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Why Permanent Residents Should Be Allowed to Vote in Toronto

Hundreds of thousands of our neighbours pay local taxes and use local services, but have no say in who represents them.

Photo by asianz from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by asianz from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Just over a week ago, a city council committee decided to explore “the opportunity to have permanent residents in Toronto be given the right to vote in municipal elections.” Permanent resident status is a precursor to obtaining Canadian citizenship for immigrants, and citizenship is a prerequisite for voting, even at the municipal level. City staff will present a report later this spring examining whether that should change.

It should.

In 2006, Ryerson municipal affairs expert Myer Siemiatycki estimated that at least 250,000 Toronto residents, or 16 per cent of the city’s population, could not vote in municipal elections because they were not citizens [PDF]. He describes this as a “lost city” of residents—who pay municipal taxes through their mortgages or rent, and contribute to services and programs through various user fees—but have no say in electing the mayor, city council, and school board trustees.

We have much to gain from giving permanent residents a direct say in Toronto’s election. Those who use and pay for services have a right to hold their relevant elected officials to account.

It is important for these residents to feel as welcome to shape programs and services as any citizen. Non-citizen residents can do this through advocacy, public consultations, and many other general forms of engagement, but with voting comes a more powerful kind of inclusion, symbolic and otherwise. Extending the vote empowers those who qualify to proudly identify themselves as fully engaged participants in civic life, not merely ratepayers or service users. Having more Torontonians taking up this responsibility is a good thing for our politics.

In Thorncliffe Park, a central east Toronto neighbourhood, one in three people is a child between five and 13 years of age. Thorncliffe is also home to immigrants from South America, South Asia, and the Middle East. But parents of children in Thorncliffe can’t choose their school board trustee simply because they are not citizens. Yes, politicians in these neighbourhoods are charged with representing everyone, non-voting residents included. But at election time, their decisions not to canvas houses, apartment buildings, and areas with high non-citizen populations tells those residents that their opinions matter less because they are not the ones going to the polling stations.

Canada has one of the highest rates of naturalization, or turning immigrants into citizens, in the world. Statistics Canada found in 2006 that four in five Canadian immigrants had become citizens, and that figure was on the rise. Some see this as an argument against extending the franchise to non-citizens: if most immigrants will become citizens anyway, why not wait until they have to give them the vote? But this is backwards. Since we know the vast majority of immigrants will pursue and obtain citizenship, delaying what in most cases will happen anyway is an artificial barrier to more robust participation in civic life.

Photo by asianz from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by asianz from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Voting is one of the privileges of citizenship, and some worry that we may water down the value of citizenship by conferring voting rights at any level before it has been obtained. But up until the late 1980s in Ontario, non-citizens who were British subjects were allowed to vote in municipal (but not provincial or federal) elections, and naturalization rates continued to soar. Cities in countries with nowhere near Canada’s percentage of immigrants—in Norway, Columbia, Ireland, Israel, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and many more—also allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. We have many models to follow and lessons to learn in investigating the change for Toronto.

It’s also important to view this proposal specifically in the local context. Municipal government is the most accessible level of representation, and it manages the programs and services most of us access in day-to-day life most often: parks, libraries, water, waste services, pubic transit, and emergency services. Citizenship matters, but it need not dictate one’s ability to choose local representatives for local issues. Permanent residents have already cleared several hurdles in the process of their immigration, and we have no reason to think they will be less inclined to pursue full-fledged citizenship if they get a say in who speaks for them at City Hall.

Toronto is almost peerless in its ability to attract people from all over the world—this is one of our great strengths. Translating that appeal into inclusion and trust after people arrive is an ongoing task, and extending the local vote is one more way to solidify our storied diversity.

Voting alone is no panacea for city building, but in the case of Toronto’s hundreds of thousands of non-citizens, most of whom are destined to become citizens, it’s an overdue addition to our local integration efforts.

Desmond Cole is the former project coordinator of I Vote Toronto, a campaign to extend the municipal vote to Toronto’s permanent residents.


  • wklis

    What to vote in any country that one lives in? Become a citizen of that country. Simple.

