'I don't have the chance to vote. But I would love to': 67,000 Winnipeg newcomers deserve vote, advocates say
Toronto, Vancouver have already passed motions seeking change to allow permanent residents to vote
Sebastian Migwi grew up with a dad who made sure he knew the importance of voting.
As a kid in Kenya, Migwi says, his father never let him forget it. As an adult, Migwi believes voting is a fundamental right.
But when Winnipeggers head to the ballot box on Oct. 24 to elect a new mayor, Migwi won't be one of them. After arriving in Winnipeg just over a year ago, he's not a citizen yet. His legal status is permanent resident, which means he can't vote.
"When I reached the age of majority [in Kenya], I had to make sure I voted because my dad is one person who believes in exercising democratic rights when you have a chance to do it," said Migwi, who works as an employment liaison at Immigrant Centre Manitoba.
"Right now, I don't have the chance to vote. But I would love to."
According to the Immigration Partnership of Winnipeg, the city is home to roughly 67,000 permanent residents: new Canadians granted the legal status by the federal government but not the final step of citizenship. Permanent residents are entitled to most social benefits as citizens and have to pay all the same taxes, but can't vote or run for office.
For people such as Migwi, a group of immigration organizations wants to see that change. After this election, they want to work with the city to change Manitoba law to extend municipal voting rights to permanent residents who have lived in the city for more than a year.
"Permanent residents who have been here for more than a year, who are paying taxes in the city, taking transit — it directly touches their lives," said Abdikheir Ahmed, executive director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg.
"So why can't they participate in the municipal elections?"
'A question of democracy'
Who can and can't vote in Manitoba municipal elections is a provincial matter, established in Manitoba legislation that city council itself can't touch. Changing the rules would mean getting city council onside first, and and the province after that.
"Ultimately, council would have to introduce and pass a motion requesting a change to the Municipal Councils and School Boards Election Act," a spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg wrote in an email. "It would then be up to the province to make a determination on the matter."
Reuben Garang, ethnocultural communities resource co-ordinator at Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, said the group understands that could take time.
"I think this is quite a process, and the most important thing is that we are bringing the issue to the table for discussion," he said.
"If the government accepts and acted on it, it would be something that would be useful — not just to those individuals that are exercising the right to vote, but to Winnipeg."
Noëlle DePape, senior project manager at Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, says her group hopes that by working with the city, they can find a councillor who will champion the cause and bring forward a motion that would ask the province to change the law.
It's not a new concept in Canada: Toronto passed a motion to the same effect in 2013, although Ontario has yet to change its laws.
This spring, Vancouver became the second city to pass a motion to grant permanent residents voter rights, although British Columbia hasn't changed its rules yet, either. DePape says conversations about the idea are underway in Halifax and multiple municipalities in New Brunswick, as well.
"To me, this is the next step to ensure that diverse voices are represented in political processes," she said.
"From my perspective, it's really a question of democracy and fairness and making sure that all of the ends of our community are met."
Social, political benefits
Jessica Praznik, the executive assistant at the Immigrant Centre, has done graduate research on Toronto's push for voting changes. She says the benefits are wide-ranging for permanent residents and municipalities as a whole.
"Not only is it good for [the political] integration of diverse communities in different regions, but it's also a way to just logically help with voter turnout, as well as giving voices to what can be really marginalized populations," she said.
Seid Oumer Ahmed, refugee response co-ordinator at the Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations, came to Canada from Ethiopia in 2003. He's a citizen now, and he says voting is important to him.
"When you vote, it means a lot for me, particularly. I know that my voice [is] heard. I know that my vote is going to … count," he said.
Oumer Ahmed says the association endorses the idea and wants to be part of the discussion: "I think we would, you know, just a more vibrant and welcoming community."
Shereen Denetto, associate executive director of the Immigration and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, said adding the right to vote would help with newcomers' political integration into Winnipeg. Becoming a citizen is a long process, she said — applicants need to be permanent residents for at least three years before moving forward.
The organization does a lot of work with refugees, she added, who often come from places where they were deeply impacted by the political landscape.
"There's a long period where they're left without a feeling of political or civic engagement [in Canada]," she said.
"Everything points to the fact that if people feel involved and engaged they integrate better and they help build a society jointly with all the folks that are welcoming them."
'We should be able to have a say'
When the idea was raised in Toronto, some critics suggested giving permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections would mean having to do the same for provincial and federal balloting. But DePape says she doesn't see it that way.
"I think we can start with the city. I don't know that one has to equate the other," she said.
"I think we can provide the opportunity for our permanent residents to vote at a civic level where those services are touching their lives directly every day, to prepare them to be more involved at the provincial and federal level once they obtain citizenship."
Olufemi Adedeji, an employment facilitator at the immigrant centre, wasn't enthusiastic about voting until he moved to Canada from Nigeria a year ago. He says felt the political system in his homeland wasn't working. He and other citizens lost faith.
When he arrived in Canada, he says, he wanted to get involved as a way to give back to his community, and play a role in shaping it.
"[Permanent residents] use the same amenities: We pay the same taxes, we walk on the same road, we go to the same store. Our children go to the same … schools," Adedeji said.
"We also work, you know, and we also pay taxes here. I think we should be able to also contribute to the people that are leading us. We should be able to have a say, because we are all participants in this closed circle."