Making Politics More Welcoming

More than 40 countries let non-citizen residents vote municipally. Why not Canada?

This fall, Toronto City Council will debate a motion that could allow approximately 261,000 previously ineligible people to vote in Toronto municipal elections for the first time. (This number, which is based on the 2006 census, has likely risen, but is difficult to estimate due to the loss of the mandatory long-form census, which contained data on citizenship.) These people are not Canadian citizens. They are non-citizen residents—skilled workers, refugees and other permanent residents—who make Toronto their home. Regardless of the outcome, they will still not be able to vote provincially or federally. They would, however, be given a voice in the selection of the political representatives whose decisions shape their daily lives. And, as a group, they would be enfranchised for the first time in Canadian history. Should they be?

We think so. Yet support for municipal enfranchisement has, until very recently, been relatively weak. Non-citizen residents make up approximately 4 percent of the national population in Canada. In cities, this number is much higher: in Toronto, the most diverse city in Canada, non-citizen residents make up approximately 15 percent of the population. Independently of how long they have resided in Canada, these people do not have the right to vote. They thus lack access to one of the key political mechanisms through which the fate of their communities is decided. This failure to extend at least local voting rights to non-citizens is inconsistent with Canada’s moral commitment to welcoming and including immigrants in our social and political life.

In Toronto, the movement got off to an optimistic start. Former mayor David Miller expressed his support for the idea of extending the municipal vote to non-citizen residents in October 2006, shortly after reading a landmark paper by Myer Siemiatycki on the topic titled The Municipal Franchise and Social Inclusion in Toronto: Policy and Practice. Siemiatycki, a professor of political science at Ryerson University, argued that granting the right to vote in municipal elections to non-citizen residents would “significantly advance democracy, civic participation, and the prospects for more responsive public policy in Toronto.” Miller noted that without the local vote, the voices of non-citizens are ignored. One consequence, he suggested, was that politicians and policy makers in Toronto let neighbourhoods with high proportions of non-citizen residents deteriorate.

Toronto, a city of 2.6 million with the motto of “Diversity Our Strength,” is home to more than 380,000 non-citizens. Of these, the aforementioned 261,000 are believed to be of voting age. Some of these non-citizen residents live in the neighbourhoods to which Miller was referring. Siemiatycki refers to these communities as “voteless neighbourhoods,” in which more than 30 percent of the population are non-citizens and therefore ineligible to vote, such as in Don Valley Village, Henry Farm and Thorncliffe Park.

Following Miller’s endorsement of the idea, John Gerretsen, Ontario’s municipal affairs minister at the time, agreed to look into it. Provincial agreement is crucial because provincial law—the Municipal Elections Act and the Education Act—ultimately determines who can vote at the municipal level. Critically, however, Premier Dalton McGuinty did not support the proposal, claiming that the right to vote is one to which only citizens are entitled.

Only months earlier, a similar case was made in Mississauga. This rapidly growing municipality is home to about 700,000 people, approximately 100,000 of whom are non-citizens. In April 2006, a German citizen made a formal request to allow him and other non-citizen residents the right to participate on official municipal boards and committees. This man had lived in Canada for almost 30 years, was educated in Canada’s public school system and considered himself Canadian in all but citizenship. He had not obtained Canadian citizenship due to the peculiarities of German inheritance laws and his personal economic interests in Germany. His request was rejected by a majority of Mississauga city councillors. One councillor went so far as to say immigrants who had not yet obtained citizenship should stop treating Canada as if it were a “buffet table” of “rights and other good things.”

From 2009 to early 2013, little progress was made on the issue. This was, in part, due to a lack of political will at the provincial level, but the nascent movement also faced opposition from civil society. Whereas immigrants worried about devaluing the citizenship they had worked so hard to achieve, native-born Canadians worried about the effects of allowing those not adequately familiar with Canada to have a say in how it is governed.

