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Permanent residents should have the vote

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Perhaps no country has had greater success than Canada in welcoming newcomers. This is particularly so in our big cities, which have become some of the most harmoniously diverse places in the world.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/01/2016 (2411 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Perhaps no country has had greater success than Canada in welcoming newcomers. This is particularly so in our big cities, which have become some of the most harmoniously diverse places in the world.

But for a country that celebrates diversity — Canada was the first country in the world to make multiculturalism official policy, and we are now the world’s second-most-heterogeneous society — we are less committed to the backbone of democratic society: voting rights.

Recognizing permanent residents pay local taxes and use city services, some 50 countries around the world — including Ireland, New Zealand and Belgium — allow resident non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. Despite a growing movement among Canadian cities to enfranchise permanent residents — the decision lies with provincial legislatures, not municipal councils — Canada is not among them.

Marcos Townsend / The Canadian Press files Recognizing permanent residents pay local taxes and use city services, some 50 countries around the world -- including Ireland, New Zealand and Belgium -- allow resident non-citizens to vote in municipal elections.

Granting permanent residents the vote in local elections would deepen our commitment to multiculturalism. Studies show the earlier people begin participating in politics, the more likely they are to become engaged citizens. New Canadians report lower levels of political engagement than those born here, so it should be no surprise municipal councils don’t reflect our multicultural reality. A study conducted in Ontario’s 23 largest cities found visible minorities held fewer than eight per cent of the council seats, despite making up more than 32 per cent of the population. Greater political participation among our diverse communities would benefit all Canadians by encouraging the integration of newcomers.

While some argue voting rights should be reserved for citizens, the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal to uphold a federal law that says Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years cannot vote in federal elections affirms the connection between residence and voting.

According to Ontario Chief Justice George Strathy, “Permitting all non-resident citizens to vote would allow them to participate in making laws that affect Canadian residents on a daily basis, but have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives.”

If this is true, is it fair to deny Canada’s 1.5 million permanent residents the right to help shape laws that have a direct, practical consequence on their daily lives?

Permanent residents revive urban spaces, start businesses, serve in our military and yes, some do become citizens. However, the Canadian model of immigration leading to citizenship is at risk. The percentage of immigrants who become citizens has dropped dramatically from 79 per cent to 26 per cent among people who arrived between 2000 and 2008, reflecting policy and program changes that have made citizenship “harder to get and easier to lose.” This is leading to a growing population that does not have the right to vote.

We live in an age of greater migration and increasingly free trade, and yet, in Canada, municipal voting rights have remained fixated on the idea of national citizenship.

Our best and brightest are not choosing so much between Canada and China, but between Toronto and Tokyo or Vancouver and Vienna. In many ways, mass migration has replaced national citizenship with urban citizenship.

By reflecting the identity and experience of the city’s residents, urban citizenship is fundamental to a newcomer’s attachment to their new society. Extending civic voting rights to non-citizen residents signals a desire to welcome newcomers. For many, this sense of belonging will foster a renewed commitment to Canada, fostering innovation.

Today’s concept of citizenship has its roots in an attachment to the city state in ancient Greece. With global migration remaking the very idea of citizenship along urban identities, it is time to validate today’s reality of urban citizenship by granting voting rights to urban citizens.

A century ago, Manitoba became the first province in the British Commonwealth to grant women the right to vote. Sixty-eight years ago, race was removed as grounds for exclusion from the federal franchise. As an urban nation, founded on democratic principles — redefined by multiculturalism — what could be more Canadian than an urban ballot box reflecting our multicultural reality?

 

Joshua Bates is senior policy adviser to the mayor of Halifax and a 2015-16 Action Canada Fellow.

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