    • LHD

      You have to wait 4 years to apply for citizenship, and under the Harper government, processing times are another 4 years AFTER passing your citizenship test. That’s at least 9+ years of living in a country, paying taxes, with no right to have your voice represented. Seems harsh to me, and not at all simple.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      As the article cites in the examples of Korea etc, that’s not the only way it’s done.

  • Canadianskeezix

    I don’t necessarily disagree with this editorial, although I must admit I am on the fence in respect of this issue. I do see voting as a privilege of citizenship, and the fact that Ontario let British subjects vote in municipal elections is a really weak argument that citizenship shouldn’t matter (as is the fact that non-citizen voting is allowed in some other countries, where the context is completely different). However, Mr. Cole does make some good points, and increasing the democratic process at the municipal level is an extremely important issue.

    However, I think there are more pressing issues in respect of municipal elections. In 2010, we had an incredibly closely-watched mayoral race, yet voter participation was a weak 50.55% (even then, a big improvement on the 39.3% from 2006). Why is voter turnout in Ward 41 (Scarborough Rouge Park) ten points lower than comfy Ward 22 (St. Paul’s)? Figuring out how why new Canadians who already are citizens are feeling disenfranchised seems like more of a priority than extending the franchise to non-citizens. Mr. Cole says that it is important to empower non-citizens, yet it does not appear that we have succeeded in even empowering actual citizens (of all backgrounds and ages).

    And we desperately need preferential voting at the municipal level. How can we get more people to vote, and a greater diversity of candidates and ideas, as long as some incumbent councillors can win office with a mere 27% of the vote (as happened in Ward 12 in the last election), and incumbents are tough to defeat unless promising candidates drop out of the race so as to ensure a two-person contest (Ward 32). I’d be more interested in discussions about letting non-citizens vote if I thought that their votes could actually make more of a difference.

    • Canadianskeezix

      And my comments are not intended in any way as disrespect for Mr. Cole, who has done more than most Torontonians to encourage greater participation in municipal elections.

    • Rachel Lissner

      You make a great point about investigating why new Canadians aren’t a large voting bloc and I agree with your points.

      That said, as a non-citizen, I can tell you it will take well over a decade for me to gain citizenship — right now I would guess probably 15 years. I graduated from UofT, I pay taxes, I am active in my neighbourhood and in the city, but I am not allowed to vote. I might not be Canadian, but I am a citizen of Toronto.

      There are so many people that come to Toronto because it is an attractive and stay because it is a great place to be, but for whatever reason they aren’t citizens, whether it is because the process is daunting, they can’t have dual citizenship and don’t want to relinquish their original one, or who knows what. But the bottom line is that these people live in a city where they are not even represented at the most local level is a problem and also shows that City Hall does not reflect the real Toronto, which is a problem we all share.

  • andrew97

    What confidence do we have that non-citizens share our democratic values?

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      The absence of “end democracy, install dictator-for-life” from the ballot.

      • dsmithhfx

        Steve will be sooo disappointed…

        • tyrannosaurus_rek

          It won’t stop him from trying, the scamp!

    • SRC

      The same confidence from those already eligible to vote. We have all read comments and seen how naive some are about the democratic process.

      • andrew97

        If there are already bad voters, it does not follow that expanding the pool of bad voters is okay. Natural born citizens receive education about our system of government in school, and citizens at least have to pass a test. Again, what assurance is there with non-citizens?

        • tyrannosaurus_rek

          There’s no guarantee a natural-born citizen received that education (I didn’t; I was living and attending school in Asia when that topic is normally covered in Ontario public schools) or passed any test related to that education (I returned to finish school in Ontario without being tested on it).

          It’s like the oath to the queen issue: natural-born citizens don’t have to do it to be citizens, but we expect others to so they’ll be just like us.

          • DJ

            My dad refused to become a citizen for 40 years because of that oath.

        • vampchick21

          Given what I have seen from those I suspect are citizens, born, raised and educated here, receiving the education is no guarentee that they actually understand it or grasp the most basic concepts. I have personally seen the literature and tests that immigrants must learn in order to become a citizen, it’s tougher than what we learned in school. Trust me. I was born and raised and educated here, 8th generation and I could NOT have passed that damn test based soley on what they taught me in school here.

