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Lifting voting restrictions on mental patients

In Canada's early days, only a select group of privileged men could vote. Now it's a fundamental right for all Canadians over 18. Women, Asians, native people and prisoners were among those who gained the right to vote in Canadian elections over the past century — often amid controversy. CBC Archives explores the evolution of voting rights in Canada.

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Toronto's Queen Street Mental Health Centre is buzzing with activity. For the first time ever, federal election candidates have included the centre as a stop on their campaign trail. Just four weeks before this 1988 newscast aired, patients in mental health facilities in Canada got the right to vote. "I feel happy to be a Canadian and get a democratic vote," says patient Tom Last. Not everyone agrees that these patients should be voting, however.

Opponents, like Ontario MPP Don Cousens, believe that patients who live in such tightly controlled environments simply aren't likely to be responsible enough to vote. 
• The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, introduced in 1982, guaranteed all Canadian citizens the right to vote, subject only to "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." This opened the floodgates for certain groups that were still disenfranchised — the mentally disabled, prison inmates, federally appointed judges — to challenge their exemption from the electoral process.

• People living in mental institutions had always been excluded from voting in Canada's federal elections prior to 1988. And until the legislation was officially changed in 1993, the Canada Elections Act specifically excluded "every person who is restrained of his liberty of movement or deprived of the management of his property by reason of mental disease."

• During the 1980s, the Canadian Disability Rights Council used the Charter to challenge this exclusion. In 1988, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that this restriction did indeed contravene the Charter. Justice Barbara Reed noted that the limitation was too arbitrary: "it catches people within its ambit who should not be there and, arguably, it does not catch people who perhaps should be." The judgement was made right before the 1988 federal election, so patients of mental institutions were able to vote in that election.

• According to a 1988 Maclean's article, the ruling affected "30,000 people undergoing treatment for mental illness and 20,000 mentally handicapped people living in institutions across Canada." The article noted that there were still some Canadians opposed to the ruling, believing that many psychiatric patients were incapable of understanding the electoral process. Overall, however, "praise for the decision has been widespread," explained the article.

• According to the same Maclean's article, many politicians saw the ruling as "long overdue." Gilbert Chartrand, the incumbent in a Montreal-area riding, said the ruling gives the vote to the many mental patients who are quite capable of making an informed decision: "There are some who are really too confused and don't understand the voting process, but they are the minority." A 1988 Globe and Mail article also noted that all three main political parties had favoured giving mental patients the right to vote.

• In 1993, the Canada Elections Act was amended to reflect the 1988 court decision. All passages that excluded the mentally disabled from casting their ballots were eliminated.
• According to a 2004 study of electoral laws in 63 democracies, there are only four countries — Canada, Ireland, Italy and Sweden — that have no federal restrictions on the voting rights for people with mental disabilities.

• In a 2004 National Post article, columnist Gerald Owen says he sees little harm in allowing the mentally disabled to vote. "It would be a slippery slope to disenfranchise people whose opinions lie well outside the normal range," he writes. Owen cites a 1991 Canadian research study that showed "mentally handicapped people vote for much the same parties as other people do…mental disability does not skew election results in any direction: left, right or centre."

• Around the same time the mentally disabled won the right to vote, judges appointed by the federal cabinet also gained the right to vote. They had been disqualified from voting since 1874. A 1988 court decision overturned the provision prohibiting them from voting, and the 1993 Canada Elections Act made it official.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC News
Broadcast Date: Nov. 16, 1988
Guest(s): Don Cousens, Dan Heap, Tony Ianno, Tom Last
Reporter: Hamlin Grange
Duration: 1:43

Last updated: March 5, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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