If Mayor David Miller has his way, Toronto will become the first city in Canada to give non-citizens the right to vote, allowing permanent residents of Canada to cast a ballot in Toronto elections.
What a thoroughly awful idea. Canada's biggest and most multicultural city should be encouraging newcomers to choose the path to citizenship, not giving them a free pass to one of its most valuable privileges.
When the notion reared its head in New York a few years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed it with a single, pithy sentence. "If you want to have full rights - and voting is a very big part of full rights - become a citizen," he said.
Precisely. If you want the right to vote in a Canadian election, surely you should become Canadian first. You need to have a stake to have a say. That's the bargain that has helped build this city of immigrants. Without it we become the proverbial hotel, a pleasant place to stay but little more.
Canadian citizenship is one of the easiest to attain in the world. Newcomers need to wait just three years to apply, compared with five years in the United States or Britain. On top of that, they must have permanent residence status, speak some English or French and know a little about the country's history, geography and political system. Those are pretty fair prerequisites for having the right to vote, aren't they? Should city residents who can't even be bothered to clear those modest hurdles get to elect the mayor?
Mayor Miller answers with an emphatic "yes." He included the voting proposal in his 2006 election platform and now he's at it again, hoping to persuade the provincial government to change the election law.
"People who have chosen to make Toronto their home and live here permanently should have the right to vote in municipal elections exactly in the same way as Canadian citizens," he told a public forum at City Hall this week. Like letting women vote or lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, adding a quarter of a million non-citizens to the voting rolls would open politics to a broader public and promote what he calls "our vision of diversity and social inclusion."
To back up his pitch, he trotted out the deputy consul-general of the Netherlands, one of several countries that allow non-citizens to vote locally. (New Zealand even allows them to vote nationally after a year of residence.) She said that in cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, non-citizens have been voting at a much higher rate since the new law took effect 20 years ago.
But the Netherlands and many other European countries have been roiled by tension and violence between natives and newcomers. Canada has been much more successful at integrating immigrants. Eighty-four per cent of newcomers take out citizenship, compared with about 50 per cent in the United States.
Do we want to risk undermining that by devaluing citizenship? Charter challenges have already given permanent residents many of the same legal, educational and welfare rights as citizen. Giving non-citizens the vote, even if only in city elections, would remove yet another incentive to becoming Canadian.
Like former provincial Conservative leader John Tory, who proposed government funding for religious schools, Mr. Miller may be stepping on a booby trap. If, God forbid, his idea ever gets any traction, he may find its fiercest opponents are newcomers themselves.
Just listen to Franco Ng, a Hong Kong immigrant and city hall staffer who spoke out against it at a forum where all three city-selected panelists and most of the crowd were in favour.
He came to Canada 11 years ago and took out citizenship in 2002. To him, applying for citizenship is a way "to show you're loyal to your country and contributing to your country - and in return, you get voting rights. There's a process."
That process is not a hurdle set up to exclude newcomers. Just the opposite. Canada wants them to take out citizenship so that they become full members of society.
The right to vote is the key to the club, affirming that new citizens have shown the attachment to the country that entitles them to choose its leaders.
Voting and citizenship together help forge new Canadians. Mr. Miller is making a big mistake by trying to hand out one without the other.