Skip to main content
earlier discussion

Should non-citizens be given the right to vote in Toronto's municipal elections?

It's a question that gained some traction earlier this week at a public meeting where Mayor David Miller reiterated his 2006 campaign pledge to lobby the Ontario government to enfranchise the estimated 262,000 adult landed immigrants in Toronto who lack citizenship and can't vote for local council or school board trustees. At least 57 community agencies have endorsed the I Vote Toronto campaign.

Proponents argue that these new Canadians are being shut out of the political process despite the fact they pay taxes, own property, have children in the schools and use city services.

Opponents say the right to vote is one of the most important privileges a country can confer upon a citizen and shouldn't be given away lightly.

What do you want to know about the non-citizen voting rights campaign? Do you have questions about the rationale? Do you agree or disagree with giving landed immigrants the vote?

We are pleased to welcome online Alejandra Bravo of the Maytree foundation and The Globe and Mail's City Hall columnist Marcus Gee. Ms. Bravo and Maytree are proponents of this electoral reform; Mr. Gee opposes the campaign.

Questions and answers will appear below beginning at 1 p.m.

Alejandra Bravo is Manager of Leadership Programs at the Maytree foundation, where she trains emerging leaders from diverse communities to actively participate in civic life. As a volunteer, Alejandra is a member of the Toronto Board of Health, chair of Etobicoke-York Local Health Committee and board chair of Art Starts, using the arts for community development in underserved areas of Toronto. She volunteers with a number of organizations that focus on youth, violence prevention and civic participation.

Established in 1982, Maytree is a private foundation that promotes equity and prosperity through its policy insights, grants and programs. The foundation has gained international recognition for its expertise in developing, testing and implementing programs and policy solutions related to immigration, integration and diversity in the workplace, in the boardroom and in public office.

Marcus Gee is The Globe's Toronto City Hall columnist. He joined the paper in 1991 and has written about foreign affairs, as an editorial writer, columnist and, most recently, Asia business reporter.


Brodie Fenlon: Thanks for joining us Marcus and Alejandra. The comments thread on this discussion has already taken on a life of its own, and I'm going to pose some of our reader's comments to you for your response, along with the questions. But let me begin by asking you to briefly state your position on why this is or isn't a good idea.

Alejandra Bravo: Maytree knows that immigrants are essential to Canada's prosperity and we have to find ways to attract the best and the brightest from around the world. Permanent residents, along with citizens, fund municipal services like transit, school, garbage and police through their property taxes but permanent residents have no say in how these taxes are spent. Canada's prosperity relies on immigration. To get it right, we need to make sure that newcomers get successfully settled. We know that speed is important. The faster a newcomer gets that all-important first job, the better his or her prospects for long term success in the labour market. The faster we invite newcomers to vote in local elections, the faster they contribute to building the communities in which they live. Municipal voting is not a new idea. It's being done elsewhere in the world, and it works.

Marcus Gee: To elect a government in Canada, you should be Canadian. That's seems pretty basic to me. Voting is one of the essential rights that come with citizenship. Letting non-citizens vote takes away an incentive for them to become full Canadians, and that's the last thing a big city that absorbs huge numbers of immigrants should be doing.

Greg Keane of Charlottetown: Isn't extending the right to vote to those who lack Canadian citizenship throwing away an essential control, and basically the same as also giving it to their friends (and perhaps their family) who do not reside in this country? If not, what's the difference? Paying taxes is immaterial to the issue. They pay taxes as required by Canadian law, not voluntarily. Such non-Canadian taxpayers must earn the right to vote, by becoming Canadian citizens. Extending the right to vote to non-Canadians is a poor excuse to gain potential votes, in my opinion, and a foolish concept.

Alejandra Bravo: We are not talking about extending the right to vote in provincial and federal elections where there are issues such as national security and foreign policy. In municipal elections permanent residents would have a say in how local services and taxes are spent. Who gets to vote has changed in Canada with the times. The local franchise was at first reserved for wealthy men. Women in 1918, Asian people in 1948, federal inmates in 2002 were permitted to vote and dual citizenship was permitted in 1977. These are some of the sign posts of change over time.

Marcus Gee: Greg, I'm not quite cynical enough to think that Mayor Miller is simply trying to win votes by letting non-citizens vote. I think he sincerely believes that it's a way to engage newcomers in the life of the city. But residents can become engaged without voting -- through community organizations, ratepayers groups etc. Or they can apply for citizenship. It takes only about three years to get.