          • andrew97

            This is an argument in favor of improving the curriculum in school, not an argument in favor of throwing up our hands and saying civic education is irrelevant to voting.

          • vampchick21

            Yeah, that’s not actually what I was saying dude. Read my post again.

          • tyrannosaurus_rek

            Is there some reason we couldn’t improve civic education for all and open up voting to permanent residents? You know, simultaneously? Because they aren’t mutual exclusive options?

    • bob

      Let me turn that around.

      Immigrants struggled and fought to come here for the values Canada embodies.

      Once here, they work endless hours to live a life and do work that most Canadians would consider beneath them.

      You did nothing to become Canadian but have a Canadian mother and father.

      I bet they appreciate and understand Canadian values a hell of a lot better than you do.

      • andrew97

        I am willing to bet that the majority of our immigrants are economic, and that they did not come here for “the values Canada embodies”.

        • vampchick21

          My boyfriend came here in 88 at the age of 13 because if he stayed where he was born, well….go back and read the headlines for Latin America in the 80′s. So yeah, he came here for something other than economics. Maybe, possibly, our values? As in, we won’t shoot you or imprison you because you may or may not be on the wrong side.

          • andrew97

            Not saying all come here for economics, just that the majority do.

          • vampchick21

            And can you blame them?

          • andrew97

            No! The more the merrier. But I’m saying you shouldn’t get the vote just for showing up.

          • vampchick21

            But that’s NOT what’s being said in this article.

          • andrew97

            I was exaggerating.

          • vampchick21

            Exaggeration does nothing for the discussion really.

          • OgtheDIm

            If you were born here, how’s that different from just showing up? Its not like people choose where they are born.

          • dsmithhfx

            You won the lottery?

          • amjes

            Y’know, it’s not like they just hand out permanent residency to everyone that steps across the border.

          • Rachel Lissner

            It’s not like people are crawling out of Lake Ontario into the polling booths. People apply to become permanent residents after living in Canada for several years and then they have to wait a few more until they are granted citizenship, assuming the application is successful.

          • tomwest

            You don’t get Permament residence just by showing up…

        • tyrannosaurus_rek

          What about the economic values Canada embodies?

  • Riddler

    Perhaps we should also start looking at allowing small business owners, operating in the city but living outside, to vote in municipal elections. After all, if you’re paying rent on a property, spending a majority of your time here and paying and generating taxes here, shouldn’t you have some say in issues that effect you ?

  • Joe Clark

    I don’t support juvenile downtown leftists’ lobbying to permit foreign nationals to infiltrate the voting process – a plain restatement of what Cole proposes. Voting is a privilege of citizenship and no, you should not get a vote unless and until you decide to become a citizen.

    • vampchick21

      Try again without the vitirol and “downtown leftist” bullshit.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      A decidedly biased restatement couched in ad hom is far from ‘plain’.

    • Rachel Lissner

      Voting laws state that a Canadian citizen is allowed to vote after one year of Toronto residence. In other words, a second year kid at UofT from SK can vote after having a Toronto address for one year, even if he spends the summer elsewhere, but someone who has lived here for more than five years but is not a Canadian citizen is not eligible to vote.

      The idea of citizenship is what is up for debate here. If someone is born in Montreal but resides in Vancouver after a few years, most likely they would rather vote in local elections in Vancouver than Montreal. If a permanent resident (someone who has been in Canada for several years) wants to vote in the city they live in, I don’t see how that is different.

      • Joe Clark

        Foreign nationals are foreign nationals. The “second[-]year kid at UofT from SK” is, I presume, already a citizen.

        You want to vote? Ante up and legally join your new country first.

    • amjes

      Oh, those pesky foreign nationals inflitrating our Proud Democracy! I know those reds are up to something, trying to rig our elections to get in the commie pinkos who’ll be sympathetic to their freedom-hating ways! They’ll make us pay TAXES! They’ll make us REGISTER OUR GUNS! They’ll take away our cars, and force us to RIDE BICYCLES! They’ll take away our houses and give them to the INDIANS, and it’s a shame that they can vote, too! Soon, they’ll be speaking CHINESE in the STREETS, and reading from Mao’s little red book to our children in school! What this country needs is a real Joe McCarthy! Steve up in Ottawa’s too soft on all them!

