The Fight for Suffrage Isn’t Over

Municipal voting rights for permanent residents are long overdue

Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, around 226,000 immigrants arrived in Canada for the first time. They joined the hundreds of thousands of permanent residents who had arrived in the country before them. After spending one year in Canada, newcomers become indistinguishable from Canadian citizens in regards to income tax. Despite paying taxes at the same rate as Canadian citizens, permanent residents are denied the right to cast a vote in Canada. Their inability to vote in the municipal elections of any province means they have no say in how their money is used or in how their rights and livelihoods may be better supported by local governments.

Per Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “[e]very citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” Whether it be a federal, provincial, or municipal elections, having Canadian citizenship is a necessary requirement to cast a vote in Canada. This requirement, however, prevents hundreds of thousands of non-citizens, some who have been residing in Canada for years, from participating in democracy. Unlike on the federal level, provincial governments can still, however, extend voting rights to permanent residents in municipalities if there was ever a will to do so.

Obtaining Canadian citizenship can be  time-consuming and costly. To become a Canadian citizen, permanent residents need to have lived in Canada for three of the past five years, they need to have filed their taxes, pass a test on the history and politics of Canada (and the province they reside in), and “prove [their] language skills.” The cost of the process creates additional barriers, especially for low-income residents to apply for and acquire Canadian citizenship. Currently, citizenship fees are $630 CAD for people over the age of 18. Although the Liberal Party pledged to waive citizenship fees in 2019, those plans were delayed by the pandemic. In 2021, after his third consecutive election, Justin Trudeau asked the immigration minister Sean Fraser, in his mandate letter to “[m]ake the citizenship application process free for permanent residents who have fulfilled the requirements needed to obtain it.” When Fraser was asked in an interview to give a date on which the citizenship fees would be waived, he said that “[w]e don’t have a date for you, and I feel it’s best to be open.” High citizenship fees have been preventing residents from participating in the democratic process for years, and the pandemic-induced increase in immigration backlog has not improved matters.

In 2018, around 400,000 Toronto residents were not allowed to vote in the city’s municipal elections. Despite living in Toronto since 2011, permanent resident Chris Bateman cannot vote in municipal elections as of 2018. He told CBC Toronto: “I pay taxes and I access city services and the decisions city council make have an effect on me on a very real, day-to-day basis, […] And I don’t really have a say on how that’s done.” Four years later, as the city prepares for another set of municipal elections, nothing has changed. Thousands of people who pay property taxes will get no say on how their money is being allocated, which Toronto Metropolitan University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki describes as “ludicrous.” 

Before the 2021 municipal elections in Montreal, a report by the city’s committee on social development and diversity stated that voting rights for permanent residents could help “foster political participation and ensure better representation of the various groups that form society.” The council expressed the desire to grant permanent residents who had lived in the city for more than a year the right to vote, but no change was enacted. 

Despite different Canadian municipalities wanting to grant permanent residents the right to vote, none have yet managed to convince provincial or federal governments to alter the voting laws. 

In New Brunswick, permanent residents might be able to vote in municipal elections starting in 2026. Keith Chiasson, a member of the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly, introduced a bill that would grant permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections, without opposition. The provincial government is now trying to overcome the challenge of compiling a permanent resident voters’ list. 

Canada has lagged behind globally in granting voting rights to non-citizens. Currently, there are 45 democracies around the world that allow non-citizens to vote in some capacity. In some countries, they are even allowed to vote in national elections, but most of the time they’re limited to voting at the local level. In Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium, permanent residents are allowed to vote in municipal elections after having spent a certain number of years in the country. 

Supporting organisations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that call for extending voting rights to permanent residents can be a great first step toward election reform. Permanent residents are not the only group of people to be denied the right to vote in Canada. Refugees and Federal Skilled Workers are also denied the right to vote. Non-citizens form the only adult group to still fight for suffrage in the country. Organisations like suffrage in the country. Organisations like Justice for Migrant Workers and Solidarity Across Borders are calling for status for all residents and workers. Finally, getting involved in local politics and pressuring municipalities to extend voting rights to non-citizens is crucial to the fight for electoral reform.