It's time to afford non-citizens some voting rights in Canada
Admittedly, it's a provocative proposition: isn't the right to vote one of the keystone and defining elements of citizenship? Certainly, the act of casting a vote for an elected official or on a topic put to the public is one of the most tangible displays of citizenship, but of course citizenship means much more than just that. For example, one additional privilege that citizens have over permanent residents or visitors is the right to entry and habitation in Canada. Permanent residents and visitors get to stay here as long as the government says that they may. So, voting is an important part of citizenship, but not the be-all and end-all of it.
Earlier this week (on November 16th) I filed a lawsuit in the BC Supreme Court seeking declarations that sections of the Vancouver Charter and the School Act that prohibited non-Canadian citizens from being eligible to vote or run in municipal elections was contrary to the Charter. I claimed that these provisions were discriminatory and infringed expression and could not be justified in a free and democratic society.
As for some of my background, I am an American citizen who came to Vancouver in late 2006 to study law at UBC. In mid-2007 I began the process of applying for permanent residency status. It took me two-and-a-half years to get it, but I became a PR in early 2010. I am not yet eligible to apply for citizenship, and when I do apply in spring of next year, it will take me another year to get it. In all, I will have been a resident of Vancouver for over six years before becoming a citizen and will have had to sit out of two, maybe three municipal elections. I am currently a social-justice lawyer and married to a Canadian citizen.
I brought my claim on behalf of myself and the 74,000 non-citizens who live in Vancouver who are excluded from voting in this most local level of government. But, every major city in Canada has a large population of immigrant non-citizens. In Vancouver, it's 13% of our population; in Toronto it's 15%. In each of these citiies, it's a huge number of people who are being excluded from partaking in this activity. In all, about 1.5 million people in Canada fall into this non-citizen category and are excluded from voting in any election.
When I first brought my claim and it was reported, I received a lot of feedback - probably equally supportive (from both citizens and non-citizens) and non-supportive. Many people said that voting was a right protected by the Charter and reserved for Canadian citizens only. It is true that voting in provincial and federal elections is guaranteed to Canadian citizens under s.3 of the Charter. That, actually, is a floor and not a ceiling. Up to 1970, British Subjects from 54 different countries could vote in all Canadian elections. As late as 2003, Nova Scotia allowed these non-citizens the right to vote in its provincial elections. There is nothing wrong with or preventing the government from raising the ceiling.
But, it may surprise you to hear that no one - citizen or non-citizen - has a right to vote in a municipal election. Municipalities are not constitutional entities. They are created by ordinary statutes and only have the powers that are granted to them by the provincial legislature. In this case, the statues confer the privilege of voting and running for office only to citizens. In our elections, the votes are for the Mayor, City Councillors, School Trustees, and Park Board. From a legal perspective, the province could have decided that these offices were to be appointed or selected randomly from the phone book and both of those options would have been within their power to do.
My argument is grounded in the fact that municipal government is very different than provincial and federal government (although, I would gladly argue in a different claim that the bar of citizenship is too stringent for voting in provincial elections as well). Municipal government is all about services. It's about how the city delivers water to your door, how much property tax you pay, how your property is zoned, how your schools are run, streets built, parks cared for, libraries stocked, rec centres, etc. Non-citizens and citizens alike who are residents of a municipality such as Vancouver both use and pay for these services equally, yet only Citizens get a say in how they are run. In this last municipal election yesterday (which - had a record number of voters - yet only drew about 35% of the eligible voters), voters were also asked to approve a $180 million debt package for the City that we all will be paying for.
In Vancouver and other municipalities in BC, there is also a provision that non-resident property owners (citizens) can have a vote in our elections. So, if the person who owns the house an immigrant lives in lived abroad, he would get gets a vote for School Trustee, but the non-citizen who lives and works here and has a kid in school (who actually might be a citizen herself), cannot vote.
Non-citizen voting is not something unheard of. About 40 countries around the world - including 17 countries in Europe - allow for some form of non-citizen voting. In many cases, non-citizens only have to live in a place for a year to get the full franchise of voting. What these experiences have shown is that non-citizen voting increases the partipation and integration of immigrants into society. Non-citizens who were allowed to vote progressed on the path to citizenship faster than in places without voting (that is very understandable if you imagine that the taste of participation in a democracy empowers people to imagine their participation on a broader level and encourages them to take the necessary steps). It's a win-win to use a cliched expression.
Whether I win this case or not will come down to the province being able to justify where they drew the line in this circumstance. I am not opposed to some line being drawn somewhere for eligibility in a municipal election, but I say that "citizenship" is too restrictive for the nature of the election and muncipal government and the large number of people being affected. It makes sense to revisit this outdated restriction for both policy and legal reasons. If we want immigrants to participate in our society, it makes sense to get them involved early on at the most basic level and for things that affect them directly and for which they certainly have an opinion.