As the fledgling campaign to give non-citizens the vote in municipal elections made a sudden flash on the Toronto media's radar this week, I suspect I wasn't the only one in the city to stop and ask, "Huh? What's this all about?"
I racked my brains. Were they talking about mixed member proportional representation? No, no, we dealt with that in the last Ontario election. The single-transferable vote? No, no, that was the recent B.C. election.
Somehow, I missed this little piece of proposed electoral reform back in 2006 when David Miller made the idea a plank in his mayoral campaign. I didn't hear about it in September 2008, when the I Vote Toronto campaign was launched at the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office with the help of the Maytree foundation.
The first indication I got that something was afoot was when Councillor Janet Davis personally dropped by the City Hall press gallery to drum up interest in Wednesday night's community forum.
At first blush, it's an idea easy to dismiss. Why rush to give immigrants the vote before they get citizenship? Surely they can wait the three years it takes before one can apply to become an official Canadian? Isn't the right to vote the grand prize of citizenship? Do we really want to give out our trophies before anyone has run the race?
Talk to the experts, like York University's Robert MacDermid or Ryerson's Myer Siemiatycki, or the true believers like Ms. Davis and Desmond Cole of I Vote Toronto, and you can easily become a convert. They ask: Why do we exclude 262,000 non-citizens in Toronto from the political process, including all those who pay taxes, own property, use city services and send their children to school? Why not engage them early, rather than alienate them from a system long plagued by desperately low voter turnout?
Mr. Cole uses an elegant example to drive home the point: There's an elementary school in his community, one of the largest in North America, where 91 per cent of the children come from families whose mother tongue is not English. In other words, most are recent immigrants. Why shouldn't those parents get to vote for their local school trustee?
(The argument is undermined somewhat by the fact these parents can have influence and contribute in many other ways, from parent councils to volunteer work to direct contact with the school staff).
Now to the rub: It's ain't likely to happen anytime soon; certainly not in time for the 2010 election.
That's because we'd need the province to step in. Never mind the glacial pace of policy change at Queen's Park or the thorny issue of opening up the province's Municipal Elections Act and Education Act. This is a Toronto issue that has little-to-no resonance outside the GTA, so it won't be a top priority for a government rightly preoccupied with the recession. Premier Dalton McGuinty has already played nice with the city on other matters of transit, downloading and the City of Toronto Act.
Moreover, it doesn't help when a highly respected former McGuinty cabinet minister, who also just happens to be an immigrant, comes out against the campaign.
Still, the rationale is strong enough to give one pause, even one who cherishes Canadian citizenship as the highest of privileges.
You can join the debate today at 1 p.m. ET when our City Hall columnist Marcus Gee and Alejandra Bravo come online to take your questions.