Canada

Inmates have right to vote, Supreme Court rules

Supreme Court rules five to four that inmates have right to vote

The Supreme Court of Canada says federal inmates do have the right to vote in federal elections.

The ruling said that 1993 federal legislation that took the vote away violates fundamental rights.

It was the second time the court has overturned a federal law barring prisoners from voting. After the first case, Parliament passed an amended law, which the court has just rejected.

The five to four ruling Thursday ends a case that began in 1984, when convict Rick Sauv used the then-new Charter of Rights and Freedoms to challenge his loss of the vote.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for the majority, said "the right to vote lies at the heart of democracy in Canada."

Writing for the minority, Justice Charles Gonthier agreed, but said the decision to remove the vote was up to Parliament.

Sauv welcomed the ruling. Before it came down, he said "one of our fundamental rights is the right to vote," a position backed by bar societies, civil liberties groups and aboriginal organizations.

Jail sentences are meant to remove prisoners from society, not to take away their responsibilities as citizens, said Graham Stewart, executive director of the John Howard Society.

Jail time is supposed to rehabilitate prisoners, and taking away the vote works against that.

But the federal government argued that taking away the vote sends a clear message to inmates.

The questions before the court were whether federal legislation was:

  • a reasonable limitation in the context of the charter;
  • a rational penalty, or something that works against civic responsibility and respect for the rule of law.
Sauv's case was joined with a similar case launched by a group of aboriginal inmates from Manitoba's Stony Mountain Institution.

The two cases won at trial, but lost on appeal.