Permanent Resident Voting Isn’t “Backward,” It’s Back To The Future

The Toronto city council motion on allowing permanent residents to vote in local elections paseed 21-20.

The Toronto city council motion on allowing permanent residents to vote in local elections paseed 21-20.

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.


3 thoughts on “Permanent Resident Voting Isn’t “Backward,” It’s Back To The Future

  1. Brian MacLean

    Thanks, Desmond, for your work on this issue and this posting today.

    I appreciate the historical perspective you’ve shared with us, including a brief look at the treatment of citizenship for First Nations members.

    You might enjoy reading this article, “Making Aboriginal People ‘Immigrants Too’: A Comparison of Citizenship Programs for Newcomers and Indigenous Peoples in Postwar Canada, 1940s–1960s” by Heidi Bohaker & Franca Iacovetta (downloadable at

    Incredibly, it shows that “as a follow-up to the passage of the 1947 Canadian Citizenship Act, the federal government strategically chose to combine its management of immigrant admissions, reception, and citizenship with its Indian Affairs policies under the rubric of one new federal ministry, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration (DCI). From 1950 until 1966, the Indian Affairs branch was located in the DCI, where its activities were heavily modelled after the
    citizenship campaigns being developed for immigrants within the DCI’s Canadian
    Citizenship Branch… [G]overnment policies and programs reveal the extent to
    which Aboriginal peoples continued to be seen as outsiders who need to be assimilated
    to the ‘mainstream.’”

  2. Joy Connelly

    Thanks, Desmond. I myself have been puzzled so many have forgotten Toronto’s history of allowing citizens of foreign countries — and other provinces, for that matter — to vote. When I first arrived in Toronto I lived in student housing. My permanent address was in BC. Yet I could vote in municipal elections, as could my housemates Ajita from Sri Lanka and Vivek from India — but not Steve from Ohio (to his chagrin). Those of us who were eligible went to public meetings, learned about the candidates, and exercised our voting rights. We had all been in Toronto less than three months, but it made us feel part of it.


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