Semra Sevi is a Masters student in Political Science at the University of Toronto. She is currently reading for a course on Canadian expatriate voting rights under the supervision of Peter Russell.
Canada, a nation of immigrants, is quickly becoming a nation of emigrants.
According to a study by the Asia Pacific Foundation, 2.9 million Canadian citizens – equivalent to 9 per cent of Canada’s population – study, live and work abroad.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants every Canadian citizen the right to vote and to be a candidate in an election. Until 1993, Canadian citizens living abroad were not allowed to vote at all except for civil servants and military personnel. The subsequent Bill C-114 introduced voting rights for Canadians living abroad for fewer than five-years. But why five years?
Expatriate voting rights are now common in many countries. In the English-speaking world, the United States has the most generous provision for expatriate voters. Americans living overseas have the right to vote no matter how long they have been abroad. The right to vote expires in the United Kingdom after 15 years abroad. Australian citizens abroad are allowed to vote so long as they intend to return to Australia within six years. After six years, citizens can renew their status by making an annual declaration of their intention to return “at some point.” The language of “at some point” is hardly conducive to the technical, narrow and legalistic approach that Canada has set at the five-year expiration.
The five-year limit in Canada is an arbitrary number. On the surface, it is a year less generous than Australia, but Australians can renew their status by expressing a mere intent to return to the country at some point in the future. Canadians, on the other hand, need to resume residency to regain their right to vote abroad.
Elsewhere, many countries with comparable citizens living abroad, not only grant their expatriates the right to vote, but they also have representatives for them like in France, Italy and Portugal. Countries across Europe have understood that in an increasingly globalized world, their citizens abroad should be seen as an asset and not a liability.
While Canada may have lots of expatriates, they are no less committed to Canada than citizens living in Canada. The Charter guarantees the right of mobility. Choosing to live outside Canada does not make one less Canadian. The idea that patriotism and civic engagement is tied entirely to geographic location is absurd. According to the Asia Pacific report, the majority of Canadians live in the United States, China, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and Australia. Interestingly, these are the same countries that Canada does extensive trading with.
Canadians abroad are connected to global networks that Canada can benefit from. Instead of using derogative labels like “Canadians of convenience” or “Foreigners holding Canadian passports,” Canada needs to take a proactive approach to engage Canadians living abroad. People have many different reasons for moving away, and to label them as less Canadian for doing so is troublesome. There are many cases of Canadians studying in the United States who find work in the United Kingdom before coming back to Canada a decade later yet under the current system they would be disenfranchised after five years. Many of these Canadians working abroad do so for Canadian companies, yet these businesses are not facing the same dilemma as Canadians abroad.
Immigrants who decide to leave Canada for whatever reason and return to their native countries are not less Canadian as their compatriots who live in Canada. They may not be residing in the country but they are nevertheless subject to Canadian law and foreign policy decisions. Many of them actively retain connections to Canada. Questions like are expatriates “real” Canadians, is unconstitutional and un-Canadian in themselves. Canadians living abroad are significant global assets who deserve the same rights as those living in Canada. The world is as interconnected as ever, and is only becoming more so. Isolating citizens based on their current geographic placement, which is based on many factors, runs counter to the way the world operates in the twenty-first century.
If the decrease in voter turnout domestically is a concern, Canada should not be turning away Canadians abroad who are expressing a strong interest in being able to continue to participate in Canadian political life. Nearly half of Canada’s expatriates are disenfranchised for being abroad for more than five years. The paranoia over the idea that expatriates have differing loyalties or a lack of knowledge about Canadian news and government policy is not backed by evidence. As well, it is not as if the expatriate vote will somehow completely change the tide of an election in any given year.
Expatriates who are allowed to vote, do so in the last riding in which they lived. Given the current system, if the right to vote was maintained based on their intention to return, because the expatriate votes are spread over many ridings, their impact on Canadian elections would be trivial at best. But this does not mean it is an issue that should go ignored. The idea that Canadian citizens who want to vote are prevented from exercising their democratic rights because of their geographic location does not concur with the Charter.