Myrie: Non-citizens should get to vote

vote-collage By Evelyn Myrie

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Another opportunity to participate in the civic life of the city will soon be upon us with the municipal elections set for Oct. 27. But not everyone who lives here will have the opportunity to have a say. Those who are not citizens of Canada are disenfranchised. These residents are ineligible to vote in any elections in Canada.

The exclusion of non-citizens will mean an estimated 30,000 permanent residents, or 6 per cent (source: Myer Siemiatycki, Ryerson University department of politics and public administration) of the city’s population are not eligible to cast their vote for mayor, ward councillor or school board representative. Many are parents of students in the city’s education system — yet they will not have a “voice” to select their school trustees.

It doesn’t seem fair that these community members, who pay taxes and contribute to the local community, do not have a say in the local decision-making process at election time — one of the hallmarks of our democracy.

Those who are opposed to giving voting rights to non-citizens believe the process of doing so will devalue Canadian citizenship, and others believe it calls into question the issue of loyalty to Canada. On the other hand, proponents for non-citizen suffrage believe that giving the local vote to permanent residents will serve as a tool for integration and increase residents’ sense of belonging and commitment to place while strengthening Canadian democracy.

Students of history tell us that voting rights have not always been tied to citizenship. Historically the local vote was tied to residency and property rights, but that was changed in 1988. As our values changed, the right to vote has also evolved with the times. At one point in our history voting was reserved for men with property. In an article listed on Elections Canada website entitled “Evolution of the Federal Franchise” the writer gives us a bit of an insight into the struggle for suffrage:

“… It was a far cry from ‘one man, one vote.’ Initially only men could vote, and then only some of them. The right to vote and to be a candidate at a federal election was restricted to males over the age of 21 who met certain property qualifications. Excluded were all women, Aboriginal people and members of certain religious denominations. By the time the office of Chief Electoral Officer was established in 1920, the road to wider voting rights was well travelled, but the journey was still not complete. Disqualifications on racial and religious grounds, for instance, were not entirely eliminated until 1960 …”

It’s time for us to once again look at our voting laws and ask ourselves the following question: Who else is missing from the voting list? Should citizenship be the sole benchmark for political inclusion at the local level?

The movement to get permanent residents to vote in local elections has been growing across Ontario since Toronto council voted in 2013 to ask the province to consider allowing non-citizens to vote in the municipal election. The province has yet to make a determination on this request. Other municipalities are also chiming in. In March of this year, a Kitchener group asked councillors to support their recommendation calling for non-citizens to be able to vote in municipal elections. Also, in 2013, city staff in North Bay recommended that their council support the call for allowing permanent non-citizens to vote at the local level. That is still under consideration.

Last year Hamilton city council passed the motion to make Hamilton a Sanctuary City (making municipal services available to all regardless of immigration status) — for which they ought to be applauded. It’s now time for the city to join the movement to expand the franchise to non-citizens by calling on the province to amend the Municipal Elections Act, allowing permanent non-citizens the right to vote.

Evelyn Myrie is executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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