Senator Marilou McPhedran. Credit: Marilou McPhedran / Twitter

A new court challenge is decrying the legal voting age in Canada as unconstitutional.

The case, brought forward by 13 children and youth aged 12 to 18 from across the country, could see the federal voting age lowered in Canada for the first time in over 50 years.

On Nov. 30, the group of youth filed an application at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, arguing that “the Canada Elections Act which prevents citizens under the age of 18 from voting in federal elections, is in violation of Sections 3 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is therefore unconstitutional,” according to a press release issued Dec. 1.

Among the youth complainants is 16-year-old Parker Boot-Quackenbush, who uses they/them pronouns. Boot-Quackenbush lives in London, Ontario, and initially got involved in the court case after filling out a survey about political participation two years ago.

A few months later, they were contacted by students from the University of Toronto to ask if Boot-Quackenbush would like to join the endeavour.

“The government makes so many decisions that affect me as a teenager, especially when it comes to my education, or even how I can work and [how] I can drive a car,” Boot-Quackenbush explained. “I would like to have a say in who our government is, and some of the decisions that are made.”

The federal voting age was last lowered in 1970, from 21 to 18. Since then, voting rights have opened up to people with intellectual disabilities (1993), prison inmates with a sentence higher than two years (2002), and expats living abroad for more than five years (2019).

“We’re trying to help equality grow and make it so that everyone feels like they are included and feel safe in their own country,” Boot-Quackenbush said. “It’s much more than just being able to vote, it’s about making decisions that are best for the youth in Canada.”

The group launching the lawsuit is represented by Children First Canada, a charity advocating for and with Canada’s youth.

“We are committed to improving the health and well-being of young people across the country – the leaders of today and tomorrow,” their website reads.

Bill to lower voting age gaining momentum in the Senate

The court challenge follows the re-introduction of a bill by independent Senator Marilou McPhedran to lower the national voting age to 16. The bill, “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Regulation Adapting the Canada Elections Act for the Purposes of a Referendum (voting age),” had its first reading last month.

Not only would McPhedran’s bill lower the voting age, but it would also allow youth to register to vote sooner, by changing the language of a “future elector” in the Canada Elections Act to include “a Canadian citizen who is 14 or 15.”

In an interview with rabble.ca, McPhedran noted Canadian politicians have tried unsuccessfully nine times to lower the federal voting age. The latest attempt was by McPhedran herself, whose previous bill died when Parliament was dissolved last summer.

She noted that by the time children are 16, their brain capacity allows them to use cold cognition — decisions made without being clouded by feelings or emotions — to make decisions about voting.

“I think the[re’s an] opportunity to really take a close look at what the Constitution actually says, and where there is scope for expanding the right to vote is a very positive development and our democracy needs,” McPhedran said.

“We have to expand the franchise,” McPhedran said. “We have to strengthen the capacity of Canadians to engage in their democracy.”

McPhedran said while NDP MP Don Davies and Green MP Elizabeth May have supported her bill, she’s still confident a Conservative MP will rise to the occasion and stand alongside their colleagues to enfranchise Canada’s youth.

Before becoming a senator, McPhedran toured high schools as a human rights advocate, telling students about “the value of being engaged in a democracy.”

“Very often, I received much more informed, thoughtful, innovative thinking from 14 to 18-year-olds on a whole range of topics than I often did talking to people much older than me,” McPhedran said.

Canada would be far from the first country to lower their voting age to 16, following in the footsteps of several countries including Brazil and Germany.

Emily Chan, staff lawyer at Justice for Children & Youth, is one of three members of the youths’ legal counsel.

Chan explained that if the case is successful, the federal Canada Elections Act would be found unconstitutional, and the age of voting would be lowered, though it remains unclear to which age voter eligibility would be lowered.

Justice for Children & Youth initially applied for funding through the Court Challenges Program in tandem with the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights at the University of Toronto, to better determine young people’s views around voting.

Chan believes the case itself could take upwards of eight to 12 months before being heard in a courtroom. She warned COVID-19 conditions could delay the case further.

“They are engaged citizens in their own communities, and in many other ways they’re well connected to a variety of social and political issues,” Chan said. “So their motive is to be franchised so they can have the ear of the political realm and have some influence on the activities within the politic[al] arena.”

While the voting age could be lowered, it’s difficult to say whether that inclusion could increase voter turnout among youth.

“If they started voting at a younger age and had more education about the political sphere itself in a way that was relevant to them, [would that] change the long term voter turnout?” Chan said.

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...