Yesterday, there was a provincial by-election in my riding and voter turnout was around 38%. I was one of the people who didn’t vote, but that didn’t influence voter turnout because, as a permanent resident, I am not allowed to vote. Don’t worry, this is not me complaining about the right to vote. You see, I have been thinking about this issue for quite some time now – I’ve been a permanent resident for three years – and I still can’t decide if I should be allowed to vote in municipal and provincial elections.
As you probably noticed, I didn’t even raise the issue about federal elections. I come from a family of immigrants: my dad emmigrated from Tunisia to France, my grand-father emmigrated from France to the U.S., my great-grandparents emmigrated from Poland to France. My dad lived in France for a long time before he got his French citizenship. It was something important to him and I remember him telling me that now he was “fully French” and could call France his country. That probably explains, at least partially, why I think non-citizens shouldn’t vote in national elections. These elections are a way for the people to decide the future of their country, and a country isn’t fully yours when you are still not fully adopted by that country.
However, for me, municipal and provincial elections are different. As a resident of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia every decision made by the provincial government and by the city council directly affect my everyday life (of course, it’s also the case with the decisions made by the federal government, but I already covered that.) Maybe it is the same for Canadians who think the decisions made in Ottawa are disconnected from them and see local politics as more important. And, I am not sure of this, but most Canadians I talk to (which of course doesn’t even come close to 35 millions) have a strong attachment to the province in which they live. I have developed a strong attachment to Nova Scotia, too. Probably because it is were I first settled when I arrived in Canada. I can’t speak for all immigrants, but I think when you come to a new country, you develop a special bond with the first place you decide will be your new home. Sometimes, at least when politics is a little bit interesting for you, it can be frustrating not to be allowed to participate in the important decisions that will impact your home. Especially, when you work in that province, contribute to its life and economy, and pay taxes. Paying taxes in Nova Scotia shouldn’t necessarily give me the right to vote, it already gives me the right as a permanent resident to have access to great services like healthcare. And I am not trying to use taxes in a “my taxes pay your salary” way. I see me paying taxes as a normal way to contribute to the sustainability of this province and to give other people access to the same services. But shouldn’t contributing give me the right to elect the people who will decide how to use my contribution? I still don’t know.
In the six years I have spent here, I have seen the question be raised a few times especially at the municipal level here in Halifax. One of the arguments that often comes up is that allowing permanent residents to vote will increase voter turnout. First of all, this is not mathematical evidence. Increasing the number of potential voters still means you need to increase the number of people who actually vote. You might even see a decrease if permanent residents don’t show up. There is this assumption that they want to vote and they will if they are given the right to. I know I would, but I don’t know if others would. Do you? Observations and studies might have been done in other countries but they took place in different contexts. Maybe surveys have been done here, but I am not aware of them. We also know that surveys don’t always reflect the reality. Anyway, I don’t think that it matters, because for me this is a bad argument. If you want to give permanent residents the right to vote it should be for good reasons and increasing voter turnout isn’t one. I believe that for that kind of issue only ethical and philosophical reasons matter. Not trying to sound smart here, I just mean it is a decision that should be made in regards to the values that it is associated with and not in regard to pragmatic reasons. Maybe a referendum can be a tool for that kind of societal issue. I guess that is why I still don’t know whether I should have the right to vote or not, it is because I think it isn’t up to me to decide but up to Canadians. The question remains: Should permanent residents be allowed to vote in local elections?