Dissenters of the idea of permanent residents voting in our local elections, an idea Toronto city council endorsed this week, love to bang the drum of the status quo. Many reference, in the most superficial terms, 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 mere inconveniences we must all bear.
But why don’t critics like the Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee, who unfortunately called the request to enfranchise permanent residents a “thoroughly backward idea,” ever mention that permanent residents have historically always been allowed to vote locally? This back-to-the-future proposal is a well-documented part of our history, and a seemingly inconvenient fact for those who expect today’s newcomers to pipe down and get back in line.
The legal status of Canadian citizenship, the one Gee and others suggest is inextricably linked to voting, did not come into existence until 1947 under the Canadian Citizenship Act. Even after we established citizenship, British subjects retained the right to vote in local elections, until 1988 in Ontario, and until 2006 in Nova Scotia. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms Queen Elizabeth II signed into law in 1982 established Canadian citizens as eligible electors in provincial and federal elections; it made no such regulation for municipalities.
This is our history, and Marcus Gee either does not know it, or does not wish to talk about it in relation to current efforts to expand eligibility in municipal elections. Instead, he dismisses advocates and trivializes an institution of non-citizen voting the British used in Canada for over 50 years. What has changed over time to make this idea so unpalatable to presumed loyalists?
Gee suggests that even if the aim of expanding the local franchise is to encourage newcomers to get involved, “it is more likely do just the opposite.” Here again, our own electoral history contradicts him. In 1977, the federal government reduced the residency requirement for citizenship from five years down to three, and created dual citizenship provisions. The explicit purpose of these changes was “to make citizenship more widely available…and to remove the special treatment for British nationals and the remaining discrimination between men and women.”
So while the government itself has historically eased barriers to citizenship to boost citizenship applications and inclusion, Gee suggests it is these “modest hurdles” of the overcrowded, backlogged citizenship application process that keep us Canucks connected. He says, “you need to join club,” by which he means Canada, to prove loyalty to Toronto, the specific place you have chosen to inhabit and animate. Who exactly is asking for this kind of bizarre bureaucratic proof for local voting, and why?
It bothers me a little that nothing from the twenty minute conversation Marcus Gee and I shared at City Hall yesterday made it into in his piece. It bothers me more that he didn’t seek out the views of someone like Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, a former equity officer at the city who encouraged me to consider permanent resident voting in a historical context.
Gee didn’t solicit the voice of any of the 250,000 or more permanent residents living here, to ask them why they will not accept what he calls the “perfectly reasonable bargain” of the status quo. He didn’t cite a single statistic on migration, or perceptions of inclusion, nor did he provide any historical context for his views.
Instead, Gee’s piece focuses on the anecdotes and speeches of four Toronto city councillors, who mostly relate personal stories and, aside from Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), characterize historically enfranchised non-citizen voters as incomprehensible, potentially dangerous people who ought to learn their place.
Gee applauds an anecdote by councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence) about her father, whom she says appreciated the fact that non-citizens like him could not vote. “What we can’t afford to do is give up what is important to this nation, to this country and this city, which is a sense of belonging.” Like Gee, Stintz is telling us that in a modern city like Toronto, we demonstrate local fidelity primarily by taking federal tests and swearing international oaths, not by living, working, listening, volunteering, interacting, or playing together.
Sorry friends—we don’t live in that imagined city or country. Where we live, definitions of citizenship, ownership, and belonging have changed over time, but have always reserved the greatest voting privileges for property owning, male, white loyalists of a certain age from the United Kingdom, our old colonial master.
Interestingly, non-citizen commonwealth member residents can currently vote in the UK’s local elections as so-called “commonwealth citizens.” At least 25 other countries, including the United States, allow non-citizen voting in one form or another. But Councillor Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) just couldn’t resist his own “grateful immigrant” narrative during Tuesday’s debate. Ford falsely claimed, twice in the same speech, that “I didn’t have the right to vote” while living in Chicago, Illonois. He then endured jeers from councillors who know that any parent with a child in Chicago’s schools can vote for the city’s school trustees.
In 1876, nine years after our 1867 Confederation, the government created the first Indian Act to cement the assimilation of the Native people of this land into law. Native people were said not to belong on their own soil. Women who built our country alongside men were deemed non-entities by the Crown for hundreds of years. Slaves brought here to modernize and connect this vast land were systematically disenfranchised from institutions in the name of purity and caution.
What on earth did those regimes, pieces of which are still in place today, have to do with inclusion, or order, or waiting one’s turn?
Fear and undue scrutiny have met every religious and ethnic minority group to arrive here, and the system we still use to categorize immigrants also disenfranchised the original stewards of this land. Those courageous enough to challenge both these rules, and the privileged class who maintained them, embodied the Canadian values of equality, inclusion, and pluralism that most of us recognize and celebrate today.
