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Mark Kersten is a researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, and author of the blog, Justice in Conflict.


A Canadian aid worker committed to a 10-year education program in rural Afghanistan. A Canadian software entrepreneur making a splash in the tech world after toiling in Silicon Valley for 15 years. A tenured Canadian lecturer teaching Canadian political science and history at a British university. What do they all have in common? According to the federal government and the Ontario Court of Appeal, it's simple: None is Canadian enough to be allowed to vote in the federal election.

On July 20, the Ontario Court of Appeal sided with the federal government, ruling that Canadian expats who have lived abroad more than five years should be barred from voting in federal elections. Reaction to the ruling has been sharply divided. Many have chided the court and the Conservative government for their interpretation of Canadian citizenship, insisting that prohibiting expatriates from voting is a violation of their fundamental rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Others concur with the ruling.

The debate itself, however, is falsely premised and misleading.

The core argument of those opposed to extending the vote to long-term Canadian expats is plain: It is unfair to grant them the vote because doing so would allow them to shape or determine policies that, by and large, won't directly affect them. This argument is based on an unsubstantiated presumption that Canadians only or even primarily vote for policies that directly and immediately affect them as individuals.

This is far from the case. Many Canadians, especially young citizens, vote for health-care policies due to concerns for their family members and an aging population. Canadians who support a compassionate welfare system don't vote to ensure that they can individually reap the benefits from it themselves, but because of a principled belief in a fair distribution of wealth. Moreover, Canadians don't vote for major policies in key areas such the economy, health care and the environment expecting to see immediate quick fixes, but as a means to encourage or continue a long-term vision of national policy.

Still, let us assume there actually is something unfair about long-term expats having a vote in electoral districts where they don't reside. Is the best solution to disenfranchise them? Certainly not.

Rather than pursuing inward, regressive policies, the government could think creatively. Instead of constructing barriers to democratic participation, what a progressive government could, and should, do is to create a handful of members of Parliament to directly represent Canadians who live abroad. France and Italy already have parliamentarians who represent their respective diasporas. Why not have MPs on Parliament Hill to represent the unique interests and diversity of Canadians living abroad? Surely that could only enrich our democracy.

The arguments of many proponents of extending voting rights to expats have relied on the view that it is unfair to strip voting rights from any tax-paying Canadians living abroad. The assumption is that if you're contributing money to federal tax coffers, you should be allowed to vote. This may be intuitively persuasive, but there is a danger in taking this argument to its logical extreme. If it were, homeless citizens or some retirees could lose the vote. Paying more taxes surely doesn't make you "citizen plus," a better citizen than others. Canadian citizenship, as spelled out in the Charter, is not transactional. We don't have to buy it.

Still, it is inescapable that the prohibition on long-term Canadian expats to vote in federal elections creates a bifurcated form of citizenship. All Canadian citizens are equal, but if only those living in Canada are allowed to vote, then some are more equal than others.

This attitude, sadly, is nothing new. It has been a trend for some time. From the Conservatives' "Just visiting" attack ads against then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in 2009, to the passage of anti-terrorism legislation under Bill C-51, to the argument that long-term Canadian expats should be denied voting rights, the Conservative government has sought to establish a hierarchy of Canadians. Only some of us are Canadian enough to become prime minister. Only some of us can have our citizenship revoked. Only some of us are Canadian enough to vote.

What is perhaps most gob-smacking about the time and energy that the Harper government has devoted to disenfranchising expat Canadians is that it is being spent at a time when Canada is experiencing a democratic deficit. In the 2011 federal election, only 61 per cent of Canadians cast a ballot. One million expats were entitled to vote, but only a paltry 6,000 did so. This raises the question of why the government sees the expat vote as a threat.

Instead, the government should be focused on getting more Canadians to participate in elections, not cutting down the pool of eligible voters. It takes a special kind of regime to invest in policies meant to ensure that fewer citizens vote, rather than more.