As the movement faltered in Toronto, a legal case was developing across the country. Vancouver, a city of 603,000, is home to some 74,000 non-citizens, including lawyer Scott Bernstein. On November 14, 2011, mere days before the municipal election, Bernstein filed a charter challenge, claiming that the sections of the Vancouver Charter and of the School Act that prohibit non-citizens from voting in municipal elections violated his rights to freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression as laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In his notice of civil claim, Bernstein makes clear why he feels entitled to a vote in municipal Vancouver elections: he has lived, studied and worked in Vancouver since 2006; he pays taxes and uses public services; and he wishes to make meaningful choices about who will represent him and make important decisions on his behalf. The claim also notes the irony that non-resident property owners from other provinces can vote in cities in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, provided they are Canadian citizens. After filing the notice of civil claim, however, the plaintiff did not pursue the case further.

How is it that these three efforts to extend the vote to non-citizen residents failed, until recently, to gain mainstream political traction? Canada has an international reputation of welcoming immigrants. Both federal and provincial governments rely on, and actively promote, this reputation to attract temporary and permanent foreign workers.

Furthermore, Canada prides itself on its tolerance and progressiveness among countries. It was, after all, the first one to adopt multiculturalism as official policy, affirming a commitment to diversity and equality. This conflicts with the reality that Canada is not leading the pack, and that in more than 40 countries around the world, non-citizens have the right to vote in at least some elections. Half of these countries are in Europe, a trend that began over 20 years ago, to no ill effect, with the Maastricht Treaty. New Zealand goes a step further: municipal and national voting rights are extended to all immigrants who have entered the country legally after only one year of residency.

But perhaps Canadians are not as welcoming as our self-image might suggest. As Janice Stein notes, although Canadians are “proudly multicultural,” we tend to practise a “shallow” rather than “deep” multiculturalism. We are comfortable, she writes, with “easy multiculturalism,” which amounts to a “celebration of song, dance, poetry, literature, language, and food” but “which raises no hard questions at all.” Perhaps voting rights for non-citizens is an issue that requires sincere debate, but which is too “deep” for many Canadians’ consideration.

The phrase “non-citizen residents” encompasses many significantly different groups. Permanent residents, refugee claimants, temporary foreign workers (including live-in caregivers, seasonal agricultural workers and others) and non-status migrants all face different challenges with regard to adjusting to life in Canada. Nevertheless, each of these groups is entitled to the right to vote for at least three reasons. First, like citizens, the lives of non-citizen residents are affected by the decisions that political authorities make: decisions about how transit money is used, who sits on school boards and how the urban landscape is shaped are all made at the municipal level.

Second, in many cases, non-citizen residents contribute in significant ways to the community in which they reside: most significantly through the property taxes they pay as homeowners or tenants. Yet, without a formal voice in the selection of the political representatives who decide how their tax dollars are spent, they are victims of taxation without representation. Moreover, this reasoning carries increasing weight in states, like Canada, where more and more temporary labour migrants are being admitted every year. As these migrants are encouraged to renew temporary visas, but not to apply for permanent residence, the justification for restricting their access to the right to vote diminishes.

Third, there is a quality-of-government argument to be made: political writers since Aristotle have long acknowledged that the quality of government improves when decision makers have access to more complete information about the people they govern. Democracies function best when as many voices as possible are heard. The perhaps unfortunate fact of politics is that elected officials often require incentives to consider, and be responsive to, the needs of those they govern. Without the vote, however, the channels of communication remain closed, and, as David Miller warned, the deterioration of “voteless” neighbourhoods will continue.

So far, the failure of these movements to extend the vote may suggest that the issue lacks salience among Canadians. As Stein proposed, it could be that Canadians are only willing to venture into deep multiculturalism when, for example, women’s rights and cultural tolerance clash. Voting rights for non-citizens may be deemed too low on the priority list. This lack of salience could also be due to a perceived lack of moral urgency; in Canada, it is relatively easy to gain citizenship after only three years of permanent residency. This is in contrast to countries with significantly more stringent citizenship requirements, where non-citizens are granted some voting rights early on to compensate for the long wait for citizenship. However, there are many who struggle to attain permanent residence in Canada, and there are legitimate reasons for choosing not to obtain citizenship at all. Nonetheless, these people have a right to participate in the laws and decisions that govern their lives.

