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Canadian democracy suffered another serious blow last week when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled against allowing expats living abroad for longer than five years the right to vote, and consequently, playing any role in shaping Canadian policies and laws.
The decision comes at an especially crucial moment because some analysts are calling the 2015 federal election a particularly high-stakes race with the potential to radically transform Canada’s image at home and abroad.
Perhaps precisely for this reason, the Conservative government has spent more than a million dollars (upwards of $1.3 million) in taxpayer money fighting against allowing the long-term expat vote, which tends to lean left.
The Court’s ruling is also unsurprising considering that the judiciary system and decision-makers have been radically re-made to more strongly represent the Conservative point of view. The Ontario Appeal Court is the perfect case in point, with 14 out of its 22 judges (64 per cent) having been nominated by Harper.
In the ruling, the Appeal Court’s judges claim that it would be unfair for non-residents to participate in “making laws that affect Canadian residents on a daily basis, but have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives.”
This stance is very troubling for a number of reasons, most especially the principle that voting is a right based on citizenship not residency. Added to that is the fact that Canadian expats are still deeply affected by a slew of Canadian laws and policies — especially those determined fully or partially at the federal level, including currency, defence, international trade and foreign relations.
Here are seven crucial ways expats are affected by Canadian laws and policies, which they now have no say in shaping:
1. Domestic policies affect expats’ decisions to leave, stay or return.
Financial opportunity is a major, if not the main, reason that Canadians move abroad — a better-paying job, the chance to pursue higher studies at substantially lower costs, or living in a less expensive place.
Of course, such decisions are made in comparison to what is available at home: job opportunities, tuition fees and the cost of living in Canada are all directly influenced by domestic fiscal strategy, national budget allocations and trade. For many expats, the choice to leave, stay and return hinge upon these policies.
2. Fiscal policies and a fluctuating loonie still have a big effect.
Those expats earning incomes or repaying debt in Canadian dollars feel the effects on their purchasing power and take-home incomes of changes in the Bank of Canada’s monetary policy, and the government’s fiscal policies more broadly, especially when faced with a fluctuating loonie as is the case now.
3. Many expats still pay Canadian taxes.
Collectively, expats are estimated to pay $6 billion annually in taxes to Canada — and many do not access most of the services they pay for.
With the recent ruling, voting rights will hinge on the length of time an expat has been physically residing outside of Canada. But the Canada Revenue Agency might still consider an expat to be a “factual resident” if they have a home, a spouse or dependents, and/or bank accounts in Canada. So while they may not be eligible to vote, they may still be obliged to pay taxes in Canada.
Similarly, the taxation agreements which Canada has established with various foreign governments determines how much tax Canadians must pay to the countries in which they are earning income, and how much they pay to Canada. Whether such an agreement exists with the particular country an expat is living in, and the nature of these treaties, can drastically impact how much income an expat actually takes home.
4. Travel, employment and immigration visas are determined by foreign relations.
The expense and amount of time that Canadians who travel or move abroad spend applying for tourist, employment or immigration visas is directly influenced by Canada’s foreign relations with other countries.
For example, Canadians are able to enter 173 countries visa-free, and have been able to easily travel to places like Cuba, unlike our southern neighbour. However, Canadians pay 60 USD for a tourist visa for Turkey — triple the cost for Americans or Brits — perhaps because the latter two countries are more important for Turkish trade, but perhaps also because, unlike Canada, they have shied away from naming the mass killings of Armenians in the early 1900s as genocide — a position shared by the Turkish government.
5. Foreign policy decisions affect the daily life of expats.
Canada’s bilateral relations with different countries deeply shape the experiences of expats in other ways on a daily basis. As one journalist points out:
“the Canadians who feel most passionate about our government’s unquestioning support for Israel are ones living and working in the Middle East, because they’re the ones who have to explain that to the Israelis and the Arabs they encounter. A Canadian business person living in Eastern Europe likely has strong opinions about the government’s policies toward Russia and Ukraine, because those policies very directly affect their livelihood.”
The disenfranchisement of expats is a missed opportunity to improve Canadian foreign policy and the perception of Canada on the “world stage” through listening to those who are potentially better informed about international issues than the average Canadian, who naturally tends to focus on issues of domestic importance which more directly affect his or her life.
6. Health and medical expenses abroad are affected by decisions back home.
The Canadian government’s official travel advice can affect Canadians’ health and medical expenses abroad as well: some insurance companies will not honour medical claims for injuries suffered in a country for which the Canadian government has issued an official Travel Advisory.
Likewise, the vaccinations, prescription drugs and general medical services which will be reimbursed by provincial health care and travel insurance is usually based on federal and provincial governments’ recommendations, and rates of coverage at home.
7. Expats still have access to social services.
Canadians living abroad can also access important social services such as pension plans. Of course, any changes in regulations governing access to such services would drastically affect long-term expats, especially retirees.
Ultimately, continuing to disenfranchise expats is not only unfair to those Canadians living abroad whose lives are shaped by what is going on back home in very tangible ways, but is a direct attack on a fundamental principle of democracy: equal rights for all citizens.
Raksha Vasudevan works in the international development sector, currently based in Uganda. She is also a writer, avid reader, runner and foodie.
Photo: flickr/ Jeff Nelson