THE U.S. ELEC­TION Barack’s Canucks, the se­quel


Last week we told you about a hand­ful of friends who were headed to Pittsburgh, Penn­syl­va­nia, to help get out the vote. On Fri­day, we re­ceived this e-mail re­port on their role in the 2008 U.S. elec­tion.

NOV. 2, 2008, 10:30 A.M.

Af­ter land­ing in Pittsburgh, I text my son Jor­dan to say I’ve ar­rived and am ready to work.

Dur­ing the next 24 hours, a small band of friends will ar­rive from On­tario to help the Obama cam­paign: Dim­itri Las­caris is a Green party ac­tivist; Atul Bahl works for the NDP; Steven MacK­in­non is past na­tional di­rec­tor of the Lib­eral party; I am its for­mer pres­i­dent. Ian Roland is a vet­eran cam­paign man­ager; Mario Cu­conato worked in the Paul Martin PMO. A few weeks ear­lier, in an email dis­cus­sion about the Cana­dian elec­tion, our talk had turned to the sig­nif­i­cance of the U.S. cam­paign. We were moved by Barack Obama’s abil­ity to in­spire, mo­ti­vate and turn the page.

We of­fered our ser­vices to Jor­dan, an Amer­i­can with dual cit­i­zen­ship and grad­u­ate stu­dent in New York. He’d been work­ing on the Obama cam­paign for 15 months. (He is proud that while Hil­lary Clin­ton won 61 of 62 New York coun­ties in the pri­mary, she missed Tompkins County, where he was work­ing.)

Jor­dan con­vinced us our help was not needed in New York, where Obama was ex­pected to win hand­ily. In­stead, he hooked us up with or­ga­niz­ers in Pittsburgh, where there were 12 Obama offices. Penn­syl­va­nia was ex­pected to be an im­por­tant bat­tle­ground.

Jor­dan picks me up in a pale green Ford Es­cape hy­brid, then we head to the Hill District to dis­trib­ute cam­paign lit­er­a­ture. The Hill is also known as “the hood.” It’s the poor­est in Pittsburgh and, dur­ing the next cou­ple of days, we learn it has a rep­u­ta­tion. Older peo­ple re­mem­ber the ri­ot­ing there that fol­lowed the as­sas­si­na­tion of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.

Jor­dan and I de­liver vote-re­minder cards to the homes of reg­is­tered sup­port­ers. The cards pro­vide each voter with spe­cific poll de­tails. Many build­ings, in­clud­ing res­i­dences, are aban­doned, bro­ken down or boarded up. Obama-Bi­den posters are plen­ti­ful — as are Pittsburgh Steel­ers ban­ners, T-shirts and hats. We see no ev­i­dence of McCain sup­port. It feels good to be wear­ing the Obama para­pher­na­lia.

1:30 P.M.

As churches empty, we en­counter peo­ple in the streets on our way back to Blakey Cen­ter where we will work the phones. We call to re­mind folks to vote and make sure they have a way to get to the polls. At least 25 per cent of the phone num­bers on the vot­ers’ list are dis­con­nected.

Later in the af­ter­noon, a vi­brant vol­un­teer in­vites us to a church ser­vice for Obama at Ebenezer Bap­tist Church.

6 P.M.

An 80-per­son choir dances and claps and leads the con­gre­ga­tion of 800 in cel­e­bra­tory wor­ship. We are the only white folk in the crowd. We don’t know the songs, though the re­frain is easy to catch (“He will take you up, up, up!”). We stand and clap and do our best.

Obama’s name is never ac­tu­ally men­tioned. Dur­ing the pri­maries, some churches were threat­ened with the loss of their tax-ex­empt sta­tus for be­ing overtly par­ti­san. It doesn’t stop the preacher from mak­ing his point: “On Tues­day, we want to be sure the ful­fil­ment of our dream is re­al­ized.” Hope is tem­pered with anx­i­ety.

The preacher takes 15 min­utes to ex­plain vot­ing rights. He as­sures the con­gre­ga­tion they can vote de­spite debts or un­paid park­ing tick­ets. He ex­plains they are en­ti­tled to bring chil­dren to the polls (an im­por­tant is­sue in a com­mu­nity with many sin­gle moms). Af­ter each point, he re­peats, “And don’t let any­one tell you oth­er­wise.”

We take note when he ap­peals for lawyers in the crowd to help pro­tect voter rights.

He col­lects an of­fer­ing to help get peo­ple to the polls. He asks every­one to do­nate $25. “If you don’t have $25, don’t worry, just ask the peo­ple sit­ting near you. Pay it back later.” The choir sings as mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion make their de­posits.

Ian, Dim­itri and I re­spond to the call for lawyers. Later in the day, we’ll re­ceive cre­den­tials, “Voter Pro­tec­tion” man­u­als and or­ders to re­port to a sta­tion in McKeesport, 30 kilome- tres out­side the cen­tre of town.

In the mean­time, we head to the Hill to can­vass.

Ian takes charge of the map — no easy as­sign­ment since so many prop­er­ties are un­marked or aban­doned. Ian, a se­nior and re­spected lit­i­ga­tion coun­sel, has a gra­cious man­ner and eas­ily engages the young men we find in the street. When we ex­plain to one man why we’re help­ing out, he gives us each one of those thumb-linked hand­shakes and a “guy hug.”

We bump into Dim­itri and Atul who as­sert we’re on their “turf.” I text Jor­dan to let him know we’re ready to be picked up. He takes us back to the com­mu­nity cen­tre for a lunch of roasted and fried chicken, mac­a­roni salad and col­lard greens.

