Calling it an issue close to his heart as the child of an immigrant single mother, Mayor David Miller last night threw his support behind a movement to give non-citizens the right to vote in Toronto municipal elections.
Enfranchising newcomers who live in the city but have not yet attained citizenship would be a first in Canada, but not the world.
“It’s my view that those people who have chosen to make Toronto their home and live here permanently should have the right to vote in municipal elections in exactly the same way as Canadian citizens,” the Mayor said during a city-organized panel last night.
The remark garnered applause from some 200 people attending the discussion in chambers at city hall.
“From my perspective you can’t be an inclusive and open government unless all of the residents have an ability to choose that government.”
Mr. Miller said his 2006 election platform contained such a plank. And he explained to the crowd that his views were formed by the experience of his mother, with whom he came to Canada from England in 1967.
While her job qualifications as a teacher were challenged, Mr. Miller recalled, she was able to vote because she was a subject of the British Commonwealth.
Mr. Miller said if it were up to him, all newcomers who use and pay for city services would have the right to participate in the democratic process.
Only the province has the power to change the rules, he added, encouraging participants in the forum to build a groundswell of support and begin lobbying their MPPs to change the law.
The panellists included a Dutch diplomat, a New York activist and an author, all of whom spoke in favour of the proposal. The discussion was moderated by Councillor Janet Davis (Beaches East York), who also approves of granting voting rights to non-citizens, saying it “goes to the heart of ensuring social inclusion.”
Author Alan Broadbent, chairman of the Maytree Foundation, the Caledon Institute of Social Policy and the Tamarack Institute, said 30 countries around the world allow non-citizens to participate in city elections. New Zealand even allows people residing in the country longer than six months to cast ballots nationally.
Although there were no detractors of the idea in attendance, Mr. Broadbent attempted to refute arguments against extending the vote.
Rather than be a degradation of citizenship and an erosion of Canadian identity, Mr. Broadbent suggested enfranchising newcomers is a good way to integrate immigrants to Canada by quickly giving them a stake in their new communities.
“The choice is really this: Will we give them shackles or will we giving them wings?” he said, pointing out that for 80 years Canada did not rely on citizenship to determine voting eligibility, which has evolved over time.
Astrid De Vries, deputy consul-general at the Dutch consulate in Toronto, offered facts on The Netherlands’ three-decade experience allowing noncitizens who have been in the country for five years to vote in municipal elections and even run for office.
She said the origins of the idea came from successive national governments and cut across party lines, gathering support on both the left and right of the political spectrum. It is considered quite successful, she said.
Activist Diana Salas described efforts to give non-citizens voting rights in New York City, where council can decide on its own to change the electoral rules.
The original concept of extending the vote to all residents of the city, including illegal immigrants, had to be scaled back in order to win favour with councillors to help move it forward, she said.