OTTAWA - Salah Dau never allowed himself to believe there would be free elections in Libya, not so long as Moammar Gadhafi was alive.
Unable to hold back his emotions Tuesday, Dau wept openly as he cast a ballot for the first time in his life — not in Libya, but in Canada's capital.
"I've seen only one regime in my life, 42 years, always (under) a dictatorship," Dau said after voting at a west-end arena and having his right index finger blotted with ink.
"To be able to be free and express myself, express my opinion, to say what I feel about anything, it's just unimaginable."
More tears and hugs followed as a group of Libyan-Canadians who were among organizers of the five-day vote cast ballots in an election of a new government and a 200-seat national assembly in Libya.
The voting comes less than a year after the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi at the hands of rebel fighters, aided by NATO air forces, including fighter jets from Canada.
Canada is among just six countries where Libyans living abroad are able to vote. The others are the United States, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and the United Kingdom.
Dr. Adel Esayed, national director for the voting in Canada, was also emotional after placing his completed ballot in a sealed plastic bin.
Canada was chosen, he said, because the country "contributed to the revolution."
A Canadian general commanded the NATO-led, UN-sanctioned air campaign over Libya last year. Canada also contributed seven CF-18 jet fighters to the international effort, one of eight countries to participate in the air campaign.
Voting in Libya itself is set to take place on Saturday. There are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Libyan Canadians living across the country who are eligible to vote.
Looking back on the turmoil that led to Gadhafi's ouster and execution, Esayed said violence was the only way to bring an end to decades of oppression in Libya.
"There was no other way because that man would never, ever leave the country without the way he had to go through," he said.
"He thought that he owned the country, he and his family, and Libyan people were slaves for his family."
Gadhafi brooked no dissent during his 42 years' of iron-fisted rule, which ended with his brutal execution by rebel fighters last October.
The July 7 vote is crucial step on Libya's road to building a democratic country. The newly elected assembly will be tasked with writing the country's constitution.
It's difficult to predict how that process will unfold, considering the problems other countries are facing in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.
Libya is currently governed by the unelected National Transitional Council, an anti-Gadhafi alliance that Canada and its allies have formally recognized as the country's true leaders.
In Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was brought down by protests in January 2011, elections have so far only divided the country further, with two presidential candidates whom the protesters deeply opposed battling for control.
But organizers of the Libyan elections in Canada hold out hope that positive change is around the corner for their former homeland.
"There are some problems, but Libya has a lot of dedicated people, they are very well educated," said Esayed, who is the chair of Niagara College's School of Technology.
"They will lead the country to a bright future."
And they have to think positively, said Esayed, for the sake of those who sacrificed so Libyans can finally vote, and move the country in the direction of democracy.
"A lot of people died for this."