Some 1500 or so permanent residents in Canada will mark a milestone in their lives in this country by taking the oath of citizenship on Canada Day, this coming Monday. The date is not their choice; it just happens to be a happy coincidence for those scheduled for that day. But for those taking part, with it being Canada Day, the ceremonies all across Canada on July 1 will have special meaning.
Each year 160,000 to 170,000 landed immigrants become Canadian citizens. Once they become Canadians they can vote in all elections and carry a Canadian passport. However, Toronto City councillors want to allow landed immigrants in this city to vote without having to become citizens.
Close to 50 per cent of Toronto’s 2.7 million residents were not born in Canada while more than 200,000 permanent residents in this city are not citizens, so if this proposal were to become a reality for Toronto, it could have a significant effect on voting results. It would also set a precedent in Canada.
Such a decision would have to be made by the provincial government and Premier Kathleen Wynne has called the proposal “interesting”. When former Toronto mayor David Miller put forward a similar proposal back in 2006 it was frankly rebutted by then premier Dalton McGuinty.
There seems to be some consensus, depending on political bent, that this initiative to include non-citizens in municipal voting would be a way to draw more people into the democratic process. Certainly 80 per cent of those who responded to the June 13 Share poll (unscientific as it is) were in favour of allowing permanent residents to vote. This is understandable because in the past 10 years alone more than 76,000 people from the Caribbean have become permanent residents here, most of them settling in and around Toronto. How many have however taken the further step into citizenship? And why haven’t they?
The notion that this would be an initiative to get people more involved in how the city is governed and who governs is laudable, but shouldn’t government leaders be creating incentives for landed immigrants, especially people who have been here for decades, to take the next step to become citizens? After all, choosing disenfranchisement provides little benefit for long-term residents who are also paying taxes.
As has been the case many times, a person could have been here since childhood, but if by some misfortune he or she runs into trouble with the law, that person could be deported to a country with which he or she has little connection and where there may be no supports. This occurs because he or she never took the steps to become a Canadian citizen. The recent Sudz Sutherland and Jennifer Holness film, Home Again, gives an emotional portrayal of the outcome of living here at length without the benefit of citizenship, only to be deported.
The decision to become a citizen should not be taken lightly, and might present a challenge especially to those who come from countries that do not allow dual citizenship. It would also present a challenge for individuals who, like the late activist and lawyer Charles Roach, find it profoundly objectionable to swear allegiance to the Queen of England. But the number of people in those categories would be relatively small.
Instead of pushing for residents who are not citizens to vote, members of Toronto City Council should be pushing all residents who are eligible to become citizens. They should launch a campaign to encourage people in their ridings to get their citizenship. Councillors are well placed for this, or should be, since they are supposed to be close to their constituents. They could open up their riding offices to help residents prepare for the citizenship tests, for example, and to help them understand what they have to do, then go with them to the ceremonies. That will be a great contribution on their part.
It would also be a much more realistic strategy for generating political involvement, since while Wynne has not bluntly ruled out the idea, it is highly unlikely that this proposal would get provincial approval.
Whether you are a citizen today or not, we wish you a Happy Canada Day. This country is certainly not perfect, but we are blessed to be living in one of the best countries on the planet.