Rhodon: As an immigrant-citizen myself and a frequent voter in elections at all levels, I say that voting is one of the privileges and duties of citizenship. If an immigrant wants to vote, then become a citizen; it only takes 4 years. Until then, there are many ways to get involved with the political process and learn how it works -- and even influence it by getting citizens out to vote. (I learned in campaigns that a voter delivered to the polls counted as much as my vote -- and I have probably delivered several hundred that might have stayed at home over my years here in Canada, whether I voted or not!) I also wonder to what extent that non-citizens unfamiliar with the Canadian processes could be persuaded by community pressures to vote en bloc without understanding the political culture better.

Alejandra Bravo: Within 10 years, about 85% of immigrants will become citizens. Why wait that long? Let's make sure newcomers are given the chance to build our communities, to learn about the responsibilities of citizenship while they earn the right to become Canadian. Polling in New York shows that newcomers care about the same things as citizens: transit, schools, police and fire services. And you're right, they do participate in local schools, community organizations and even on agencies boards and commissions that deliver important services in the city of Toronto.

Marcus Gee: Good point, Rhodon. Non-citizens may not always have the language skills or knowledge of the country to be able to vote wisely. The period while they wait for citizenship -- assuming they apply -- gives them the time to learn the issues and how our system works.

Linnilou: It makes sense to give non citizens a municipal vote if they own property and pay taxes. But, I think the right to vote provincially and federally should be reserved for Canadian citizens. Being Canadian is not a right but a privilege.

Alejandra Bravo: This is a very important distinction and that is why the call is for municipal voting rights only. Canadian citizenship is a privilege that entitles an individual to vote in a provincial and federal elections, to run for public office, to apply for a Canadian passport and to receive consular services abroad. For these reasons, even if permanent residents are allowed to vote, they will still want to become Canadian citizens at the very high rate that we see in our country today.

George Brown III: At present participation rates for municipal elections, not much else is left to tap any voter pool. I think new immigrants as well as lowering the voting age to 16 may infuse new life in municipal elections. Or you may call it off and have Queens Park appoint the mayor and councillors and that is a far worse option.

Alejandra Bravo: The call for municipal voting rights for non-citizen legal residents in New York City was born out of a concern for declining voter turnout in local elections. It originates from a city commission looking into this issue. Our political institutions adapt over time to ensure a healthy representative democracy. Another take is from Inclusive Cities Canada, a national project to find ways to promote inclusion, with projects in cities across Canada. I n each urban area, local or regional social planning councils collaborated with local politicians and community agencies to engage local residents in identifying experiences and prescriptions for social inclusion. The project's 'social inclusion framework' may be described as grounded in a shared communitarian responsibility that none in society are left out or left behind. As process, social inclusion requires the broadest possible public participation in influencing decision-making affecting their lives and community. As outcome, social inclusion requires that the tangible conditions of life for all are at a standard that most in society would regard as acceptable for themselves. Inclusive Cities Canada developed a comprehensive framework to operationalize its analysis of social inclusion in Canadian cities. The studies of all 5 case study cities applied the same template, emphasizing 5 key dimensions of inclusion and applying them to selected areas of inquiry for local civic action. Municipal voting for permanent residents was one of its recommendations in Toronto.

Chrisp Sensible: I'm inclined to say no, but then I consider that even if I am a Canadian born and bred, when it comes to municipal politics, I am a new citizen every time I move to a new community. I would be more inclined to allow the vote only for Canadian citizens if I thought we all got off our prostate protectors to go vote. But we don't, do we? We sit at home and let the 40 per cent or fewer who actually tap the slip of paper into the box carry the day. It's worse for school board voting with tens of millions of dollars at stake. Me, I vote early and often (ho, ho, ho), but shame an anyone who CAN vote and doesn't. If new arrivals feel strongly enough to vote -- and I worry that they may be so new as to be prone to mob voting corralled by manipulators -- but until that can be shown, whoever is a resident for a year, I say let 'em vote.

Alejandra Bravo: The European experience shows that concerns about "mob voting," which are commonly raised in this debate, are not born out. According to Astrid de Vries, Deputy Consul-General of the Netherlands, in that country, permanent residents have been able to vote in local elections since 1985. Political preference has been determined by the party preference of individuals and not by their ethnicity. No electoral success has resulted for political parties focused exclusively on immigration issues and, in fact, today there are no such parties in the Netherlands based solely on ethnic lines. Increased electoral participation has resulted in greater interest and participation in broader politics and community. No political segregation has resulted from local voting for immigrants.

Marcus Gee: Chrisp: The impetus behind this campaign seems to be a feeling that immigrants aren't engaged enough in local politics. In fact, surveys have shown that immigrants who have been here for some time vote at the same rate as native-born Canadians. The trouble, as you say, is that we're all too detached from city politics.