  • Irrelevant

    No way. Canada doesn’t even let its citizens vote in elections, and I’d like my vote back before extending it to permanent residents. I can see why as an ex-pat I’m not allowed to vote in local elections, but it’s outrageous that I cannot vote in federal elections. Citizenship should equal voting rights. Fix that before extending the franchise further.

    • vampchick21


      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        Canadian citizens who have been living outside Canada for more than 5 years (with a few exceptions), or have no intention of returning to Canada, are not allowed to absentee vote.

    • OgtheDim

      I have less sympathy for the voting rights of somebody who doesn’t live here anymore then for somebody that does but isn’t a citizen. Ultimately, voting means being involved in how this country operates. If you choose not to be involved, then you lose that opportunity.

      The whole watch the world vote from here thing makes for a neat piece on the CBC every time there is an election in France or South Africa or the US. But it doesn’t mean that’s how we should operate.

    • amjes

      I don’t see how one issue of franchise should stop or negate an entirely different, unrelated issue of franchise. It’s petty to think that someone who has a legitimate reason to want something shouldn’t get it because you don’t have it for pretty much the opposite reason; basically, it sounds like “If I can’t have it, no one should!” Doesn’t it make more sense to team up and argue in favour of wider franchise – “these people should be able to vote, and so should we”?

      • Irrelevant

        You are absolutely correct. My comment was petty, but you can understand how frustrating it is to see the issue of ex-pats being disenfranchised ignored or, even worse, discarded like the idiotic comment below. (Just because my job required me to move doesn’t mean I’m not “involved” in Canada. Do I still have family? Do I still own property? Do I still have, you know, my fucking rights as a goddamned citizen?)

        Yes, permanent residents should be able to vote municipally, and ex-pats should probably not. This is a fair argument at the very local level and a good stepping stone for people who are very likely to become citizens. At a provincial and federal level, I don’t think permanent residents should vote – that’s something for them to work towards. At the same time, ex-pats should be able to exercise their protected Charter rights at that level.

        • Randy McDonald

          Your comment wasn’t discarded. Rather, your comment whatever its merits was irrelevant to the question at hand: should people who live in Canada holding permanent residency status but lacking citizenship be allowed to vote in local elections?

  • Miroslav Glavic

    The important time is in BETWEEN elections not DURING elections.

    There is nothing stopping permanent residents from e-mailing/calling/visiting consituent office/facebook poking/faxing/etc… their school trustee/councillor/mayor/MPP/premier/MP/senator/prime minister.

    You can contact them anytime in between and during an election.

    It takes 3-5 years for CITIZENSHIP and you would miss at most ONE municipal election.

    • Rachel Lissner

      Citizenship does not uniformly take 3-5 years to acquire. As someone who graduated from UofT (five years of living here), I still have to get a PR card and then duke it out for citizenship. And I’m on the privileged side of the spectrum.

  • Pasquale

    Well I’m not so sure voting is always a wise thing anyway. A lot of things that are voted on, the majority decision isn’t always the wisest.

    I end up voting anyway and I think we shouldn’t just bend the law old time. But I also could care less who votes, as long as they care about their city and the people in it.

    Maybe it could be PR and a required number of years in a city?

  • SomewhereAroundBarstow

    It’s unfortunate that so many Toronto residents can’t vote, but I believe citizenship should be a goal of immigrants to Canada. My west-end neighbourhood includes many residents who have lived in Canada for decades without becoming citizens. They have been eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship for many years but have chosen not to do so.

    Our city councillor is a strong supporter of allowing non-citizens to vote, as she is likely to increase her support base by doing so. I don’t agree with politicians trying to change the rules for their own benefit.

  • JJ Jonesy

    aw c’mon, Torontoist, pls quit promoting this. If we extend voting to non-citizens, we’ll never get rid of Ana Bailao.

  • Hunky69

    I always vote – yet my MPP is powerless in Ottawa, and can not do ANYTHING for me. So?

  • Jay

    Permanent residents should become CITIZENS if they wish to vote. If you do not wish to become a full Canadian citizen, then why should you be able to have a say over Canadian sovereignty? I can’t even believe that this is a debate!