Some of the vestiges of our colonial voting system have served some of us very well, and should be extended. Some rules are as inappropriate and marginalizing today as they were two centuries ago, and should be thrown out. We lose our history when we pretend the face of historically arbitrary vote segmentation is always smiling, understanding, grateful, eager to please. This sentiment merely perpetuates the phony narrative that those divided from privilege are and have been deficient or disloyal, until the paperwork finally clears and they are saved.
We are telling the stories of people whose entire lives are in this city, but who cannot vote for their local school trustee, mayor, and councillor. Given that our remedy is to revive a practice that served the British crown for decades, all the faux-patriotic anger we are hearing requires an explanation, if not an outright retraction.
~Desmond Cole is the acting project coordinator of I Vote Toronto, a campaign to extend the municipal vote to Toronto’s permanent residents.
At its June meeting, Toronto City Council will consider asking the province to allow Toronto’s permanent residents the right to vote for their school board trustee, city councillor, and mayor.
Across Toronto, a quarter-million people live, work, play and send their children to school; yet they have no vote in how the city is run because they are not Canadian citizens.
Tell Toronto City Council you support extending the municipal vote to Toronto’s permanent residents. Add your name, or your organization’s name, to this letter by signing the form below the open letter.
To Toronto City Council:
We are writing to urge you to join us in supporting a call to support allowing municipal voting for all permanent residents who live in the City of Toronto.
At any given time there are at least 250,000 voting age permanent residents of the city, living, working and paying taxes here, but unable to vote in municipal elections. At the same time, non-resident owning or renting property in the city are permitted to vote. Furthermore, citizenship is taking longer to acquire with recent federal changes, resulting in delays of up to 10 years.
The municipal franchise in Ontario needs to evolve to reflect our modern realities. The franchise was developed in the 1800’s and needs to change to reflect the 21st century reality of our diverse urban city.
Allowing permanent residents to vote will contribute to the settlement process in a city that relies on immigration for its economic and social development, integrating newcomers into a more democratic civic community.
From the City of Toronto staff report:
“As part of City Council’s recent consideration of the Toronto Newcomer Strategy, the Community Development and Recreation Committee heard from a number of academics, community-based service providers and community funders on a range of immigration and settlement issues, including the eligibility of permanent residents to participate in municipal elections.
“Toronto remains among the most diverse cities in the world, with more than half of all city residents born outside of Canada. While historically the great majority of Canadian immigrants achieve full citizenship, a number of residents are finding it increasingly difficult to attain Canadian citizenship due to changes in federal legislation, policies and procedures. In some cases, permanent residents may choose not to attain citizenship due to fear of loss of status in their home country. Toronto’s permanent residents are active members of the city and their communities.
As non-citizens, immigrants living in Toronto with permanent resident status are not eligible to participate in the elections process. This restriction has been repeatedly raised by researchers and community advocates as a disincentive to permanent residents’ greater participation in Toronto’s municipal civil society and an unnecessary marginalization of particular voices in municipal elections. These residents contribute to the financial viability of Toronto as property taxpayers and consumers of City programs with user fees, without representation.”
We, the undersigned, urge city council to vote in favour of extending the municipal vote to Toronto’s permanent residents.
Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI)
Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office
Social Planning Toronto
Scarborough Civic Action Network
Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture
St Stephen’s Community House
Community Recreation For All
North York Community House
Taylor Gunn, Chief Elections Officer at Student Vote
Matt Blackett, Publisher of Spacing Magazine
Desmond Cole, former project coordinator of the I Vote Toronto campaign
Christopher Evan Jones
Lindsay Anne Black
Torgunn O. Townsend
Mark J. Gold
Astrid Idlewild, Publisher of Torontolo.gy
Ferdinand R. Alvarez
Luca De Franco
Organizations that advocate for fairness, whether in sports, politics, or education, are rightly expected to walk their talk, to exemplify the principled behaviour they demand from others. When your organization’s name is Fair Vote Canada, the expectations to practice what you preach are understandably pretty high. I fear the group is falling well short of expectations at present.
A year ago, I was volunteering with two groups, both of which are pushing for fairer political elections. Members of Group A, Fair Vote Canada, got mad that I also volunteered my time with group B, the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT). So Fair Vote leaders removed me and other members from our elected positions, and barred several other members from seeking office.
Torontonians have been hearing a lot about conflict of interest recently, and learning that a failure on the part of elected officials to avoid it can be disastrous. In my case, Fair Vote drafted a new conflict of interest policy last month, and more or less defined “conflict of interest” as belonging to RaBIT. I was subsequently informed of my “inherent and continued conflict of interest” about two weeks ago, and was immediately and indefinitely turfed.
Fair Vote Canada is a national vote reform organization. It advocates that Canadians adopt fairer systems for our elections. Sadly, the group’s current leadership is making a mockery of Fair Vote’s good name and lofty principles.
There simply aren’t enough people aggressively advocating for electoral reform in this country; among those who do, few are young and almost all are white and male. Of the seven people now indefinitely removed or barred from office in Fair Vote, none are older than forty, and six are women or racialized people. The group that says Canada’s politicians should reflect the country’s diversity has purged diversity from its own elected ranks.
