Tossing Tea into Lake Ontario

November 7th, 2006

Next week Ontario will go to the polls to vote in municipal elections.

Toronto incumbent Mayor David Miller has argued in the recent campaign that permanent residents living in his city should have the same right to vote in this election as Canadian citizens.

While Mayor Miller is clearly seeking votes in the city with the second highest proportion of foreign residents in the world, the value of his case still stands. There are 200 000 permanent residents of Canada living and working in the city of Toronto proper, who will not be able to vote for their mayor and city councillors next week. However, if I owned property in Toronto, then I, as a Canadian citizen, would be able to vote in the election even if I reside in Montreal and only set foot in Toronto once every four years to vote. This does not fit in well with Canadian democratic values and the principles of fairness and justice.

As it stands right now, only Canadian citizens have the right to vote in elections at any level of government. Permanent residents have nearly all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. One of these responsibilities is to pay tax (municipal, provincial and federal), the same as anyone else residing in Canada. A lot of tea was thrown into Boston Harbour over taxation without representation, once upon a time. For their contributions to their cities and towns, permanent residents deserve a say in how they are governed and how their tax dollars are spent. This is a basic principle of democracy.

As far as Mayor Miller’s suggestion is concerned, it is quite possible changes could be on the way. Municipal electoral law falls under provincial jurisdiction and Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen indicated that his government will look at the idea after the November ballot during a review of the provincial Municipal Elections Act. It could certainly be a savvy political move for the Ontario Liberals in anticipation of a provincial election in a year’s time. Why limit enfranchisement to municipal politics?

For that matter, if the national Conservative Party is interested in breaking through in Canada’s biggest cities, places where it failed to break through during the last election, it would be wise to consider Mayor Miller’s suggestion and apply it on the federal level. Such a move might be the missing piece in the puzzle for the Conservatives in the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver areas, regions that have been both magnets for immigration and quite the opposite for Conservative election wins.

If Ontario forges ahead with these changes to its municipal election rules, it would be the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so but not without precedent in other democracies. Australia, Belgium and Austria are just a few of a number of countries that have extended voting rights to permanent residents at some level. Canada is a country that is built on immigration. In this area we should be leading rather than following, and Mayor Miller’s suggestion is a good start.

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