Allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections isn't new—it's happened throughout Canada's history.
Those who object to the idea of permanent residents voting in municipal elections—an idea Toronto city council has now endorsed—love to bang the drum of the status quo. Many reference, albeit superficially, the traditions enshrined within our British parliamentary system. They take offense at the mere suggestion of reform, as if the human and financial costs of our ever-lengthening citizenship process are merely individual inconveniences, not constraints that curb our growth and development as a city.
Recognizing that any set of criteria that determines voting rights will necessarily seem arbitrary to some, they say, why not stick to the time-honoured one we have, one that respects the significance of citizenship as a status that must be earned, and grants privileges only to those we are sure are committed to life here?
But why don’t critics, many of whom call the proposed reform “backward,” mention that non-citizens have historically been allowed to vote in some cases? The practice of non-citizen voting in Canada’s local elections is a well-documented part of our political tradition—and a seemingly inconvenient one for those who expect today’s newcomers to pipe down and accept the status quo.
How much a part of our history? Until 25 years ago anyone who was not a Canadian citizen but was a citizen of any other commonwealth country could vote in Toronto’s municipal elections, if they either owned or rented property here. (In practice, explains Ryerson politics professor Myer Siemiatycki, non-white British subjects were routinely excluded from this practice during the first half of the 20th century [PDF].) The Crown enfranchised British subjects who established roots in the colony through property: that relationship was taken as evidence of reasonable interest in local decision-making, whether or not someone was Canadian.
It wasn’t until the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1982 that the legal underpinnings of that system began to change. Because the Charter prohibits discrimination based on national origin, the Ontario government revoked the voting rights of non-Canadian commonwealth citizens in 1985; that change took effect in 1988.
It could equally have eliminated that discrimination by extending local voting rights to citizens of any country who owned or rented property here, or by establishing some other criterion, like residency.
There would have been precedent for the latter, as well: there have also been times in Canadian history when we acknowledged that residency, even without property ownership, was a valid indicator of belonging, and extended the vote on that basis. One of the requirements for federal voter eligibility in British Columbia during the 1860s was that “all electors had to have lived in the province for at least 12 months and in the riding for at least two months before an election.” More than owning property, the Crown expected subjects to live where they intended to vote.
Today in Toronto, Canadian citizens who are not residents of Toronto but who hold property here, either as renters or owners, are still granted a municipal vote. In fact, a person who holds property in any of Ontario’s 444 municipalities can vote in each respective district. We recognize that there are ties beyond citizenship that link an individual to a community—link them strongly enough that they should be able to vote—yet we limit the privilege only to citizens with property relationships to the city.
A Calgarian who owns an investment property in Toronto but never visits here can vote, but a permanent resident who has lived here for two years, who sends her children to school here, and interacts with the city in dozens of meaningful ways each day cannot. Some say this is justified because, absent citizenship, we’ve no reason to have faith that the latter individual has a clear commitment to or interest in Toronto, but for most of our history we never took citizenship to be the sole or exclusive measure of that commitment.
Even if we accept all this, we still have to ask ourselves how we might directly benefit from extending the vote to permanent residents. What are the positive, constructive reasons for embracing the change?
The answer lies in the expanding importance of cities as economic, social, and cultural centres.
Edmonton and Calgary are the leading sites for Canada’s population growth, with GTA cities like Brampton, Missisauga, Markham, and Vaughan also booming. Almost seven in 10 Canadians now lives in a “census metropolitan area” as defined by Statistics Canada.
As this demographic shift evolves, municipalities are responding by seeking new powers to control their own affairs and raise their own taxes. The 1997 City of Toronto Act gave our city new powers in recognition of this growing role, and acknowledge Toronto as “a government that is capable of exercising its powers in a responsible and accountable fashion.” Vancouver and Montreal also have local charters, and are working with their respective provincial partners to achieve more local autonomy. Calgary and Edmonton are in the midst of negotiating their own Big Cities charter with the Alberta government.
As we concentrate more people and power in our cities, local stakeholders become more important players in governance. Estimates peg the number of voting-age permanent residents of Toronto at 250,000 at least—that’s 15 per cent of the population. By withholding voting rights from them we eliminate a substantial chunk of stakeholder feedback right off the bat. A city that hopes to consolidate its local authority cannot afford to exclude so many voices from decisions about local planning, transit, schools, parks, recreation, and housing. The newcomers who inhabit our urban centres need a say on settlement and integration issues so they can succeed and participate as soon as possible; they need a say on all issues so that the municipal government can properly reflect the needs of all the residents who, one way or another, will be drawing on its services.
Prior to 2007, non-citizens in Toronto were not allowed to serve on city agencies, boards, and commissions and corporations. That rule is now history, and it only changed because we recognized that citizenship, while important, has never been the benchmark for having a stake in one’s local community. People who live here permanently are a part of city-building. Allowing them to vote in our local elections is one important way to build a city in which they, and all of us, can grow and thrive.
—Desmond Cole is the acting project coordinator of I Vote Toronto, a campaign to extend the municipal vote to Toronto’s permanent residents.