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Voting in Canada: a short history

canadaCanada has been a democracy since Confederation in 1867.  Who was been allowed to participate in that democracy has continually evolved since that time.

At the time of Confederation, eligibility to vote was restricted on a number of issues, as listed below, but all voters had to be male, and own property of a certain value.

Some non-property owners were also permitted to vote, depending on the amount of rent they paid monthly or annually, but the amounts were high enough that they excluded many. The property-based qualifications for voting were gradually removed beginning around 1900, but was not completely removed until 1948.

For over 50 years after Confederation, women in Canada were not permitted to vote. That changed for federal elections (and provincially in Nova Scotia) in 1918. The provincial laws giving women the right to vote in provincial elections were also generally introduced around this time, including Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1916 , BC and Ontario in 1917, and Nova Scotia in 1918.  Quebec was last to address the issue in 1940.

Certain racial or ethnic groups were also excluded from voting in Canada based on being disqualified provincially. For example, Japanese Canadians were denied the right to vote in a federal election until 1948. These exclusions extended to a variety of racial and ethnic groups, all with various limitations on the right to vote based on their province of residence, until the new federal laws in 1948 finally prohibited citizens from being denied their right to vote on the basis of their race. Despite this advancement, certain racialized communities faced continuing exclusion. Similar to the 1948 laws preventing the denial of voting rights due to race, in 1955 laws were introduced ending the exclusion of voters on the basis of their religion.

It was not until 1960 that Canada began to address the particularly difficult and complex issue of granting Aboriginal persons the right to vote. Although Aboriginal persons were permitted to vote from the time of Confederation (within the other limits of the time – Aboriginal women would not have been able to vote until 1918), to act upon the right to vote they would have had to give up their status as Aboriginal persons, and rights they had because of that status.

After 1960, this sacrifice was no longer required for Aboriginal persons to vote. Much like the acceptance of women’s right to vote, the right for Aboriginal people to vote provincially happened around this time for most provinces. Nova Scotia was unique in having never excluded status Aboriginal men (and women after 1918) from voting; however, due to treaties and societal arrangements, few Aboriginal people were recognized as owners of property – thus excluding many until the property ownership requirement was removed.

Various changes have been made over the past number of decades to try to make it easier for people to vote.  For example:

  • voting hours were extended to give more time for working people to get to a polling station
  • special polling stations were set up at places such as hospitals and long-term care facilities to encourage seniors to vote
  • more centralized, accessible polling stations were established to make it easier for persons with physical disabilities or limitations to vote. These accessibility changes became law in 1992.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became law in 1982. Section Three of the Charter guarantees all adult (18 or over) Canadian citizens the right to vote federally or provincially. This Charter protection reflected the collection of changes that had been made over the previous century, and further expanded on those changes by including all citizens.

However, Section Three of the Charter was limited in some particular ways which have since been addressed.

Between 1988 and 1993 changes were made to address the exclusion of persons with a mental disability from voting. In 1993, persons with mental disability could no longer be disqualified from voting on that basis.

Prisoners did not initially have their right to vote protected by Section Three of the Charter. In 1993 the restriction on voting was removed for prisoners serving a sentence of less than two years. In 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a decision called Sauvé v. Chief Electoral Officer, ruled that no prisoner could be disqualified from voting, no matter the length of their sentence.

Finally, with the introduction of the Canada Elections Act in 2000, steps were taken to make it possible for persons of no fixed address to be eligible to vote without the traditional documentation required for proof of address. This law continues to face some changes and controversy around exactly what can be used as documentation or as an alternative to prove residence in a riding.  However, the basic concept remains that having no fixed address is no longer grounds to be disqualified from voting. Some of the recent changes made, particularly those in the Fair Elections Act, have been criticised by some, such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), Council of Canadians, and Canadian Federation of Students, claiming that the changes infringe upon the Charter protected right to vote.

Among the changes that have been seen as especially troubling are:

  • No longer being able to rely on an Elections Canada voter ID card as identification
  • The tightening of rules around vouching for a person without proof of address
  • Limiting the number of voters that one individual can vouch for

Additionally, a recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision (Frank v. Attorney General of Canada, 2015) has impacted the rights of Canadian citizens who live outside of the country. This case has confirmed that Canadian citizens who have lived outside of the country for 5 years or more, are no longer permitted to participate in Canadian elections. This builds on other recent changes which changed rules about when the 5 year period began. Prior to 2007, a citizen simply had to return to Canada for any purpose to restart the period. Now, that person must return to live in Canada before their right to vote is regained. This change has effectively removed a Charter right from Canadian citizens who live outside of the country.

Although these changes may seem insignificant to many, the people affected by these changes are generally groups who already experience difficulty in voting. Heavily impacted populations include seniors, persons with no fixed address, students and Aboriginal persons. Although Canada has come a long way in improving access to the right to vote, many still face hurdles in practicing their Charter protected right.

September 2015

This article is written by Dalhousie law student Michael Bourgeois.

More information and further reading:

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