Electoral reform report renews interest in letting permanent residents vote

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Several provincial organizations perked up when they heard the New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform recommended the government grant voting rights to permanent residents.

After all, similar recommendations had already been made by some municipalities and advocate groups.

Denis Roussel, executive director of the Cities of New Brunswick Association, said members supported a motion in 2015 in favour of voting rights for permanent residents. The status applies to people who are allowed to live and work in Canada but who have not lived in the country long enough to get citizenship or have not sought it.  

The cities association, which represents eight municipalities, believes the extension of voting rights will help attract and retain immigrants, Roussel said.

"We were seeing the right to vote as a means to setting even stronger roots into a specific community," he said.

"If you get involved in politics, you get more involved in your community."

Demographic challenges

The electoral reform commission proposed wider voting rights as part of a report on eliminating barriers that some under-represented groups face to entering politics.

The commission proposed the provincial government allow permanent residents to vote in municipal and provincial elections and to seek public office.

Permanent residents get most of the social benefits that citizens receive, including health care coverage, but they cannot vote, run for political office or hold jobs that need a high-level security clearance. 

At one time, they could even vote in New Brunswick municipal elections, but changes to the Municipal Elections Act in 1998 took that right away.

"The commission has heard from many New Brunswickers who have stated that if an individual lives, works and pays taxes here, he or she should be granted the right to vote," the report said.

"The commission also heard the strong belief that once an individual has established roots in the province, he or she is more likely to stay here for an extended period."

Keeping people in province

CBC contacted the provincial government about the commission's recommendations but did not receive a response.

In 2014, Saint John was one of the first cities to send a letter to the provincial government in support of granting voting rights to permanent residents. The city's population fell 3.6 per cent between 2011 and 2016, according to the recent census.

City officials did not return calls about the electoral reform commission's proposal.

Other supporters of the idea over the years included Dieppe, Moncton, Fredericton and Edmundston, as well as the Association francophone des municipalités du Nouveau-Brunswick, said Mike Timani, president of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council.

Outside the province, the movement started in Toronto, which send a letter to the Ontario government in 2013, he said.

So far, there has been no official response.

"Right now, basically everybody is still talking about it, everybody is still pushing for it, but there's no province that actually passed legislation yet," he said.

Timani added that permanent residents pay taxes and contribute to society as much as Canadian citizens do.

Providing them with voting rights would not only allow them to fully engage in their chosen community but also set the province apart from all others, he said.

"These individuals, it does take them five years to get their citizenship, and meanwhile they are contributing so much into that community without being able to basically voice their concern," he said.

No concerns about participation

The commission said it could see few reasons why permanent residents "should not be allowed to vote and actively participate in decisions affecting local services and issues."

Roussel said he hasn't heard concerns about enfranchising permanent residents, but there was no clear consensus at the cities' 2015 general meeting on whether they should be allowed to run for public office, he said.

He expects the biggest challenge will be any necessary amendments to legislation and changing voters lists, which are distributed by the federal government.

"There will be challenges at first, especially if New Brunswick is the first province or the only province to do it," he said. "But when there's a will, there's a way."

Roussel and the multicultural association are waiting to see if the provincial government responds to the commission's recommendations. Both also plan to follow up on their previous requests with government.

"New Brunswick could be groundbreaking if we were to go forward with these recommendations," Roussel said.