15 percent of Toronto residents and six percent of Hamilton residents will be ineligible to vote this municipal election. These are residents who pay taxes, participate actively in civic life and care about the communities they live in. Quite often, they are also the ones who need social services the most in a concentrated period of time.
These are the permanent residents of Canada – those slowly walking the path from immigrant to citizen. They are legal, landed immigrants who live in Canada for four years before applying for citizenship, an application process that sometimes takes multiple years.
In a survey done by Forum Research, a Toronto-based research firm, it was found that 53 percent of Torontonians aren’t comfortable with giving permanent residents the right to vote at the municipal level.
Last June, the City of Toronto Council recommended that the province inquire into giving permanent residents voting rights in municipal elections. However, so far nothing has been done on this issue.
Organizations that focus on civically engaging immigrant and diverse groups in politics have continuously recommended that municipal voting rights be extended to permanent residents.
Many, like Doug Ford and John Tory, think that giving PRs the right to vote would make Canadian citizenship less special. This is a misguided argument, founded more than anything else in an irrational fear of immigrants having a voice. There are other things exclusive to Canadian citizenship that don’t include the right to vote, such as a passport and government security. And don’t worry, Fords and Torys of Canada, permanent residents will never outnumber bigoted individuals like yourselves.
There’s a reason advocacy groups have only been targeting the municipal level for now. Some national decisions are understandably kept exclusive to citizens. However, politics at the municipal level are different. They don’t need to exclude a group that plays a crucial part in the communities that are represented. All decisions made in City Council only affect the city itself and its active residents.
Several political scientists, such as Ryerson’s Myer Siemiatycki, have studied the inclusion of immigrants and diverse communities in local elections, and have concluded that extending municipal voting rights to permanent residents is an important step in including diverse and disadvantage communities in the local process. Diverse communities are often disenfranchised in municipal elections. If they hold less clout than other groups, some campaigns will fail to canvass to them for strategic reasons.
Additionally, Siemiatycki argues that including non-citizens in the voting process creates a sense of belonging for newcomers that puts to practice much of what Canadian cities showcase as their approach to new immigrant incorporation.
The inclusion of permanent residents will increase the diversity of municipal voters, giving certain ideas a louder voice, and in some cases giving more strength to disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
It will also keep the municipal government accountable to newcomers whose local councillors are their first encounter with Canadian politics. Living actively in their wards but being constantly ignored in decision-making can be disheartening and disappointing as a first introduction to politics. Wards where a lot of new immigrants reside often fail to meet the needs of their residents, perpetuating cycles of poverty and insecurity.
The right to vote at the municipal level would give new immigrants a say in their city, neighbourhoods, services, and children’s schools. It would also force political candidates to actively listen to their voices.
Permanent residents shouldn’t be denied their democratic right to vote because the public is uneducated about what their inclusion in politics would mean. As Evelyn Myrie, former director of the Hamilton Civic Inclusion Council, points out, the voting majority has always been uncomfortable with extending voting rights to less privileged groups for no particularly good reasons. It’s time to stop denying civic-minded individuals the right to be heard.