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‘You have to try’: A push to the polls in a Toronto immigrant neighbourhood

Andrea Barrett speaks with a resident of Toronto’s Lotherton Pathway community during an election awareness-raising event on Oct. 25, 2014.

MATTHEW SHERWOOD/The Globe and Mail

Candidate volunteers will be pounding on doors to get the vote out Monday, but a different group of people have been working for years to draw more people to polling stations, no matter who gets the vote.

Election signs dot the lawn where the towers and townhouses of Lotherton Pathway meet Caledonia Road, just south of Lawrence Avenue West. It's not a novel sight in a city that has just seen double the number of advance voters compared to the past election, but the location is notable.

The 4,500 residents of Lotherton are mainly immigrants. Only a few hundred of them voted four years ago, according to Tara Bootan, the local co-ordinator for North York Community House, a neighbourhood centre supporting immigrant settlement.

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Saturday saw a final push in this campaign for what has been a prolonged effort to raise the level of democratic involvement. Children painted chalk arrows and footsteps leading to the polling station and volunteers staffed information tables in each apartment lobby, asking passing residents to sign a pledge that they would vote.

Sitting in the NYCH satellite office, resident Jasadora Samuge, 74, said Monday would be the first time she'll be marking a Canadian ballot since coming from Guyana 10 years ago.

"You have to show interest. We are all living in hope. You have to try," said Ms. Samuge, who became a Canadian citizen after the past election.

Minutes later, Ward 15 incumbent councillor Josh Colle finishes speaking with her and finds Ms. Bootan to ask how Ms. Samuge can get proof of address, something she currently lacks.

While a lack of documentation is an immediate concern, John Beebe of Samara, a charity with a mission to increase democratic engagement and participation, says the practical aspects of voter registration are the easy part. The bigger issue is battling the apathy that leads to a majority of eligible voters staying home.

With partners like NYCH, which reaches 25,000 immigrants each year, Samara tries to instill an interest in politics by, among other things, simply starting group discussions.

Mr. Beebe explains that they initiate events or simply reach into the regular meetings of established groups and ask members what matters to them.

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"Rooms burst when you bring up politics," said Mr. Beebe. "You get a whole new way to build connections and you see people breaking down the isolation they feel when they say, 'I'm just one person, I can't make a difference.' "

"When people feel part of a community, they are more willing to give back to it," he said. And voting is the first step in that.

Mr. Colle acknowledged that the isolation people feel when they aren't part of the political system is self-perpetuating. "Candidates rank polls on turnout and likely voters, so some areas get written off," he said.

Adnan Amin, an NYCH co-ordinator, says that by becoming democratically involved, new voters can show not just politicians, but also themselves, that they matter.

Voting is a symbolic but important stepping stone, he says. "People get the confidence to address issues they see in their local community, whether it is traffic issues, or disputes with their landlords. If we run a workshop on political rights, it gives people some knowledge and capacity to be less apathetic and make a difference for themselves."

Neezem Ali, 47, arrived from Guyana 10 years ago. He recently received his citizenship and voted for the first time in the past provincial election.

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He says he's glad to know his vote actually counts in Canada, which was not the case in Guyana where he says the elections were rigged.

He explains that too often newcomers see voting as something that is "only for white people."

"People need someone who can give them a push, knock on the door and tell them, 'You are Canadian now and you have to vote. This is where your grandchildren will live, so you have to have a say,' " he said.

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