Immigrants are asking New Brunswick to become the only province in Canada to give people who aren't citizens but have permanent resident status the right to vote in municipal elections.
The Lost Votes Campaign, a grassroots initiative of permanent residents, is gathering support from municipal governments to change the law that allows only Canadian citizens to vote municipally.
Asif Hasan, CEO of Simptek Technologies in Fredericton and a permanent resident from Bangladesh, is one of the organizers calling for the vote — something permanent residents had in New Brunswick until 1997.
"I'm one of the 29,500 permanent residents in New Brunswick and we are the lost votes — 29,500 lost votes," Hasan said.
"There's a need for immigrants to have their representation because right now, our voice is muted."
Proponents say a bold decision to give permanent residents a voice could reap benefits for the province, with its aging population and shrinking workforce, and a rate of retaining immigrants of only 50 per cent after five years.
Voting rights could attract immigrants, or persuade them to stay, said Moncef Lakouas, president of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council.
"We have to come up with something that the big cities don't necessarily have," Lakouas said.
Liberals propose change
On Dec. 17, 2020, a bill to change the Municipal Elections Act to include permanent residents was introduced to the legislature by the Opposition Liberals.
"We wanted to force it through so Elections NB could get things going, to have things in place for permanent residents to vote this year," said Liberal MLA Keith Chiasson.
But there was no time to debate and vote on it before the legislature adjourned.
When the legislature resumes in May, Chiasson said, the Liberals will bring it forward for debate, and it's a priority for them.
Whether the provincial government will present its own bill or amend the existing one remains to be seen.
Who can and can't vote
Permanent residents in Canada have to wait about three years to start their citizenship application. In total, the process takes at least four to five years.
To vote in federal, provincial or municipal elections in Canada, all provinces require residents to be Canadian citizens.
But before 1997, this wasn't the case. At least not in New Brunswick's municipal elections.
According to Paul Harpelle from Elections NB, the only requirement to vote in municipal elections in New Brunswick before 1997 was being 18 years of age or older.
In 1996, the Election Branch of what was then the department of municipalities, culture and housing filed an electoral reform report recommending that municipal election requirements mirror those of the province, which required citizenship to vote.
"It could result in an elector being on one list and not on another because of the difference in citizenship requirements," said Harpelle.
They wanted to standardize the requirements of provincial and municipal elections.
The motion passed in 1997, and from that year forward, permanent residents were not allowed to vote municipally.
Changing the system 'not complicated'
Harpelle said if the policy changes to allow permanent residents to vote, Elections NB would need about "a few weeks or a couple of months" to implement the change in the database and train staff.
The Elections NB database is a list of all electors in the province. Separate cells would have to be created for permanent residents.
"Our database is also shared with Elections Canada," Harpelle said. "They would have to be able to extract any electors that are not Canadian citizens for federal elections."
The process is not complicated, said Harpelle, who described the testing of it as the most time-consuming.
How it started
The idea of allowing permanent residents to vote in New Brunswick was first proposed in 2012 by Lakouas, an organizer of the Lost Votes Campaign.
After two years of research, he travelled across the province, pitching the idea to city councils.
Starting in 2014, councils in Dieppe, Moncton, Edmundston and Campbellton all voted in favour of giving permanent residents the right to vote.
But municipalities fall under the jurisdiction of the provincial government, so the proposal to extend vote had to be introduced as a bill in the legislature.
The idea was proposed to the Brian Gallant government, but it dropped down the list of priorities as a provincial election neared.
This year, the Lost Votes Campaign has reignited permanent resident's desire to vote and be heard.
An online petition in support of the campaign has been signed by 200 permanent residents of New Brunswick and been endorsed by Fredericton Mayor Mike O'Brien and other civic leaders, as well as the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce.
"The province has a stated desire to bring in 10,000 newcomers by 2027," O'Brien said. "If you're going to bring people in and make them feel part of the community, allowing them to vote municipally would be a big step."
Lakouas, who lives in Moncton, said the campaign is in constant talks with the province.
"We're hoping that Minister Allain will make this a priority as part of the provincial reform he's working on."
Minister of Local Government Daniel Allain wasn't available for an interview but sent an email statement to CBC News.
"Local governments across Canada have expressed an interest in extending permanent residents the right to vote," he wrote.
"Extending voting rights to permanent residents would be a fundamental change to New Brunswick's local government elections and a Canadian first. Extensive consultation would be required with the public and all affected stakeholders."
The arguments against it
One of the strongest arguments against allowing permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections is it could discourage naturalization, where immigrants become citizens of a country.
According to Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University, there aren't many practical reasons or inducements to become a citizen in Canada, if you already are a permanent resident.
This is because there aren't a lot of differences in rights between being a Canadian permanent resident and a citizen.
Permanent residents cannot vote, get a passport, or certain jobs in the highest echelons of the federal and provincial public service.
That's about it, Siemiatycki said.
"And yet, I think what's impressive, and more people should be mindful of, is that Canada has the highest rate of immigrant naturalization of any country in the Western world," he said.
"Even though we don't give citizens necessarily a huge discrepancy or fringe benefits for becoming Canadians, they become citizens."
For all immigrants who have been in the country for three or more years, the rate of naturalization in Canada is 85 per cent.
The naturalization rate for U.S. immigrants is around 55 per cent.
Siemiatycki thinks Canadian immigrants develop an emotional attachment to the country, a sense of belonging and a "warm, fuzzy feeling" of acceptance from the government and this drives them to become citizens.
Something that would only grow if allowed to vote in municipal elections, proponents say.
The democratic process some immigrants take to heart
Espérance Balewula came to New Brunswick from South Africa through the Express Entry program in August 2018. She lives in the Greater Moncton area with her kids and her husband.
Balewula thinks allowing permanent residents to vote municipally will help its growth.
"I work, I pay taxes, and I contribute on a daily basis on the expansion of this province," she said.
"If our points are not counted on certain issues, how are we going to keep those permanent residents or immigrants in our community?"
Voter turnout for municipal elections is quite low in most New Brunswick municipalities.
According to Elections NB, voter turnout in Fredericton was 36.8 per cent in 2016. For some communities, like Florenceville-Bristol, it was around 13 per cent.
Voting in municipal elections seems to be of no interest to many Canadians, so why the desire to vote among some immigrants?
Lakouas said the ethnocultural vote in Canada is quite high because it's a right many immigrants could not practise in their own countries.
"Some people, their leaders are chosen for them. To be granted that opportunity to vote, and be part of that democratic process, is something that immigrants do take deeply to heart."
What about the rest of Canada?
Before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted, Canadian citizens and citizens from Commonwealth countries could vote in Canadian elections.
But with the charter, this became untenable, said Siemiatycki, since it was clear then that in Canada "you were discriminating under the basis of nationality."
Since then, provinces have made changes to their electoral legislation at different times.
But according to Siemiatycki, giving people a chance to be part of, contribute to and have a voice in their community is the best way to promote citizenship.
"And that should be the starting point of building an attachment to this country."