Saturday, October 17, 2015

Why give Expats the vote?

There is nothing funny about Canadian politicians. They are a bland lot making their way (plodding their way, I should say) toward election showdown. Or is it me? I can't see the humour. The joke is on the inside, leaving the expat outside, knocking on the door.

Which may be more reason why I, and other long-term expats, have no right to line up with resident Canadians on voting day.

As a Canadian expat, do you bemoan the fact that the right to vote in a Canadian federal election has been taken away from you? Or are you even aware of the fact - never having had the inkling to vote while living abroad? There are approximately  2.8 million Canadian citizens living abroad and 1.4 million of them have lost the right to vote, as a result of a recent ruling in a Court of Appeal.

Let's take a quick look at the recent history of the expat voting debate. In 1993, a court ruled for the first time that expats living abroad for longer than five years could no longer vote in federal elections. However, the five-year clock was reset for expats who returned for even short visits. Then, in 2007, Elections Canada began to enforce a requirement for expats to resume residency in Canada in order to regain their right to vote abroad. In 2014, two Canadian expats living in the United States launched a constitutional challenge to this law restricting their right to vote. A Superior Court Justice threw out this voting ban, thus giving long-term Canadian expats the right to vote again in federal elections. However, in July of this year (2015), a Court of Appeal, in a split decision, overturned that ruling and the right to vote was taken away from long-term expats yet again.

And many Canadian expats are crying foul - among them, a number of well-known celebrities. Actor Donald Sutherland published an editorial stating that not only is he a Canadian through and through, but that he was honoured as an Officer of the Order of Canada - and yet he is not allowed to vote in Canadian elections. To stress their case, expats point to countries which do not hold such restrictions on expat voting. Poland, Venezuela, Russia and Japan provide polling stations at embassies and consulates. France and the United States allow online voting for citizens abroad. Italy and France have created members of parliament to directly represent their expats. India has even created a government ministry dedicated to its expats. But supporters of the most recent ruling argue that many countries do have similar or harsher restrictions. UK citizens cannot vote after living abroad for more than fifteen years; Australians are restricted to six years and New Zealanders to three years. Irish citizens cannot vote while living abroad at all. Nor can citizens of Zimbabwe or Nepal.

And what about Israel? We can't forget Israel - my country of abode and the other half of my split personality. You may be surprised to hear that there is no absentee voting for Israelis, unless they are in the service of the State abroad. But Israelis living abroad can return to Israel at election time to vote. And many do so. Why doesn't Israel allow Israelis living abroad to maintain their ties to the mother country through voting? Maybe they don't want to encourage the mass exodus, or they are punishing those who won't stick it out with the country through thick and thin. Perhaps it is ideology. You can choose your own conspiracy theory.

So, who do you think is right in all of this? Let's look at the reasoning behind this ruling:
Canada's social contract entails citizens submitting to laws because they had a voice in making them through voting, the ruling states.
"Permitting all non-resident citizens to vote would allow them to participate in making laws that affect Canadian residents on a daily basis but have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives. This would erode the social contract and undermine the legitimacy of the laws," Justice George Strathy wrote for the majority of the court's judges.

I must admit that, despite my anarchistic tendencies, this makes sense. Sometimes being on the outside looking in offers a better perspective. But not here. Why should I have the right to vote on things that have little or no practical consequence for my own daily life?

"Okay then," you challenge, "why should you be able to still hold Canadian citizenship? You have lived most of your life outside of Canada. What makes you think you can still be Canadian?"
"Ah, read my blog," I want to say. But I know they won't. How do you explain it, then, to a non-believer?
"That is different," I argue. "Being Canadian is also a state of mind. Growing up in Canada is a part of who I am. You can't take that away from me. Being a Canadian is also something that I share with my children. I would like to say, "and also with my children's children," but according to a 2009 amendment to the Citizenship Law, automatic citizenship extends only to the first generation born abroad. What do I think of that? Once again, I can understand the reasoning. I just hope my legacy outlives that decision.


  1. David, here is something else to throw into this discussion.... My understanding is Canada the right to vote is enshrined in the Constitution. Therefore the government cannot attempt to amend or circumvent the Constitution by bringing in a regulation that takes away a right that a Canadian citizen has under the Constitution. So depriving a Canadian citizen of the right to vote is unconstitutional. And I would add that the bright idea of taking away voting rights of Canadians living outside Canada is clearly another brain-child of the Harper government - since expats don't usually vote Conservative. One of the papers today said that one of the upsides to this interminably long election lead-up is that we have all been learning more about specific issues and politics in general ... and this is A Good Thing.

    1. It is interesting to hear that expats don't usually vote Conservative. Why do you think that is?