Unicorn in Calgary, said masked patrons are welcome to participate in a mock election, and find out if they predicted the winner correctly over food and drinks.

"With how crazy everything's been, people just want an outlet, and they still want to have some kind of fun," said Warner.

"Hopefully, nobody's politically charged and getting angry. We just want it light and fun." 

Melissa Haussman, a political science professor at Carleton University, said the gravity of next week's vote may be hard to ignore given all the Canada-related issues on the ballot. 

From the partial closure of our shared border and the global race to secure the first viable COVID-19 vaccines, Haussman said the pandemic has highlighted the extent to which our two countries' fates are interconnected.

But whichever way the vote swings next Tuesday, Haussman said Canadians can likely count on the losing candidate's adherents threatening to immigrate north, as per electoral tradition.

"We know that within 24 hours of the election result in 2016, the Canadian (immigration) site crashed," said Haussman. "There is a misconception that it wouldn't be such a big deal to move to another country." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press