Donald Sutherland is a Solid Citizen

We can’t claim Canadian celebrities as our own, then turn them away at the voting booth

By Eric Marks
Troy Media

SAINT JOHN, NB/Troy Media/ – What does it mean to be a Canadian?

That’s a question people have been debating across the country thanks to crusading actor Donald Sutherland.

There’s no question of Sutherland’s citizenship. He was born in New Brunswick and spent part of his early adulthood in Nova Scotia. He and his wife, Quebec actress Francine Racette, have never applied for American citizenship, though they have lived and worked in the United States for years. They carry Canadian passports. They can’t vote or run for political office in the U.S. – and thanks to a recent court ruling in Ontario, reinstating a federal rule that had been struck down, they can’t vote in Canada either.

Over the past week, Sutherland has emerged as the most prominent member of thousands of Canadian expatriates who are full citizens (and in many cases, taxpayers) but who are prohibited from voting by a regulation designed to strip voting rights from anyone who has lived outside this country for five years or more.

Sutherland is a compelling spokesman who can point to far more than the maple leaf on his passport and his star on the Canadian Actors Walk of Fame as evidence he is still a red-blooded Canuck. He’s also an Officer of the Order of Canada, and the Governor General has feted him with an award for his lifelong contributions to Canadian culture.

These honours certainly testify to the willingness of Canadian officials to capitalize on Donald Sutherland’s fame. But, you could argue that appropriating the achievements of famous expats while spurning them at home is as Canadian as rappie pie. In Hollywood, it’s a tradition that’s almost as old as cinema itself, dating back to the days of silent screen star Mary Pickford (born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto). So, why don’t we cut straight to the voting criteria established by Pierre Poilievre, Canada’s the Minister for Democratic Reform?

The Hon. Mr. Poilievre recently stated, “Our Government continues to believe that non-residents should have a direct and meaningful connection to Canada and to their ridings in order to vote in federal elections.‎”

By that standard, Donald Sutherland is as Canadian as the Minister and his colleagues. If they doubt it, they should pay a visit to his hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick.

You don’t need to talk to many people here to start gathering Sutherland stories. The actor spent his childhood and teen years here, and his status as a city native is celebrated, along with movie mogul Louis B. Mayer and fellow actor Walter Pidgeon, in a series of portraits that greet visitors on Canterbury Street. The National Basketball League of Canada’s Saint John Mill Rats franchise has named a dozen courtside seats the Sutherland seats after him, in recognition of his citizenship and his love of the game. And Sutherland himself continues to spend time catching up on his family history here and investing in dramas that tell essentially Canadian stories.

Like his Quebec-born contemporary, Leonard Cohen, New Brunswick-born Major League baseball players Matt Stairs and Jason Dickson, or the billionaire British media baron Sir Maxwell Aitken, the first Lord Beaverbrook, who insisted that his ashes be laid to rest near his childhood home in Newcastle, N.B., Donald Sutherland and his wife have left their mark on the world but circle back repeatedly to Canada.

Isn’t that what we want of our expatriates – for each to be the best at what he or she does, wherever it may take them, and still remain one of us?

More than a century after Sir Wilfrid Laurier proclaimed the future would be filled by Canadians, this country is has produced thinkers, athletes, and artists who stand alongside the best in the world.

What good does it do us to claim kinship with their greatness, then deny them the most fundamental right of citizenship – the faith that they have an equal stake in the success or failure of Canadian society, and an equal right to participate in shaping its future?

Eric Marks is a former opinion page editor. He lives in Saint John.