The Conservative government’s support of a ban preventing long-term expats from voting in the federal elections is not surprising, say Canadian academics.
University of Ottawa law professor Michael Pal says a decision made last week by the Ontario Court of Appeal to uphold the law, first instated in 1993 under a previous Conservative government, is “deeply troubling”.
Pal told New Canadian Media that there are many potential reasons for the Conservative government to be on board with the voting ban including, “a strand of Conservative thought to restrict citizenship, building on the previously passed legislation (Bill C-24), which allows for the stripping of citizenship for certain offences.”
While Pal acknowledges that there may be a genuine belief that a certain degree of connection to Canada is required for voting, he stresses that this is not sufficient to deny the right to vote by Charter standards.
The decision brings about debate centred on the degree of connection that citizens should have with Canada to vote.
H. Russell, a professor emeritus of the political science department at the University of Toronto, suggests, “The Conservative government is defending the restriction on expats’ voting rights because they want to appeal to the bias of their base against Canadians living abroad.”
The recent appeal case was brought to the Ontario court by two Canadians living in the United States, Jamie Duong and Dr. Gillian Frank, who were unable to vote in the 2011 election.
Up until 2007, long-term expats (living abroad for more than five years) were allowed to vote even if they returned to the country for a brief period, but then Elections Canada began enforcing a requirement to “resume residency” before regaining the right to vote.
This legislation brings about debate centred on the degree of connection that citizens should have with Canada to vote.
Frank, for example, was born in Canada, is married to a Canadian, studied at a Canadian university and was even a part-time member in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“It’s very hard to understand something so precious as democracy until it’s taken away from you. It makes you feel small. It makes you feel marginalized,” Frank told the Globe and Mail. “At the end of the day, my Canadianness is uncontested.”
“In addition to the previous legislation on revoking citizenships (Bill C-24), [it] makes me feel like I’m slowly being deported or cut-off from my home country.” – Salma S., expat
In his appeal ruling Justice George Strathy stated: “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.” He upheld the law on the idea of a “social contract” between citizens and their ruling state.
Frank argued this though, stating the elected government could change policy affecting his passport or the taxes he pays, which is why he should be allowed to exercise his right to vote.
Cut-off from Canada
According to a 2008 study conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation approximately two-thirds of expats living in the U.S. and Asia left Canada for work-related reasons. One-third was working abroad for Canadian entities including government, businesses, NGOs or self-employment.
Salma S., a Canadian living and working in the U.S. for the last three years, says the recent ruling is worrisome.
“In addition to the previous legislation on revoking citizenships (Bill C-24), [it] makes me feel like I’m slowly being deported or cut-off from my home country,” she says.
Canadian celebrity Donald Sutherland is one of the estimated one million long-term expats affected by the ruling. Sutherland suggested in a Globe and Mail editorial that the Conservative government’s defence of the voting ban is part of a larger pattern.
“It’s very sad,” asserts Sutherland. “And this new “Canada,” this Canadian government that has taken the true Canada’s place, has furiously promoted a law that denies its citizens around the world the right to vote. Why? Is it because they’re afraid we’ll vote to return to a government that will once again represent the values that the rest of the world looked up to us for? Maybe.”
Duong and Frank have stated they plan to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, but it is unlikely that the decision will be rendered before the October 19 election.