The Pope: The argument being presented is one of taxation, if one pays Canadian taxes should they have the right to vote? Many people from other countries own property in Canada, thus paying taxes. Many people work within Canada for periods of time each year, also paying taxes. A person vacationing in Canada also pays Canadian taxes. People invest in Canadian businesses, directly & indirectly, also paying Canadian taxes. People go to school in other countries all the time, again paying taxes in those countries. Should paying any form of Canadian taxes automatically give someone the right to vote? The short answer is NO! Paying taxes does not in any way show a commitment to Canada on the part of an individual.

Alejandra Bravo: The connection between taxation and representation is only one argument. The point about residency made here is key. Currently, a Canadian citizen owning property in a municipality, but not living in that municipality, can vote in city council and school board elections. There is no residency requirement for local elections in Ontario. The local vote has been built on the idea of taxation=representation. However, tens of thousands of people working, living and raising families in a municipality don't have a say at the ballot box and perhaps their concerns aren't addressed. This idea seeks to level the playing field.

Marcus Gee: Excellent point. The tax issue -- non-citizens pay them but can't vote -- is one of Mayor Miller's main points and it doesn't hold up.

Anthony S: If you're not sufficiently committed to Canada to become a citizen, why would you expect to have a say in its future? If you haven't been here long enough to qualify for citizenship, why would you presume to know enough about Canada to make an informed decision about its leadership? ... I'm willing to fly an airplane, do brain surgery, and sit on the Supreme Court. But I think I'll have to invest in some education before they let me loose.

Marcus Gee: Could not have said it better....

Alejandra Bravo: Permanent residents - a designation under the federal immigration act - have made a commitment to Canada (and have been accepted by Canada). They have learned about our country, have waited on a list to be considered, have qualified to immigrate according to Canadian economic interests and priorities, have waited to land here, and have chosen to make this their home. It takes three years to qualify for citizenship, but in practice can take many more years to become a citizen. The idea is for people to learn about citizenship's responsibilities with a local-level vote, while they are earning the right to become Canadians.

Babsam: EU citizens who are resident in another EU country can vote in that country's local and European elections, but not in national elections.

Marcus Gee: True, but membership in the EU is in itself a kind of European citizenship. EU citizens can travel and work fairly freely in other EU countries.

Alejandra Bravo: At least 17 European countries extend the right to vote to non-citizens from outside the EU. The evidence from Europe is that it works to promote attachment, integration and participation of immigrants and has no downside.

Once voting rights have been granted they have never been a source of serious conflict. Not a single one of the 17 states that has granted voting rights to non-national residents, in the second half of the last century, has abolished this right on the ground of its negative effect, presumed or real.

It increases voter turn-out. Data on voting rights for non-citizens is available in five countries, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. At times, the proportional participation of voters from certain immigrant groups in certain cities is higher than the overall turnout. For example, the participation rate among Turkish immigrants in parts of Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland have been generally higher than among other groups.

Non-citizens use local government as a training ground for broader political participation. The observation of an Irish expert is that "the experiences of those who stood for election, as well as the electorate which voted for them was an invaluable learning experience and preparation for national politics". The first results of a Swiss study comparing the political activities of immigrants in Neuchâtel, where they have voting rights, with immigrants in Zürich, where they have no voting rights, indicates that having voting rights also encourages the immigrants' involvement in political activities other than voting.

There is a correlation between voting and other kinds of civic participation. Immigrants who have and actually use the right to vote in local elections are likely to be more active in political parties and other associations, just as there is a correlation between voting and active citizenship among nationals.

Rudyard Griffiths, Author of Who We Are: A Citizen's Manifesto and co-founder of the Dominion Institute: Why is this a pressing issue when Canada has one of the highest naturalization rates in the world? The fact is fully 84 per cent of permanent residents go on to become full citizens and can do so in a little as three years. I for one am concerned that by giving non-citizens the right to vote in municipal elections more newcomers will choose to remain permanent residents as opposed to starting the journey to full citizenship. This is certainly the case in Scandinavian countries that have allowed non-citizens to vote and that have naturalization rates of 50 per cent or less among their newcomer populations. The reality is by increasing the proportion of the population made up of permanent residents (e.g. people who could not vote in federal or provincial elections) we risk importing to Canada the kind of social cleavages that tear at European societies where democratic institutions, and civic life more generally, do not adequately reflect their demographics.

