The City of Vancouver recently became the latest in a string of Canadian cities to join the fight to give permanent residents a vote in municipal elections.
In a unanimous decision this week, the city voted to appeal to the province of B.C. on the motion. Similar proposals have been put forth in other Canadian cities in the past, including Toronto, Calgary and Hamilton, with little success.
However, the unanimous vote by Vancouver’s city council has renewed hopes that this policy is about to change, and whether Canada’s growing immigrant population means that federal voting rights reform could soon follow.
Canada’s non-citizen population continues to grow
Permanent residents are people who have immigrated to Canada but who are not Canadian citizens. They’re entitled to social benefits and health care coverage, and can also work, live or study anywhere in Canada. They’re also entitled to protection under Canadian law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
One in five Canadians are immigrants, as of the 2016 census, bringing the total number of immigrants residing in Canada to 7.5 million. Permanent residents can apply for citizenship, but as non-citizens, they can neither vote nor run for political office, nor hold jobs that require “high-level security clearance.”
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“If you’re being asked to pay municipal taxes and you are subjected to decisions by municipal council, that’s kind of taxation without representation,” said Phil Triadafilopoulos, a professor with the department of political science at the University of Toronto.
He explained that this debate has been in municipalities across Canada for years, specifically because permanent residents pay municipal taxes and are subjected to the decisions of municipal officials, but get little say in their election.
There are about 60,000 permanent residents living in Vancouver — a city where only 33 per cent of eligible voters voted in the 2014 municipal election.
In a paper written for the Mowat Centre about Toronto’s case in 2010, Ryerson University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki argues that as of 2006, immigrants already made up 28.3 per cent of Ontario’s population. Also in that year, Toronto’s immigrant population reached 49.9 per cent of its 2.47 million residents. Furthermore, in 2006, 380,135 people living in Toronto were non-Canadian citizens.
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“I think extending voting rights to permanent residents is long overdue,” explained Siemiatycki in an interview. “We’ve been holding on for far too long to a 19th century notion of voting rights as being tied to national citizenship.”
In his paper, he goes on to state that 15 per cent of Brampton’s population, 14.2 per cent of Mississauga’s population, 10.4 per cent of Markham’s population and six per cent of Hamilton’s population are non-Canadian citizens, and are therefore ineligible to vote in municipal elections.
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“To appreciate the extent of political exclusion this entrenches in Toronto, consider this. Ontario has very few municipalities – barely a handful – with a larger number of total eligible municipal voters than the total number of non-citizen residents who are denied the vote in Toronto,” wrote Siemiatycki at the time.
The motion added that in addition to the 45 countries who’d already given “some form of voting rights” to permanent residents, 11 Canadian municipalities are currently working to extend voting rights to this group.
Siemiatycki told Global News in an interview that “cities are very important points of belonging and intersection.”
“If you want immigrants to feel like they belong, one way to accomplish this is to give them a voice and give them a vote.”
Can this be applied to federal elections?
Experts agree that while the argument for letting permanent residents vote in municipal elections is a strong one, things become more complex at the provincial and federal level.
“There are arguments in favour of protecting citizenship. A lot of people feel that way,” Triadafilopoulos said. He added that becoming a Canadian citizen is a much shorter process than obtaining citizenship in many other countries, and questioned the viability of allowing permanent residents to vote in federal and provincial elections for the limited time they hold that status.
Western University political science professor Laura Stevenson agrees. “It’s not that citizenship is unattainable. If you want to be Canadian, and live here and have a say in moving the country forward, seeking citizenship seems like a logical step.”
She also agreed that there’s a “qualitative difference” between voting in a municipal election and voting in a provincial or federal election.
“These issues are more than just community-based. There’s something about being a citizen that suggests you’re here for here for the long haul.”
While Siemiatycki doesn’t believe a federal roll-out of permanent resident voting rights is immediately on the horizon, he does think it could happen. He cites New Zealand as an example where permanent residents are allowed to vote in all elections after one year.
“My hunch is that it’s not inconceivable, but it will be a longer climb. It may be a bit more complicated, but I think it could come after having it play out at the municipal level, or if one province does it for their jurisdiction.”