Voting rights of permanent residents who aren't citizens clear hurdle
It is looking more and more likely that non-citizen permanent residents of New Brunswick will get the right to vote in the next full round of municipal elections in 2026.
There were no objections to the idea at a legislative committee Friday afternoon as MLAs discussed a Liberal bill on the issue.
But provincial civil servants cautioned that the change is more complicated than it seems and should not be rushed.
Local government deputy minister Ryan Donaghy told MLAs that no permanent resident voters' list exists, and one probably couldn't be compiled in time for elections due in some newly created municipal entities this fall.
"This is a closely watched Canadian first," he said. "These other contemplations need to be given time to consider and get right."
Donaghy said the Higgs government is prepared to look at the idea by 2024 so that the change could be in place for the next local government elections two years later.
Bill in works since 2020
Opposition Liberal MLA Keith Chiasson introduced a one-sentence bill in December 2020 that would grant municipal voting rights to permanent residents.
He wanted it passed quickly in time for the May 2021 municipal elections.
At the time, the government hesitated, but on Friday, Progressive Conservative MLA Jeff Carr signalled there's no strong feeling against the change.
"I think we're all progressive in our thinking enough to support what Mr. Chiasson has brought forward," Carr said.
"I think there's a way to do it going forward. I just see that some of the issues that you raise do complicate things."
Following the one-hour meeting, the committee met behind closed doors to decide what to do with Chiasson's bill. It will report publicly to the legislature next week.
At last count, there were almost 30,000 permanent residents in New Brunswick. While they are not citizens, they have certain rights under Canadian law and they pay taxes.
Supporters of granting them the right to vote in local government elections say it would foster a greater sense of civic involvement and might also encourage more immigration to the province.
The province's goal is to attract 10,000 more immigrants by 2027.
Voting in federal and provincial elections is limited to citizens, but because municipalities are created by provincial law, the province can define who gets to vote in those elections.
No other province has made the move.
"I think this is an opportunity to be a leader," Liberal MLA Rob McKee said Friday.
Donaghy said besides the time required to compile a voters' list, the legislature would have to decide whether permanent residents could also run in local elections and whether they could also vote in regional health authority board and district education council elections.
Another question is how long someone would need to be in New Brunswick before being allowed to vote. People moving from elsewhere in Canada must be here four months.
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.