Thanksgiving dinner at the Canadian Club in Ajijic, Mexico, featured a far north-of-the-border menu of turkey, gravy, stuffing, peas, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie — all smacking of maple syrup. Not making the menu at most tables in one of the world largest communities of Canadian retirees: politics, even with an election in the offing Oct. 19.
"We care deeply," offered one dinner guest when asked, while insisting on anonymity. "But we wouldn't bring that up at Thanksgiving."
Those subdued sentiments and attempts at warding off unwelcome attention capture the political picture of the Canadians residing in Ajijic (pronounced, "A-hee-heek"), where most are ineligible to vote and many wouldn't cast ballots, even if they could.
It's a sharp contrast with the American community — the other half of the estimated 20,000 foreigners residing in this region, 30 miles south of Guadalajara on the shore of Lake Chapala — who can't leave politics back at the border and whose elections, even abroad, turn tense every two years.
An Ontario court upheld rules prohibiting those residing outside Canada for more than five years from voting in federal elections, drawing outrage from expats around the world – including Ajijic, though the sentiments weren't shared by all.
"I'm a taxpayer!" said one woman from Vancouver, who still supports Prime Minister Stephen Harper in spite of not being able to vote.
"There are some policies that I like, like screening refugees," she said. "I also agree that if you're going to take the oath, take that thing off of your face," she added, a reference to one of the most divisive issues of the campaign: the rimes minister's vow to ban women from wearing the niqab while taking the oath of citizenship.
Others wanted change, though only offered opinions when asked.
"I don't care if he's ready or not," said a Calgarian with a Scottish accent, referring to Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, who was targeted by Conservative ads that questioned his readiness.
All ran off without giving their names.
An official with the Canadian Club, a social organization that holds monthly meetings with guest speakers, said expats had good reasons for acting aloof. Some members want to keep their whereabouts secret from the federal and provincial governments and fear media attention, or even registering to vote will foil that — even though Elections Canada doesn't share voter information with other parts of government.
Anyone spending more than six months outside their province loses health care coverage, while Canadians abroad can be asked to pay an "exit tax," which could hurt their nest eggs.
With expats quick to condemn stories on violence in Mexico as attempts to mar the country's international image (and lower their property values) this fear of the long arm of the Canadian government is ironic here, where more than 25,000 Mexicans have gone missing since 2006 and another 100,000 have been killed in the ongoing crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime.
Americans, meanwhile, are only too anxious to talk and even more eager to express political opinions.
Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have local chapters, with Democrats Abroad organizing voter registration drives and even the Tea Party trying to move votes. Democrats Abroad held its monthly meeting on Canadian Thanksgiving, featuring a speech: "Why every Democrat should hug a trial lawyer." They gathered the next night to watch the inaugural Democratic debate, complete with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton paraphernalia.
"It gets rabid," said Julianne Lyons, a former Etobicoke, Ont. city councillor and Ajijic resident, of the atmosphere among Americans every election.
"We try to avoid political discussions here, especially when people get to drinking, which is pretty much all the time," said Steven Miller, a retired US Air Force officer splitting time between Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende.
Any attempt to restrict expat voting for Americans appears out of the question. "I think there would be a lot of upset people," said Howard Feldstein, former president of Democrats Abroad in Ajijic.
Canadians don't hold debate parties, don't let politics sour social events, and don't seem to take the subject too seriously in Ajijic. Rob Parker, a former Progressive Conservative member of Parliament, recalled a write-in campaign organized in 2004 by a former honorary consul in Guadalajara, Allan Rose. It attracted 250 voters, which he called, "reasonable," but "nothing like the potential that existed."
"No matter what we told them or how much proof we gave them," Parker said, people thought participating in elections would "result in the Canada Revenue Agency knowing your whereabouts."
Rose has also tried recruiting expats to register with the consulate in the case of an emergency but found little interest. It's a trend continuing to this day.
Canadians with the money to live abroad moved south in bigger numbers in the 1990s, drawn by a perpetual spring-like climate, an endless number of social and charitable organizations to sign up with, and prices low enough to hire maids and gardeners. Property tax bills run about $300 annually.
Shaw Direct satellite service beams in television from home, local bars in Lake Chapala show Blue Jays and hockey games, and a specialty store stocks imported items with English labels – like almond butter and gluten-free goodies that are hard find in most Mexican supermarkets.
Everyone interviewed insisted the area is safe – though narcobloqueos (cartel thugs seizing and burning buses) on the highway to Guadalajara and other parts of the region have occurred – even as they chafed at revealing their real names.
"If it wasn't safe, we wouldn't be here," said an expat from Edmonton, who didn't want to provide his name. "Just call me an Oilers fan."
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Image via Flickr user Nathaniel Borboa Frías