Yasmin Rafiei is a Rhodes scholar studying philosophy and politics at the University of Oxford
One of Justin Trudeau’s 2015 federal-election campaign lines was, “A Canadian is a Canadian, is a Canadian.”
But this Friday, the Supreme Court will ultimately decide if the democratic franchise of Canadians living overseas should be subject to a five-year limit. A voting ban – which denies Canadians the right to vote in elections after five years living overseas – was legislated in 1993 under Brian Mulroney, enforced under Stephen Harper and, until December 2018, had not yet been overturned under Mr. Trudeau. His government sought to repeal the five-year limit in 2016 via Bill C-33, but in the two years since its introduction, the bill only achieved a first reading; last month, the electoral reforms in Bill C-76, which effectively repealed the ban itself, received royal assent – but now it is on the Supreme Court to enshrine those rights.
It all raises a fundamental question: What makes a Canadian a Canadian?
It’s a question I contend with in my daily life outside my homeland. I was born and raised in Canada and had only ever studied and worked in Canada until last year. If I have a personal geography, it is tied to my parents, whose immigration to Edmonton from Iran involved embracing every aspect of their new country. My dad had me on skis as soon as I could walk; we hosted neighbourhood street hockey on our driveway; Edmonton’s river valley was, to my mother’s consternation, my second home.
I was raised in our city’s public schools, graduated from the University of Alberta and delivered the faculty address at graduation. However, it was in leaving Canada that I fully came to terms with my national identity.
In 2017, I received a scholarship to study at University of Oxford, where I regularly encounter my identity, as it is perceived outside our national borders. Abroad, my primary identifier is no longer the province I grew up in or where my parents come from, but my nationality as a Canadian. Limiting my right to vote indicates I’ve lost touch with this national identity when, in fact, I renegotiate it every day against its reflection, mirrored to me in my international colleagues’ perceptions of Canada.
I’m hardly alone. A 2010 report by the Asia Pacific Foundation estimated that 2.8 million Canadians live abroad. Comprising about 9 per cent of our national population, our expat community is proportionately larger than that of Australia, the United States, China or India. This group, both substantial in size and highly skilled, should not be treated as a demographic anomaly.
The court’s coming decision demands our collective attention. Our citizenship is enshrined in our constitutional right to vote – in our ability to decide, at election time, what we would like the future of our country to be. By stripping this right away after five years, our government makes a resounding judgment that expatriates are less Canadian because we live abroad.
Limiting voting rights also discourages valuable expatriates from returning to Canada. My departure was incited by educational opportunity: After two years studying politics at Oxford, I’ll spend four years studying medicine at Stanford University. Despite my time away, my right to vote enables me to decide the state of the home I plan on returning to. Under the current legislation, I will have effectively exchanged my graduate and doctoral degrees for that right.
The critique frequently levelled against extending voting rights is that expats have broken the social contract: We do not pay taxes (although most do). But at the heart of this critique rests a dangerous assumption: that constitutional rights ought only to be afforded to those who can pay for them. By this logic, should the impoverished not vote? Do we give the rich more votes? This thinking could set an odious precedent for further excisions of voting rights.
And it would be to Canada’s benefit to expand voting rights beyond geographic boundaries. My status abroad, for instance, facilitates my work on the Ebola virus and antimicrobial resistance, biosecurity threats that don’t know borders. I study and work alongside Canadian expats driven to resolve climate change, cyberattacks, and mass migration – issues demanding global co-operation. A postnational Canada that enables citizens to vote outside of its borders provides international depth to civic engagement – but also supports citizens living overseas and confronting global challenges.
Beliefs that Canada is a nation-state bounded by its geography do more harm than good. Being Canadian is not about where you live: It’s about contributing to, improving, and stewarding a community forward through challenges, domestic and abroad. Whatever Canada is in the future, it is ours together – and our voting rights need to reflect that.