Kirsten Weld has never been a member of the Liberal Party of Canada, nor has she made any donations. She hasn’t even voted for them in an election. So, when she recently received a letter from the Liberals at her home in New Haven, Conn., the 27-year-old was surprised. “Are you a second-class Canadian?” the envelope blared. The letter inside, signed by Michael Ignatieff, had this message in boldface at the top: “The Canadian Prime Minister is questioning your loyalty. I think he’s wrong.”
Among Conservatives, Ignatieff’s years spent abroad are a favourite point of attack—but the Liberal leader is hoping they will play better with the expatriate crowd. In a new campaign aimed at Canadians living outside the country, he’s playing up his globe-trotting in hopes of attracting donations. “My own path has taken me across the airwaves of the BBC to the pages of the New York Times, from remote villages in Afghanistan into lecture halls in Paris, Vancouver and Boston,” the letter says. Even the stationery is meant to evoke international travel: it’s marked with passport stamps from far-flung locales like Hong Kong, Paris and Sydney. A call to arms to expats to “stand against these attacks,” the letter ends by asking for a donation, to “affect the balance of power in Ottawa immediately.”
Some expats did feel their heartstrings tugged. “It struck a chord with me,” says Zoe Szajnfarber, a doctoral research assistant at MIT. Like Weld, Szajnfarber feels a strong connection to her home country, and getting mail from home is nice. But she was left to wonder: why was she selected for the campaign, and how exactly did the Liberals get her mailing address? Weld found herself asking these questions, too. “There’s no reason [the Liberals] should assume I would give them any money,” says Weld, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University’s department of history, who supports the NDP. The party must be reaching out to her, she says, “because I’m an expat.”
Sent to about 8,000 Canadians around the globe through June and July, the letter is indeed part of a larger strategy aimed at “engaging with the expatriate community,” says Rocco Rossi, the Liberal party’s national director. It’s also a response, he says, to the Tories’ “personal negative attack” against Ignatieff and, by extension, the “two million Canadians who live and work abroad.” Most of those who received the mail-out were people who’d contacted the Liberal party over the years, he says; addresses were also obtained from voter lists of those registered to vote abroad, which are a matter of public record, as well as various other sources.
When it comes to fundraising, Ignatieff’s Liberals are doing something right. The party raised $3.9 million in the second quarter—over four times the amount raised in the same period last year, under Stéphane Dion—beating the Tories for the first time in recent memory, which is “incredibly encouraging news,” Rossi says.
Yet there’s irony in the Liberals’ message. Canadians who live abroad may not exactly be “second class,” as the letter suggests, but many of them can’t actually vote in an election here. Since at least 1993, citizens who reside outside the country for more than five consecutive years have been ineligible to vote. (There are some exceptions, including those who work in the federal public administration, for example, or live with a member of the Canadian Forces.) The Liberals have “no current plans” to address this issue, Rossi says.
Canadians abroad might not always be able to vote in an election back home—but, luckily for the Liberals, they can still make political donations.