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.
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.