There are four common objections to extending the right to vote to non-citizen residents. The first is that the enfranchisement of non-citizens diminishes the value of citizenship. This resonates with the widely broadcast though largely unsubstantiated position of Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, through a suite of legislation that aims to “protect” citizenship. The act of voting is commonly thought to be the sine qua non of democratic politics. It is reserved for citizens because only members of a state are entitled to define the laws that govern a state. And yet conceptions of who is entitled to full citizenship—with the vote—have historically expanded over time, to include citizens who do not own property, women, citizens of colour, and so on. Moreover, the emphasis on citizenship as a precondition for voting is in tension with another important principle of democratic justice: that the people whose lives are governed by laws should have a say in those laws. It is important to note that there are other important distinctions, besides the right to vote, between non-citizens and citizens, such as the right to possess a Canadian passport and the right to not be deported.

Another common objection is that granting the vote to non-citizens would then allow them political influence over the conditions under which they and other migrants are granted citizenship. But decisions about membership in the nation-state happen at the federal, not municipal, level. As a result, granting only the local vote to non-citizens provides them with significant input into the conditions that shape their daily lives, without raising concerns that they are able to determine the terms of citizenship themselves.

A third objection to the enfranchisement of non-citizen residents is that allowing non-citizen residents to vote could result in bad government. A charitable reading of this objection is that immigrants may be unfamiliar with the Canadian political landscape, and bad government will result. But can a lack of initiation into Canadian politics cause bad policy? There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that immigrants are somehow worse voters. And early engagement in the political process could foster integration and accelerate political initiation because participation itself is educative.

A fourth objection makes the slippery slope argument: won’t this open the door to allowing non-citizens to vote in provincial and federal elections, thus giving them the right to have a say in the laws that determine membership? We cannot deny that we support such extensions, in principle. Yet the constitutional changes that would be necessary to do so effectively make such an extension impossible. We can afford to be more hopeful at the municipal level, as municipalities already have voting rules that differ from the provincial and federal levels. In fact, a number of provinces allowed non-citizen British subjects to vote municipally until the 1970s.

The motion before Toronto City Council this fall will decide whether a population roughly the size of Saskatoon will be eligible to vote in future municipal elections. The success of the motion will depend not only on the outcome of the council vote, but also the receptivity of the province. This, in turn, will depend on the political climate of the province and the willingness of other Ontario municipalities to open up their municipal elections to non-citizens.

Despite these obstacles, Councillor Ana Bailão, one of the principal architects of the motion, remains optimistic. She sees extending the vote as “a way to engage people,” a way of “making people more aware of their local governments, and more involved.” This motion, she says, is “the result of having a council that is more diverse.” And she sees a provincial political climate receptive to policies and practices that foster the inclusion and integration of newcomers. According to Bailão, whereas “a few years ago, Toronto was the home for new immigrants, not anymore.” There are “more and more new immigrants that go to Mississauga, that go to Brampton.” Thus, Councillor Bailão sees these other municipalities in Ontario supporting Toronto on this issue.

Policy changes of this magnitude take time. Provincial laws must be changed and voter lists compiled. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that non-citizen residents of Toronto will be eligible to vote by October 27, 2014. With any luck, the enfranchisement of non-citizen residents will be debated during next year’s election. And it will be a debate with ramifications far beyond Toronto’s city limits; the enfranchisement of non-citizens is of vital importance to Canada’s relationship with newcomers. In enfranchising non-citizens, Toronto would be taking a step toward honouring Canada’s commitment to welcoming and including immigrants in our social and political life.