Should people who are not citizens of Canada be given the right to vote in City of Toronto elections? City council thinks so. Councillors voted 21-20 on Tuesday to ask the provincial government to change the rules, drop the citizenship requirement and allow permanent residents to cast ballots.
Those who support this thoroughly backward idea argue that it would encourage newcomers to take part in the civic life of their new home, fostering a sense of belonging. It is more likely do just the opposite. The best path to full belonging is to become a citizen, and letting non-citizens vote removes an important incentive to take out citizenship. In the words of Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, it "devalues, degrades and erodes what Canadian citizenship means."
As he points out, becoming a citizen is easier in Canada than in most countries. You need to be a permanent resident, you need to have lived in Canada for at least three of the four years before applying, you need adequate knowledge of English or French and you need adequate knowledge of Canada. Those seem pretty modest hurdles to clear to win the right to vote.
If you want to vote for the club directors, you need to join the club. Generations of immigrants have considered it a perfectly reasonable bargain.
Councillor Mike Del Grande recalls how proud his immigrant mother was to get her citizenship. When some bigots called her a wop when she was out walking with young Mike on the Danforth one day, she shot back something like: "Hey, buddy, I'm a Canadian." As Mr. Del Grande puts it: "Being a Canadian citizen made her just as much a Canadian as anyone walking on the Danforth that day." She went on to vote in every election.
Proponents of non-citizen voting say that is an old-fashioned, even small-minded way of looking at things. Speaking after Mr. Del Grande, Councillor Gord Perks said that those who say they earned the vote by taking out citizenship are revealing "a jealous frame of mind." In effect, they are arguing: I have something, I earned it, and you can't have it. Far better, he said, to be "empathetic and inclusive."
That brought Councillor Karen Stintz to her feet. "I don't regard citizenship as a jealous notion," she said. "Canada is probably the most generous nation in granting citizenship because we reach out to people around the world and we ask people to come here and settle here," she said.
Canada, she continued, is not like some European countries that make it hard for resident foreigners to become citizens and, in some cases, allow non-citizen voting as a result. "We have given every single person who has come to this country a pathway to vote. We have not denied it to a soul."
She told the story of her father, an American who came to live in Canada and chose not to become a citizen. It never occurred to him to demand the right to vote, she said. Others have the same choice: "If you want to vote, become a Canadian. And it's not a hard choice. And I welcome anyone who wants to make that choice. Because Toronto is a city of diversity and we cherish and we treasure and we promote it, but what we can't afford to do is give up what is important to this nation, to this country and this city, which is a sense of belonging."
As she put it, "We unite ourselves through our citizenship and that should be protected – not out of jealousy but out of pride."