One in seven Torontonians are barred from voting in the municipal election because they are not Canadian citizens.
So far, the buzz around the October 2010 Toronto municipal election has focused on who is running for mayor. It’s time we paid more attention to who will be voting for those candidates.
When it comes to casting ballots to select our city council, Toronto has a deep democratic deficit that severely undermines the legitimacy of our elected officials. When only a third of eligible electors turn out to vote in Toronto elections, how representative and responsive can any member of council be? And when more than one in seven of Toronto residents aren’t even permitted onto the voters’ list, how democratic is our municipal election system to begin with?
Toronto’s sorry state of voter participation needs to be an issue in this year’s municipal election campaign. A fundamental starting point is voting rights for the hundreds of thousands of immigrant Torontonians currently barred from casting their ballot in municipal elections.
What keeps these residents off the municipal voters’ list is that they are not Canadian citizens. Municipal voter eligibility rules in Canada are set by the provinces, and in Ontario (as in other provinces) Canadian citizenship is a pre-requisite. So, even though they pay municipal property taxes, make Toronto their home, and depend on its municipal services, immigrant non-Canadian citizens lack voting rights.
The number of non-Canadian citizen residents in Toronto is huge. The 2006 Census counted 380,135 of them. This represents 15.4 per cent (more than one in seven) of the city’s 2.47 million population. This is equal to the entire population of Halifax, twice the population of Regina, and four times the population of St. John’s, to cite three other provincial capital cities in the country.
What’s wrong with this picture of immigrant electoral disenfranchisement? Lots, but here’s the shortlist.
No Taxation Without Representation.
All the foreign-born, non-Canadian citizens kept off the voters’ list live in Toronto and pay property taxes as tenants or homeowners. Yet they have no vote in selecting their municipal representatives.
Toronto is officially classified into 140 neighbourhoods. Given newcomers residential settlement patterns in the city, Toronto has neighbourhoods where over 30 per cent of the population are non-citizens, and therefore ineligible to vote. Often these neighbourhoods have distinct needs and assets that go unrecognized because they lack a political voice.
The Stakeholder Principle of Municipal Rights.
Cities don’t operate under the same “membership rules” as the federal or provincial government. The best example is the fact that non-residents can vote municipally, but not federally or provincially. If you pay property taxes to a municipality on a property you own or rent, you can vote in that municipality’s election, even if you don’t live there. Immigrant non-Canadians meet this membership requirement of paying property taxes. The fact they also live in Toronto further strengthens their claim.
Creating Cities of Belonging.
Immigrants have demonstrated their commitment to Toronto by leaving their homeland to live here. Immigrant integration works best when newcomers feel they are recognized and valued. Over 85 per cent of eligible immigrants eventually become Canadian citizens. But it does take time – a minimum of four years given the residency, citizenship application, and testing requirements. Toronto municipal elections are held every four years. This means that, depending on their arrival date, an immigrant can wait anywhere from four to eight years to vote for their mayor, city councillor, or school trustee.
Many Other Countries Give Non-Citizens Municipal Voting Rights.
More than 40 countries (half of them in Europe) now extend the municipal vote to non-citizen immigrants. This includes the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, and New Zealand. Like them, we should regard municipal voting rights as a way of signaling we want immigrants to participate in the political life of their chosen country.
A grassroots movement is growing to extend municipal voting rights to non-citizen immigrants. Under the campaign banner “I Vote Toronto,” close to 70 organizations in Toronto have endorsed the call for non-citizen voting rights in the city.
What exactly does Toronto (one of the world’s great immigrant cities) gain by preventing hundreds of thousands of immigrant residents from voting on municipal election day? We certainly know what is lost. A few years back, while visiting Toronto, Dublin’s Mayor Michael Conaghan was asked how immigrants there feel about being able to vote in that city’s elections before they become citizens of Ireland. He replied: “They like the idea of being asked for their vote. They feel a part of the city, and I think that’s important…I suppose they feel they’re not being dismissed.”
And what do Toronto’s candidates for mayor, city councillor and school trustee say on the subject?
Listen to an interview with Myer Siemiatycki here.
This is one in a series of essays on the big issues in Toronto’s upcoming municipal election.