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Becoming An Involved Citizen

Editor's Note: Joe Foster has worked in private business (Montreal, Quebec), spent two years in Africa as a volunteer with the Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), two years with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Malaysia, followed by a career with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which included diplomatic assignments in the Caribbean and Asia. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Most of us try to make some plans as to what we will do when we retire. Some of us have very clear ideas as to how we will spend our time, including travelling extensively, doing part-time work, volunteering--or just taking a well-earned rest!

For me, I had planned to get involved with an NGO (non-governmental organization), preferably working abroad. Who knows? I just might even do a bit of travelling to exotic places as part of the work. One is never too old to dream!

That is not what happened! Only a few weeks after leaving my office for the last time, I bumped into a friend who knew I was looking for a new challenge. He suggested I get involved in politics. What?! Me, politics?! Well, I've always voted, but that has been the extent of it!

He suggested I look at it as one of my options, as he knew I would want to continue to be challenged intellectually. "At least give the guy a call and look at their website," he said.

Well, to make a long story short, I did look at the website and was impressed by the ten key values. I called the contact in Toronto and I followed up by sending him my CV. A short while later, I agreed to begin drafting policy documents as a member of what was called the "Living Platform".

I was intrigued by the concept of this open and grassroots approach and decided I had little to lose. While the Green Party of Canada (GPC) had been around for over two decades, it has had the image of being a one-issue party, focused on the environment. Although a healthy environment remains a pivotal theme throughout its set of policies, it is a full-fledged federal party addressing all key subjects and has run, during both of the last two elections, a full slate of candidates in all 308 ridings.

I chose, for my first effort, the preparation of a policy document on disability issues that, when finalized, was rated as one of the top half a dozen planks by the Green Party's membership across Canada. It became part of the 2004 platform and was subsequently added to the Conservative platform in 2006.

My willingness to work, combined with the "price is right" position, meant that the workload has continued to expand. I chaired one of the discussion groups and became the GPC Critic for Democracy and Good Government. Subsequently, I also took on the portfolio for Persons with Disabilities.

I had no idea how much time and effort many people--both volunteers and candidates--dedicate to politics. As you become more knowledgeable, it is natural to become passionate about the need for change. Many devote countless hours behind the scenes researching their portfolios, talking to lobby groups, drafting documents, preparing press releases, critiquing other policy proposals, campaigning, etc. Living in Ottawa I am aware that a serious politician works very hard.

What is the impact of being vision-impaired and trying to keep up with the gang? Just like work; one works just a little bit harder. Reading plus or minus a hundred emails a day, some with lengthy attachments, is no small job. After ten hours, your head begins to spin listening to a synthesized voice. Politely guiding your colleagues to be a bit more sensitive to particular requirements when under the pressure of an election is always challenging. While the GPC website has been rated the most accessible of all the parties, as any blind user knows, accessibility on a website is a relative thing!

Is it rewarding? Yes. Understanding the breadth, depth and complexity of government is both humbling and exhilarating. Having travelled a fair bit, I am fully aware how fortunate we Canadians are and how much we take for granted. To make a contribution, by promoting greater democracy and accountability, is a way to say thanks.

If disabled people wish to be heard and understood, then we must participate in all areas of life. Whether you choose the path I have taken or a different one, we still need to challenge those who make decisions for the "common good" at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Being a citizen is not only a right, it also carries responsibilities to protect and make democracy work. (opens in a new window)