The apparent wrongdoing of those barred is that we volunteered our free time to promote RaBIT, a group pushing reform specifically in Toronto’s municipal elections. Both RaBIT and Fair Vote believe in changing the current system, but advance different remedies. Fair Vote, which focuses on reforming provincial and federal elections, recently held an internal referendum in which 45% of its members said the group should endorse RaBIT. Many believe, as journalist Andrew Coyne recently argued, that either proposed reform is better than our current system.
But Fair Vote’s national leadership feels that any reform other than one, proportional representation, is a threat to its advocacy. I am still a member of Fair Vote, but I can’t hold office because of my former involvement with RaBIT. Since RaBIT has no formal membership, just supporters, Fair Vote leaders are hand-picking current and former volunteers for exclusion. The seven who have been barred or expelled were explicitly named, yet others within Fair Vote who share our feelings face no consequences.
Even some members of Fair Vote’s high-profile advisory board are RaBIT supporters. Outside of the current national executive, it seems there’s plenty of room for cooperation and mutual respect between the two groups.
I cannot tell this story without outlining the role of Dave Meslin, a prominent local activist and dear friend. Meslin has volunteered with Fair Vote for almost ten years, and also founded RaBIT about three years ago. A few Fair Vote leaders are angry with him for starting a local group that advocates for a non-proportional system. They say RaBIT will derail Fair Vote’s goals provincially and federally by advancing a different reform in Toronto, a notion Coyne describes as “madness” in his recent column (it’s also worth noting that Fair Vote USA includes advocates of both reforms in one united movement).
Meslin’s name appears first on the motion to bar or remove members from office, and the desire to sanction him has extended to those who have worked with him on RaBIT.
This is a great shame, mostly because of the amount of time and energy Meslin has devoted to electoral reform. Among other things, he went to live in British Columbia for a month in 2007 to campaign for proportional representation in a provincial referendum. It’s hard to believe that Fair Vote’s leaders are willing to forgo this kind of voluntary commitment over a difference in voting systems. I doubt national council’s actions represent the will of most members, who were not consulted on decisions to nullify member votes and essentially segregate the membership.
Fair Vote Canada needs to live up to its name, and honour its status as a chapter-based, member-driven, registered non-profit organization. My volunteerism outside the group should not be grounds for barring me from office. None of the members deemed in conflict were given a chance to correct their alleged violation before being barred. The motion to remove us empowers the remaining members of the Toronto executive to police future chapter nominations for perceived outsiders. This isn’t my idea of fairness. Any member of Fair Vote should be allowed to seek office.
There’s a classic Monty Python gag about the predicament my barred colleagues and I find ourselves in. People united in fighting the status quo often cannot resist the temptation to turn on each other. It’s been a tough go for electoral reform in Canada, as four provincial referendums on changing to proportional systems have all failed. I doubt the disenfranchisement of Fair Vote’s youngest officers and the imposition of membership tiers will help the movement. These actions will more likely discredit Fair Vote Canada’s own calls for fairer electoral processes. We shouldn’t let that happen.
Contact Fair Vote Canada’s National Council: firstname.lastname@example.org
Desmond Cole was elected to the Toronto executive of Fair Vote Canada in April 2012. He is the former project coordinator of I Vote Toronto, a campaign to extend Toronto’s municipal vote to permanent residents.
Yesterday, an elected representative of our city gave his best Mitt Romney impression, and described a huge and diverse segment of Torontonians as lazy, unambitious moochers. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) went nuclear on people living in Toronto without proper immigration status, and offered a demeaning caricature of them to justify his scorn.
I grew up in a city of about 140,000 people. Toronto officials believe there could be up to three times that many undocumented people living in Toronto. Minnan-Wong's prejudiced declaration of their collective moral bankruptcy is an old song, a tone-deaf, tough love conservative anthem that always seems to apply to the poor, the racialized, and the marginalized. If this hateful trash isn't played out by now, it should be, but it's not going to stop until we call in an request something new.
The following are Minnan-Wong's comments during debate at City Hall yesterday:
“Madame Chair, undocumented workers are illegal workers, illegal immigrants. They come to this country, many of them with no intention of leaving. They remain illegally. In fact, many flout our laws and laugh at us.
I know some illegal immigrants arrive at Pearson airport from Europe. Their first stop is the welfare office. They already know the address because they’ve been told back home where to go. They’ve been told in their home country, this is true, where the welfare office is. They want to go to the office where they say they can get the free money.
Madame Chair, undocumented workers, illegal immigrants are subject to detention orders and deportation orders. They should be removed, we should not encourage them, we should not help them, we should not facilitate them.
They are an insult to every immigrant who played by the rules to get into this country. They are an insult to every immigrant who is waiting to enter this country legally. It sends a message to the world that it is okay to break the law to come to Canada, and it says the city of Toronto is an accomplice to this lawbreaking.
Contact councillor Minnan-Wong at 416-397-9256 or email@example.com