Alejandra Bravo: In terms of take up of citizenship in Europe, the research tells us otherwise. According to a Transatlantic Council on Migration study of 17 European countries where immigrants have a local vote, in fact, non-citizen voting encourages newcomers to become citizens. In the Netherlands, the yearly number of immigrants naturalized increased considerably from 20,000 in 1986 to 80,000 in 1996, the decade after the municipal voting rights had been introduced. In a study on why immigrants applied for naturalization in the Netherlands in the early 1990s, two third of the persons interviewed said that secure legal status and voting rights for provincial councils and parliament factored into their decision. Only visa-free travel was mentioned more often (90 per cent). Local voting rights, apparently, are not a barrier, but rather function as an incentive for naturalization. According to Astrid de Vries, Deputy Consul-General of the Netherlands, local voting by immigrants has increased their attachment, participation and integration. That's the point here, let's find new, innovative ways to increase participation and keep our democracy vibrant and healthy.

Marcus Gee: Mayor Miller brought a diplomat from the Netherlands to a public forum on the voting issue this week because her country allows non-citizens to vote in local elections -- has for 20 years. But, as Rudyard has pointed out, the Netherlands is not exactly a paragon of social inclusion. It has large numbers of non-citizen residents who are poorly integrated, alienated and often at odds with the native Dutch, who wonder why the newcomers can't adapt to Dutch ways. The case of the exiled anti-extremist Muslim Hirsi Ali is a case in point, as was the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an extremist in 2004. We have done better at integrating immigrants, in part because newcomers are generally expected to become citizens -- and most do.

Lesley Jacobson: I would like to give my vote FOR permanent residents having voting rights. I have never taken out citizenship, even after living in Canada for 43 years, working and paying taxes, raising and educating children who also work and pay taxes, volunteering on countless committees and in countless activities aimed at making Canada a better society for all. Why, you might ask? Because I am not a refugee. I hold a deep love for the country of my birth. I return there often to visit family and friends. Until several years ago, taking out Canadian citizenship would have necessitated giving up the citizenship of my birth - an unacceptable choice. I have now applied for my Canadian citizenship because it will not affect the citizenship of my birth. I regret that I have not been permitted to take part in Canada's voting process all these years. As an educated, talented individual it would have been not only a privilege to do so, but also a fair return for the responsibility I have shown as a contributing member of society. I believe that for every right bestowed upon an individual by a society there is an equal responsibility. I have one proviso in expressing these sentiments. Everyone given the privilege of voting MUST be able to speak English or French, Must be prepared to show their face for identification purposes, and SHOULD be able to read and write sufficiently in either official language to responsibly tackle the actual casting of a ballot. Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinion.

Alejandra Bravo: In terms of take up of citizenship in Europe, the research tells us otherwise. According to a Transatlantic Council on Migration study of 17 European countries where immigrants have a local vote, in fact, non-citizen voting encourages newcomers to become citizens. In the Netherlands, the yearly number of immigrants naturalized increased considerably from 20,000 in 1986 to 80,000 in 1996, the decade after the municipal voting rights had been introduced. In a study on why immigrants applied for naturalization in the Netherlands in the early 1990s, two third of the persons interviewed said that secure legal status and voting rights for provincial councils and parliament factored into their decision. Only visa free travel was mentioned more often (90%). Local voting rights, apparently, are not a barrier, but rather function as an incentive for naturalization. According to Astrid de Vries, Deputy Consul-General of the Netherlands, local voting by immigrants has increased their attachment, participation and integration. That's the point here, let's find new, innovative ways to increase participation and keep our democracy vibrant and healthy.

Marcus Gee: I sympathize, but the fact is that Canada now allows dual citizenship under rules introduced in 1977. So most newcomers cannot argue that they are avoiding taking out citizenship in Canada to avoid losing the citizenship of their homeland (unless their home country forbids it).

Stephen: As an immigrant and Canadian citizen I have two minds on this issues. There are only a few privileges that Canadian citizens have over landed immigrants, voting is one of them. If this is allowed, what affect would it have on incentive for landed immigrants to get Canadian citizenship? On the other hand, why should a landed immigrant who has lived in Toronto for 2 or 3 years not be allowed to vote on municipal issues, while a Canadian citizen who has lived in Toronto for only 6 months can?

Alejandra Bravo: The question of giving up one's citizenship of country of origin can be a difficult one when the country of origin does not allow dual citizenship. In Canada, we have had dual citizenship since 1977 in part because we recognize that being Canadian does not preclude having attachments outside our country. We are a globalized urban region in a globalized world. This shouldn't be frightening. Personally, I was an immigrant but today I feel Canadian. This took time. It was a process that started in my neighbourhood and in my city. For my family, being invited to participate in local elections might have speede up this process.

Marcus Gee: Fair point, but the Canadian citizen at least knows the political system and the basic issues.

Brodie Fenlon: We are out of time. I want to thank Alejandra and Marcus for giving us their time and these thoughtful answers. Readers can continue the discussion on the comments thread.