Our can­vass­ing takes us into pub­lic hous­ing projects. Th­ese are mostly three-storey walkups with six units shar­ing nar­row stair­wells. The build­ings are dirty and di­lap­i­dated. Many are burned out and empty. Al­though we never feel un­safe, Ian and I de­cide to stay paired up in the stair­wells.

Those who are home an­swer our knock. The apart­ments be­hind their open doors are usu­ally crowded, clut­tered, noisy and smelly.

One woman comes to the door in an old flan­nel night­gown. An­other ap­pears cov­ered only in a towel. But there is a sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion and hope in the build­ing. Every­one as­sures us they plan to vote.

We meet up with Dim­itri and Atul, who sug­gests it seems a bit like be­ing on a pil­grim­age.

When we stop to pick up our Voter Pro­tec­tion as­sign­ments, Mario spots a “Catholics for Obama” poster. He of­fers to buy it — the last one — and an­nounces he in­tends to have his priest come to his house to bless it.

Jor­dan looks bagged, so I re­vert to the role of dad and per­suade him to have an early night.


Dim­itri, Ian and I meet in the lobby of the ho­tel to drive to our polling sta­tion. I call back to the ho­tel at 6:20 to wake Jor­dan, who will meet the oth­ers at 6:45 to head into the Hill for door-to-door and phone can­vass­ing.

Be­cause of all the rivers, Pittsburgh is a city of con­fus­ing bridges — there are more than a thou­sand —and we take sev­eral wrong turns. We ar­rive just be­fore the polls open, though it’s im­me­di­ately clear there won’t be much action here: One of our precincts has only 13 reg­is­tered vot­ers; the other has 294.

We in­tro­duce our­selves to the Demo­cratic “in­side poll watcher,” a trade lawyer named Lewis. We are “out­side poll watch­ers,” al­though the dis­tinc­tion seems mean­ing­less since we are al­lowed to move back and forth as we wish. We also meet the Repub­li­can poll watcher who ex­plains she’s there on be­half of her son. He is “sit­ting in Iraq,” and if he can sit there, she can sit here for 13 hours.

We de­cide to swing by a cam­paign of­fice in McKeesport, which is a de­cayed and crum­bling sub­urb. It’s an old steel mill town, ex­cept the steel mills have shut down, busi­nesses have closed and some grand old homes have been aban­doned.

Af­ter our can­vass there, we’re dis­patched to a polling sta­tion where an Obama vol­un­teer has been de­nied ac­cess to the vot­ing reg­is­ter. Ian ap­proaches the elec­tions judge, peer­ing over his glasses, his Voter Pro­tec­tion binder un­der his arm. I’m next in my black leather jacket. Burly Dim­itri, shaved head and sun­glasses, is next. It all turns out to be a mis­un­der­stand­ing — the vol­un­teer was looking in the wrong place. The elec­tions judge con­cludes our con­ver­sa­tion say­ing, “You didn’t have to gang me.”

We meet our group for lunch where Jor­dan tells me Mario is awe­some on the phones, “God bless­ing” many of the peo­ple he talks to. We have af­fec­tion­ately be­come known as “The Cana­di­ans” and are thor­oughly in­vested in the district’s re­sults.

4:30 P.M.

We work the Hill to get out ev­ery last vote, mak­ing a cou­ple of last­minute trips to polling sta­tions. At one, I ask a woman if she’s seen any tac­tics that have stopped peo­ple from vot­ing. “Repub­li­cans don’t come into the Hill,” she replies.

As dusk deepens, we make our way back to the com­mu­nity cen­tre head­quar­ters. We take to sim­ply shout­ing at who­ever we see to go and vote. Jor­dan asks one woman in hot pants and boots if she’s voted.

“Jor­dan, she’s go­ing to Mario says. “She can still vote.” We spend an­other hour on the phones. Jor­dan sends Dim­itri and Atul to a su­per­mar­ket to re­mind ev­ery per­son they see to vote.

7:45 P.M.


When ev­ery num­ber on ev­ery list has been called mul­ti­ple times, we slip back to the ho­tel to shower for what we hope will be a victory party. Be­fore head­ing to the lo­cal union hall, we gather in the lobby bar in time to hear CNN de­clare Penn­syl­va­nia for Obama. We hoot, shout and high-five each other and the folks at the next ta­ble. We no­tice that not every­one is cel­e­brat­ing — we’re in the Mar­riott, not the Hill District.

At the union hall, we find an ex­pec­tant crowd watch­ing CNN on a huge screen. A steady stream of lo­cal celebri­ties ad­dresses the crowd. We bump into the deputy field or­ga­nizer from the Hill who tells us that one of the precincts there voted 98 per cent for Obama; an­other voted 100 per cent in his favour.

As state af­ter state is de­clared, the room grows im­pa­tient. When Barack Obama is fi­nally de­clared the next pres­i­dent of the United States, there are tears and laugh­ter, re­lief and joy. “We did it,” Jor­dan keeps shout­ing into his phone to friends work­ing in Florida and New Hamp­shire and New York.

The evening ends qui­etly. We re­turn to the ho­tel bar for Obama’s speech. Jor­dan slips away as soon as it is done and sends me a text to say he needed some time to re­flect.

Ear­lier that evening, I asked him how we ended up in the Hill District. He said he’d told or­ga­niz­ers to send us some­where no­body else wanted to go.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be any­where else.

Atul Bahl and Dim­itri Las­caris take a break from can­vass­ing. Mr. Bahl, a Toronto high school teacher, re­cently worked on Olivia Chow’s elec­tion cam­paign in Trin­ity-Spad­ina. Mr. Las­caris, a class ac­tions lawyer in Lon­don, Ont., is also a Green party...

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