Clifford Orwin is professor of political science and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
Is it, as some have recently alleged, unacceptable discrimination to deny Canada's expatriates the vote? On the contrary. In fact to permit them to vote (which the current law grants them for five long years after they have ceased to reside in Canada) is to discriminate markedly in their favour.
You just have to look at it from the point of view of the rest of us. Consider two hypothetical Canadian citizens: Ms. Choi and Mr. Singh. Both used to live in my downtown Toronto riding, and all of us remember them fondly. Both have now moved on, however, Ms. Choi to Fort Wayne, Ind., and Mr. Singh to Fort McMurray, Alta. Now imagine Mr. Singh presenting himself on election day at his old Toronto polling place. The returning officer's reply would be gruff. Should her reply to Ms. Choi be any different? Should Ms. Choi be granted the right so reasonably denied to Mr. Singh, the right to vote in a riding not her own?
To answer this question in the negative is not to impugn Ms. Choi's loyalty to Canada, any more than we denigrate the departed Mr. Singh by preventing him from voting in Toronto. Ms. Choi may sing O Canada the first thing every morning and the last thing every night, but that really doesn't affect the issue. Just as we don't prevent even the worst citizens from voting in their own ridings, so we don't permit even the best ones to vote in other people's.
Yes, the Charter of Rights proclaims voting a basic right of citizenship. But how far does that right extend? As we've already seen, only to the boundaries of one's riding of primary residence. This is an essential feature of our system. It's the sacred democratic right of Fort McMurrayites (and conversely of downtown Torontonians) that outsiders not be permitted to vote in their riding. Our representative must be ours, and no one else's. So while Canadian citizenship may be a necessary condition of voting in a given election, it's obviously not a sufficient one. This is why it's mistaken to claim that by denying an expatriate the vote, we are stripping her of anything enjoyed by other Canadians. Rather it's that by permitting her to vote the current law grants her a right denied to other Canadians. Yes, for five years and no more, but she should be grateful for those years, recognizing (having read this column) just what an anomaly she enjoys.
It's not just in granting five years of electoral amnesty that the present law is quite generous. It is also so in offering expatriates a varied menu of possible electoral residences. They may choose their last previous Canadian address; but they also enjoy other options equally ungrounded in reality. Let's face it, once Ms. Choi has decided to live abroad, it is the merest fiction to deem her still resident in my riding. As the years pass this fiction grows ever more glaring, and my neighbours and I increasingly testy. Who is this annoying phantom who pretends to live in our riding and insists on voting there? What does she know or care of our local concerns?
Five years is too long: I would have given Ms. Choi just one, to ease the pain of the transition. On that happy day when she and Mr. Singh return from their wanderings to live once again among their friends in Hogtown, I'll be the first to congratulate them on having resumed their right to vote there.