The Americans of SFU want political engagement to surpass geography

Expats face a variety of challenges in staying politically active, and SFUers are trying to help

Image courtesy of New America Media

By: Gabrielle McLaren, Features Editor 

3 to 6 million American citizens are living outside of the United States, for a variety of reasons. And as it turns out, Metro Vancouver appears to be a hotspot for American expats living in Canada. Among them: 183,155 eligible U.S. voters as of 2016, which is more than the population of Abbotsford to give you an idea. It is the largest number of any major city outside the United States.

A group of them at SFU have nicknamed themselves “Americans of SFU,” and are committed to “getting out the vote” despite the distance.

If you were wandering around Convocation Mall on Thursday, September 6, you might have missed their stand in the midst of fire pits and enormous lines for free food, but they were there. Their table was decorated with a red tablecloth and two American flags, and covered with information packets, business cards outlining the process to get registered, and even registration packs.

“I always felt that with what’s going on with politics in the states right now, it’s really important to be engaged sort of in the democratic process,” said James Smith, a dual citizen and staff member at SFU who took a vacation day to man the booth. “Basically I just started to reach out to anybody I could on campus that [ . . . ] was an American citizen and to see if we could get something going in terms of voter registration or anything like that,”

Smith made connections with like-minded grad students and faculty members. They also checked in to see if an undergraduate club had been formed by SFU undergraduates, in the same way that the Chinese Students Association or the Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry are active on campus, but found nothing. Right now, their core group is only four or five members, but the club is only a few months old. They’re hoping to expand their activities through social media and actual acts of presence on campus, such as their Week of Welcome stand.

For the Week of Welcome, their main goal was to register voters abroad for voting in the midterm elections.  

“[Midterm elections] happen every two years, and every two years every member of the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives, is up for election. And a senate term is six years long, so about every two years about a third of senators are up for election,” Smith noted for Canadian students who may not be used to the United States’ multi-election system.

“That’s the entire sort of legislative branch of the American government that is basically there to hold the other branch accountable,” he said. “It’s very important to be engaged, especially in the current political climate, to be involved in all federal elections whether it’s a presidential election or not.”

The vice-consul of the United States Consulate in Vancouver, Weldon Montgommery, was also present at the event. The U.S. Consulate is a resource to support American citizens in the city, regardless of whether they find themselves in Vancouver for work, travel, or schooling. Assistance with passports, registering to vote, keeping tabs on where American citizens are in case of a natural disaster or emergency abroad — all these sorts of things are covered by the Consulate and other branches around the world.

While not everyone has to worry about knowing where the nearest consulate is on a day-to-day basis, according to SFU, around 20% of the university’s undergraduate population are international students. In fall 2017, 28.3% of graduate students were international students and 27% of them had earned their bachelor’s degree outside of Canada. While it’s not clear how many of these students are American, according to the University’s headcount, the percentage of international students is growing.

For the Americans of SFU, getting in touch with the student body is crucial since they represent the largest segment of the SFU community. Furthermore, the 18–29 year old demographic (AKA the age of most students) is also notorious for low voter turnout. In the last presidential election in 2016, only about half of 18–29 year old Americans eligible to vote actually cast a ballot. And the problem isn’t just American: in 2015, 57% of Canadian 18-24 voters voted, which was in itself a huge leap from 2011.

“If you’re an American citizen you can vote from anywhere,” Smith noted. “But it can feel sometimes like just voting isn’t enough engagement with the democratic process in the States.”

Smith also mentions that students should feel welcome and comfortable to reach out to other organizations, since American expats are far from being alone in Vancouver. As an example, Smithx offers the Vancouver chapter of Democrats Abroad.

“Even if you are not in the States you can volunteer to do things like phone banking, or candidates within the States are doing texting campaigns and that kind of thing. You can donate to campaigns in the States if you’re a U.S. Citizen . . . ”

Bottom line: there’s a lot of different ways to get involved, and Americans of SFU are also getting their hands dirty and digging into other sides of the issue. Another member of the small group, Dr Melek Ortabasi, noted in an email to The Peak that: “We’ll also be organizing some phone banking parties in the coming weeks. We’ll be calling in support of Democrats Abroad, or your candidate/campaign of choice. Anyone can do it!”

To make the time fly even more quickly, the Americans of SFU will be booking rooms on the Burnaby campus in the evenings to call together. Ortabasi also provided the link to a Doodle, to which she encourages volunteers to sign up.

“If you haven’t phone banked before, it’s easy,” said Dr Ortabasi in an email statement. “We’ll be using the CallHub software platform, which basically supplies you with ready-made scripts and makes all the calls for you, for free! All you need to bring is a laptop, some earphones/buds, and a positive attitude (well, OK, some snacks would be good too).”

While this event is definitely more partisan, Ortabasi is clear that the Americans of SFU are not necessarily a partisan organization as a whole. Smith also emphasizes this facet of their group.

“The reason that we discussed this initiative to be non-partisan and to be able to get the support of, for example, the consulate here in Vancouver . . . to get the support of the university as well,” Smith says. It’s a question of putting political engagement at any level over partisan engagement at any level.

Eager to see Americans of SFU grow, Smith mentions that students can reach out to him at jpsmith@sfu.ca should they want to get involved. A lot of the voter registration onlines are only in October, according to Smith, so there is still plenty of time to get involved.

“If American citizens in Vancouver or in British Columbia want more information about voting overseas, they can email the consulate at votevancouver@state.gov,” Montgommery tells us as well.

For Canadian students who need only turn up at a local elementary school or library to vote, looking at the lengths to which expats can go to stay in touch with politics back home can also be thought-provoking. The Americans of SFU offer some interesting food for thought as Canada gears up for its next federal election in 2019, and Burnaby South prepares for a by-election even sooner.