Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear a case about whether Canadians living abroad should regain their right to vote in federal elections. Over the past four years, the Conservatives sought in the courts and through legislation to prevent expatriate Canadians from regaining their voting rights. The Liberals, however, promised a different path. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” Justin Trudeau repeatedly said during the 2015 election campaign when he repudiated the Conservatives’ narrow vision of citizenship and democracy. To understand what’s at stake, it’s necessary to understand the history of expat voting rights. According to a study by Asia Pacific Foundation, 2.9 million Canadian citizens – equivalent to 9 per cent of Canada’s population – study, live and work abroad.
In 1993, the Progressive Conservative government extended voting rights to Canadians living abroad for less than five consecutive years. Under subsequent Liberal governments, Elections Canada reset the five-year limit every time citizens visited the country. In 2006, the newly formed Conservative Party initiated a broad debate about the meaning of citizenship in the wake of the controversial evacuation of thousands of Canadians in Lebanon.
Against this backdrop, members of the House of Commons expressed concern about expat voting. Many MP`s believed that Canadians abroad had been away for long periods of time and therefore had limited connections to Canada. They worried that these Canadians – whom they disparaged as “Canadians of Convenience” – would unfairly impact elections. There was no evidence to support these anxieties. Following the 2006 general election, the Conservative government stringently enforced the five-year limit and thus disenfranchised more than a million Canadians.