Efforts to give permanent residents the right to vote in New Brunswick municipal elections are gathering steam.
Keith Chiasson, the Liberal MLA for Tracadie-Sheila, says he will be introducing legislation on Tuesday that would make the change, if the bill is passed.
“The time has come to let permanent residents participate in our democracy,” Chiasson told reporters earlier this week.
“It just makes sense.”
If the bid is successful, New Brunswick would be the first province in the country to make the change.
The president of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council says the move would solidify the province’s stated commitment to aggressively grow its population through immigration over the next decade.
“Immigrants will definitely get the signal that government means what they say,” said Moncef Lakouas in an interview.
At the state of the province address in January, Premier Blaine Higgs announced a lofty target of growing New Brunswick’s population to one million people by 2040.
In order to help accomplish that, Higgs said the province will ask the federal government to increase the number of immigrants New Brunswick can accept each year to 10,000 from the current 7,500.
Lakouas estimates there are about 30,000 immigrants currently living in the province and says that the democratic system needs to change in order to reflect changing demographics.
Right now there is only a single one person of colour on municipal councils across the province. Lakouas says clearing the way for permanent residents to vote and run for municipal council, could go a long way to changing that.
“The social and the demographic fabric of the province is changing,” he said. “Every single opinion matters and we have to make sure that local governments look like the people that they represent. For inclusion purposes, but also for passion, for role modelling.”
Bernadette Francis has spent most of her life in New Brunswick. She says permanent residents are members of their communities, just like any citizen, but lack the political agency that comes with the right to vote.
“The way I look at it, permanent residents have chosen to live here and they’re permanent. They’re not going anywhere,” she said.
“In my case, I got married here, I had my children here, I attended university here, I work here, I now have a business here, I pay taxes here. We are well established in the community exactly like everybody else, but we can’t vote”
This is not the first time the change has been proposed. In 2017 the Commission on Electoral Reform recommended that permanent residents be allowed to vote in both municipal and provincial elections. It also suggested that the voting age be lowered to 16.
Then premier Brian Gallant said that the question of lowering the voting age would be put to a referendum in the 2020 municipal elections, but stopped short of extending voting rights to permanent residents because making the change provincially would require changing the constitution.
No such change would be required for municipal elections, which are entirely the domain of provincial governments.
Ultimately, the change in government after the 2018 election put any changes to the electoral system on hold. The 2020 municipal elections, which were scheduled to take place in May, were postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chiasson says the Liberals are just focused on making the change for municipal elections for now but hopes it will be the first step in extending voting rights to provincial elections in the future.
Amendments to make the change were initially proposed for Bill 23, which will give emergency powers to the chief electoral officer to cope with future situations like the current pandemic.
But Bill 23 doesn’t touch on the relevant sections of the Municipal Elections Act, meaning a separate bill is necessary to make the change.
Minister of Local Government and Local Governance Reform Daniel Allain says the proposal to extend voting rights to permanent residents has merit, but wouldn’t say if the government will support the Liberal bill due to come this week.
Allain noted that the previous attempt to make the change was abandoned and said that should be studied as well.
Green MLA Kevin Arseneau said his caucus is in full support of the change and may table an amendment to lower the voting age to 16 for municipal elections as well.
Chiasson wouldn’t say if the Liberals would support such an amendment, but said it will be debated in the committee stage if it’s proposed.