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Just because I was going on a pilgrimage to Spain would not prevent me from exercising my democratic right. I’ve never missed an opportunity to vote – I’ve long felt we were obligated to vote (no excuses!) and should support the best candidate on the list, party etiquette is a secondary consideration .
In the fall of 2007, I knew I was going to walk the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route to the possible tomb of Saint James. Previously, I had hiked the Camino from the traditional starting point of Saint Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees, and found that four weeks of walking was just enough to decompress. That year, however, I thought it might be interesting to start from another of the traditional starting points for a seven-week trip. I would start at Montserrat in the hills above Barcelona, hike the plains of Catalonia to Aragon, then over the Sierra de Loarre to the high altitude Camino Aragones, then join the more popular Camino Francese route at the town of Puente la Reina, and thence to Santiago. What was wrong with crossing Spain from one end to the other? It sounded good on paper. I remembered the Camino as being slightly hilly valleys and completely forgot the hilly parts. The effort would be much more than I expected (regardless of my determination to vote in the provincial elections held in my absence).
At that time, voting by proxy under the Ontario Elections Act was fairly straightforward, so I asked a friend and neighbor if she would be my proxy. None of the contestants had been officially announced when I left Canada and it was unclear who would show up or what they would look like once on the hustings – but Wendy’s judgment was solid gold. I told her she had to use my power of attorney which she felt was the best candidate.
The day before my flight to Barcelona, I went down to the returning office to collect the forms and stuff them into my backpack. For some reason, the forms could not be signed until a week or 10 days after the writ was filed. I started my trek and went online to various libraries to check for Ontario news.
In the hilly medieval cathedral town of Huesca, I discovered that the elections had been called, and after two days of arduous walking, I entered the mountain village of Loarre. But it wasn’t until I unpacked the power of attorney documents that I realized I would need help filling them out. Apparently, I had to have the document testified – anyone, whether an Ontario voter or a local official wherever I was, could do so. I started looking for an official in Loarre.
I crossed the square to the Ajuntamiento, or town hall. Finding the reception empty, I went up to the second floor. There I found an official (who looked like a middle-aged, overweight Antonio Banderas) and did my best to explain my unusual situation to him.
A mix of Castilian and French seemed to get the point across (a Spanish friend of mine said it probably sounded like I spoke very little Aragonese, the local dialect). This official told me to come back at 5 p.m., because the office would reopen at that time. (I should point out that most Spanish offices close for siesta.)
So I too took a nap and went back to the office at 5 o’clock. The official I had met earlier was at the entrance and asked me to follow him to one of the upstairs offices. I found about ten people there, alcalde – a much more elegant title than mayor – two councillors, an officer of the notorious and once feared Civil Guard and several other official-looking people. A table next to it had been set with bottles of cava, mineral water and juice, along with a tray of snacks. I remember little triangles of manchego cheese and crackers with boqueronesthe unsalted marinated anchovies that brighten up every Spanish bar with their presence.
The official spoke for about three to four minutes in Spanish about how everyone would witness a signature so that this Canadian pilgrim could vote in his country’s elections (correcting him on Canadian federalism would have been unnecessary and obnoxious to this stage). The alcalde would preside and sign in the presence of the two councilors, one socialist and the other from the Partido Popular, for balance, he said (this drew some laughter), and the Civil Guard was there to maintain the order, because that was their role at election time (lots more laughter, because a difficult past was on everyone’s mind). The guard was a tall, striking dark blond and armed with an automatic pistol, so I nodded in appreciation as one is always polite to those with handguns.
The alcalde waved me to the table, where I signed the power of attorney. He signed as a witness and the seal, or sello, of the city was affixed. The two councilors signed to witness his signature and applied their party sellos. The civic guard then opened their sello case and applied their sello to signify that everything had been done in order, without interruption. There was applause. As I watched to better understand what was going on, the alcalde started speaking in awkward but understandable French (because that’s what all Canadians speak, right?). He said they were grateful to have had the privilege of helping me vote because, as everyone present knew, not too long ago they lived in a country where voting meant nothing . Governing us should not be taken for granted.
I now had to offer a formal answer and was grateful that no one criticized my use of the conditional and the imperfect in an introductory clause. I expressed my thanks for the alcaldehis feelings. There were few ties between Canada and Spain, but we had built another that day.
There was more applause and the cava burst. The first official I met told me it had been a quiet week and thanked me for the excuse to bring the office together for a party.
God only knows what Elections Ontario staff thought of the well-stamped and well-sealed document that arrived back in Ottawa. Wendy appreciated their dismay and then voted on my behalf doing, as always, the right thing.
Austin Cooke lives in Ottawa.
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