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Canadian expats shouldn't have unlimited voting rights

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OP-ED

by Andrew Griffith and Robert Vineberg

The Hill Times
February 15, 2017

In responding to the Supreme Court challenge of the five-year limit of voting rights, the government has proposed in Bill C-33 to extend voting rights indefinitely to Canadians living abroad, no matter how short their residence in Canada.

This is more generous than the standard comparator countries of Australia and New Zealand, which require a formal renewable declaration or visits (six and three years respectively), the United Kingdom, which has a 15-year limit, and the United States, which requires filing of taxes.

In essence, any citizen who left Canada as a baby or small child would have unlimited voting rights. As such, the proposal disconnects voting from any experience living in Canada, being subject to Canadian laws, accessing Canadian public services, as well as paying Canadian taxes, and thus devalues the votes of Canadians who do reside in Canada and are subject to these day-to-day realities of Canadian life.

To date, the government has not articulated why it chose this unlimited approach, apart from resorting to the phrase “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” without acknowledging that this argument was made in the limited context of revocation of citizenship in cases of terrorism, and the need to treat Canadian-born and naturalized Canadians equally before the law.

Advocates of expanding voting rights over the current five years have argued that Canadians living abroad contribute to Canada and the world, and many retain an active connection with Canada, whether it is business, social, cultural, political, or academic. These Canadians’ global connections should be valued as an asset. The internet and social media make it easier for Canadians to remain in touch with Canada and Canadian issues. Non-resident Canadians pay income tax on their Canadian income and property tax on any property they may own in Canada. Their vote is unlikely to affect the overall electoral results.

This is argued using a general estimate of over one million expatriates, without any assessment of the degree of connection that expatriates have with Canada. However, using government data, we know that the number of expatriates holding valid Canadian passports is approximately 630,000 adult Canadians who have lived abroad for five years or more. We also know that the number of non-resident Canadian tax returns, a deeper measure of connection, was about 140,000 in 2013 (the last year for which information is available). And while hard to assess the potential interest of long-term Canadian expatriates in voting, the data for those who qualify under the current rules suggest there is not widespread demand.

While one of us (Griffith) believes in a more restrictive approach and one us (Vineberg) believes in a more flexible approach, we recognize the government is committed to expand voting rights. We see three main options:

Double the current limit to 10 years: This would align with two parliaments as well as passport validity. While it would not address the concerns of all expatriates, it would expand voting rights.

Provide unlimited voting rights to expatriates who have lived 25 years or more in Canada: This recognizes the long-term connection and experience with Canadian life as well as the concerns of expatriate seniors who have contributed to the Canada Pension Plan and receive CPP and Old Age Security benefits.

Modify the proposed approach with a minimum residency requirement of three years: This ensures a minimal connection to Canada, aligned to citizenship requirements, with only a valid Canadian passport being acceptable evidence of citizenship. However, this modified version of the provision in Bill C-33 does not fundamentally change our objection to again essentially unlimited voting rights.

In the latter options, this should be combined with the creation of two overseas constituencies to recognize that expatriate interests are different from resident Canadians and address any concerns that the expatriate vote could influence the results in particular ridings.

Notwithstanding what approach is chosen, administrative simplicity based on the current Elections Canada process should be maintained. Elections Canada should also be required to conduct an evaluation of the impact of any such change following the next election.

The government does not appear to have thought through the implications and options regarding expanding voting rights and appears to have listened only to advocates for expansion rather than a broader range of Canadians. We favour a combination of the first two options and hope that parliamentary review of Bill C-33 will result in changes that respect a balance between expanded expatriate voting rights and the interests of resident Canadians.

Andrew Griffith is the author of “Because it’s 2015…” Implementing Diversity and Inclusion, Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote and Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism. He is the former director general for citizenship and multiculturalism and is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Robert Vineberg is the author of Responding to Immigrants’ Settlement Needs: The Canadian Experience as well as a number of scholarly articles on the history of immigration policy. He is the former director general for the prairies and northern territories for the former Citizenship and Immigration Canada (now Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada).

Image: The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

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