Municipal Voting Rights for Non-Canadian Citizens
Imagine a Canadian city with a population of 380,135 people. That would make it the same size as Halifax, and larger than half the provincial capital cities of Canada.
What if none of its residents could vote in civic elections to choose their municipal mayor or council or school board? Outrageous? Impossible, you say? Well...it happens every time municipal elections are held in Toronto. Or in any other Canadian municipality.
Municipal voting rights in Ontario have not kept pace with the province’s stature as one of the world’s leading immigration destinations. In order to vote municipally in Ontario, a person must be: a) 18 years of age or older, b) a citizen of Canada, and c) either reside in the municipality, or be a non-resident property tax payer through property owned or rented in the municipality.
In 2006, immigrants comprised 28.3% of Ontario's population. The same year, Toronto literally reached the tipping point, with immigrants accounting for 49.9% of its 2.47 million residents. And in 2006, 15.4% of Toronto’s population – 380,135 people – were non-Canadian citizens.
None of these Torontonians is eligible to vote in a municipal election. Nor is this civic exclusion unique to Toronto. It is a fate shared by non-Canadian citizens across Ontario, including 15% of Brampton’s population (64,505), 14.2% of Mississauga’s population (94,305), 10.4% of Markham’s population (27,140) and 6% of Hamilton’s population (30,065).
Roughly two thirds of all immigrants in Ontario are 18 years of age or older. Therefore the Canadian citizenship requirement for municipal voting rights excludes hundreds of thousands of Ontario urban residents from their local electoral process.
To appreciate the extent of political exclusion this entrenches in Toronto, consider this. Ontario has very few municipalities – barely a handful – with a larger number of total eligible municipal voters than the total number of non-citizen residents who are denied the vote in Toronto.
And recall that these are Torontonians who live in the City, call it home, rely on its municipal services and pay property taxes but have no vote in determining who will run the City.
The Canadian citizenship requirement is now an arbitrary barrier to the political integration of huge numbers of immigrants in cities. Here are 5 reasons to extend municipal voting rights to permanent non-citizen residents.
1. Many Other Countries Give Non-Citizens Municipal Voting Rights. More than 40 countries (half of them in Europe) now extend the municipal vote to non-citizen immigrants. The most permissive country is New Zealand which extends municipal and national voting rights to all legally-entered immigrants after one year of residency. Like these countries, we should signal through municipal voting rights that Ontario values and promotes immigrant political participation.
2. Municipal Voting Rules Change Over Time. Voter eligibility rules are not static – they have changed dramatically over time. There was a time when women, Asians and those who did not own property could not vote municipally. The history of voting rights in Ontario is about removing arbitrary unjustified restrictions on who can vote.
3. Municipal Voting Rights Are Different. Cities don’t operate under the same “membership rules” when it comes to voting rights. The best evidence is the fact that ‘property’ has voting rights municipally, but not federally or provincially. Recall that municipally, persons can vote where they don’t live, if they pay property tax to a municipality they don’t reside in. There is a stakeholder principle that confers municipal voting rights. Immigrant non-Canadians not only meet this stakeholder ‘membership rule’, they actually live in the municipality.
4. Voteless Neighbourhoods. Toronto is officially classified into 140 neighbourhoods. Given immigrant residential settlement patterns in the City, Toronto has neighbourhoods where over 30 per cent of the population are non-citizens, and therefore ineligible to vote. Often these neighbourhoods have distinct needs and assets that go unrecognized because they lack a political voice.
5. Creating Cities of Belonging. Immigrants have demonstrated their commitment to Toronto by leaving their homeland to live here. Immigrant integration works best when newcomers feel they are recognized and valued. Over 85 per cent of eligible immigrants eventually become Canadian citizens. But it does take time - a minimum of four years given the residency, citizenship application, and testing requirements. Toronto municipal elections are held every four years. This means that, depending on their arrival date, an immigrant can wait anywhere from four to eight years to vote for their mayor, city councillor, or school trustee.
What exactly does Toronto (one of the world’s great immigrant cities) gain by preventing hundreds of thousands of immigrant residents from voting on municipal election day? We certainly know what is lost. A few years back, while visiting Toronto, Dublin’s Mayor Michael Conaghan was asked how immigrants there feel about being able to vote in that city’s elections before they become citizens of Ireland. He replied: “They like the idea of being asked for their vote. They feel a part of the city, and I think that’s important…I suppose they feel they’re not being dismissed.”
Immigrants are devoted to Canada. It’s time our municipalities reciprocated by recognizing the urban citizenship of all their residents. What do Toronto’s candidates for mayor, city councillor and school trustee say to this? Ultimately this is a matter for the Government of Ontario to resolve, as civic voting rights are established in provincial legislation. Can a Province of Immigrants leave so many immigrants on the political sidelines?
For an alternative take on municipal voting rights for non-Canadians, see Non-Citizen Voting in Toronto: A Case of too Little, too Soon? by Phil Triadafilopoulos.
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