Should permanent residents have the right to vote municipally?

By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 01, 2016
Some believe voting in local elections shouldn't be restricted to Canadian citizens.

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Donald Trump doesn’t come up for debate at Queen’s Park all that often, but earlier this month he did — and not in the way the average observer might expect.

On May 19, MPPs considered amendments to the government’s Bill 181, the Municipal Elections Modernization Act, and New Democrat MPP Percy Hatfield proposed a major change to the way Ontario conducts its municipal elections: allowing people who are permanent residents but not yet citizens the right to vote for local councillors and mayors. It’s a reform that Hatfield and a number of other advocates say is necessary to help incorporate permanent residents into Canadian society, and has some unexpected allies.

At legislative committees, however, the motion was shot down, with Liberal MPP Ann Hoggarth warning about the unlikely-to-impossible scenario of Trump being allowed to vote in Toronto elections should such changes be approved.

“I just thought, why don’t we put this on the table and see if they have any interest, and they didn’t,” Hatfield says. “They were a little silly.”

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The Windsor MPP says he was carrying the torch for advocates in Toronto, North Bay and elsewhere in Ontario who have for years been making the argument that it’s time to expand municipal voting rights to people who are permanent residents.

Meg Ramore is the local immigration partnership coordinator for the North Bay and District Multicultural Centre. In 2015, she and the centre successfully urged North Bay’s council to pass a motion supporting voting rights for permanent residents. For Ramore, it’s not just about expanding rights; it’s also about drawing people to North Bay.

“A lot of people are actually shocked that people who can live here forever if they choose, who can own homes and run businesses aren’t able to vote,” Ramore says.

The multicultural centre lobbied North Bay council in part by not making the issue simply about “catering to immigrants,” which might have been opposed or dismissed as unimportant to voters.  Instead it produced a video making the case from the perspective of the business community and other civic leaders.

Ramore explains that while immigrants still flock to large cities in droves, smaller and northern municipalities need to make an extra effort to put themselves on the map.

“The more welcoming North Bay is to newcomers, the more newcomers will come to North Bay and bring their talent, their families, their money. Employers are screaming for people, and we’ve seen newcomers are willing to come here,” she says.

North Bay is hardly alone. Toronto  and other cities across Canada have passed supportive motions urging governments to expand municipal voting rights.

This issue doesn’t break down along simple partisan lines. Vic Fedeli, a PC MPP and former mayor of North Bay, says he thinks the issue deserves public attention, but shouldn’t be rushed through a committee without substantial public consultation.

“We can’t do electoral reform in Ontario without broad public consultation — and ultimately, a referendum,” Fedeli says.

Advocates concede that de-linking the vote from citizenship would be a substantial change in how Canadian politics has worked in the past, but say municipal voting has historically been restricted and expanded in a number of unpredictable ways. It wasn’t until the 1960s, for example, that renters got the unrestricted right to vote in Ontario cities. Non-Canadian British subjects could vote in Ontario municipal elections into the 1980s.

 “The way we elect councillors and trustees is old and needs to be reviewed,” says Alejandra Bravo of the Broadbent Institute, an organization focused on poverty reduction and community building. “It’s particularly important when you consider the concentration of newcomers. The settlement pattern is such that whole neighbourhoods are going to have less representation at city council.”

Bravo says it’s not as simple as saying that permanent residents should simply become citizens. For one, it now takes longer for permanent residents to obtain citizenship than it did before 2015. Ramore adds that for northern residents the logistics of getting citizenship — including obtaining immigration lawyers and consultants — can be quite challenging. Some residents also risk endangering their citizenship in their birth countries if they take full Canadian citizenship, which can have consequences abroad.

“Citizenship isn’t always an option for people… they may have family in their home country they need to be able to visit, and Canadian citizenship could put that at risk,” she says.

All the advocates TVO.org spoke with emphasized they were focusing on local voting rights, not looking to challenge the franchise rules for provincial and federal voting. Permanent residents in Canada rely on municipal services and the local school boards as much as the Canadian citizen next door, and Bravo argues that’s a reasonable distinction to draw.

“The function of a trustee or councillor is just different from a member of Parliament,” Bravo says. “We’re talking about both oversight and a more direct service relationship.”

Correction, June 1: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alejandra Bravo works at the Maytree Foundation. TVO.org regrets the error.

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