Opinion

I don't live in Canada anymore. I shouldn't have the right to vote in its elections

To have respect for one’s fellow citizens is to refuse the exercise of unreciprocated power over them. This remains true even if that power only comes in the form of a consequence-free vote.

I haven’t lived in my home country for well over a decade. Why should I have a say in its government?

To have respect for one’s fellow citizens is to refuse the exercise of unreciprocated power over them. This remains true even if that power only comes in the form of a consequence-free vote. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

With a week left until election day, I want to let the various contending parties know that my vote is still up for grabs. How can they win it? Easy. By promising that I will no longer be able to vote for them. In other words: Take my vote! Please!

I am an expat Canadian, and I haven't lived in my home country for well over a decade. Under the previous voting regulations, I lost my franchise after five years of living outside of the country. That changed with legislation passed under the Trudeau government, a move affirmed by the Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision.

I am the kind of voter the Supreme Court described in that decision as "non-resident citizens [who] maintain deep and abiding connections to Canada through family, online media and visits home." It was for people like me that they invalidated the premise of the previous law, which was enacted in 1993. By doing so, they enshrined as a right what the Trudeau government had allowed by law when they re-enfranchised myself and legions of other expatriate Canadians.

Investment in outcomes

In my view, both decisions were wrong, and anti-democratic. The notion that every citizen should have the right to vote in all circumstances is intuitively appealing. That said, true democracy depends on its participants being equally subject to its outcomes.

Citizenship requires investment. Democracy is people together deciding how they, within the boundaries a mari usque ad mare, should govern ourselves. Giving non-residents the vote is roughly akin to giving people the right to tell their former roommates how to set their thermostats. It is the difference between deciding with and deciding for.

To be clear, the few thousand expatriates who might vote in the upcoming election are unlikely to change the results in any riding. Election outcomes will not be tainted by the participation of non-residents.

What suffers is the fundamentals of the system itself. What good is a right to vote, when the vote bears no connection to the system that gives the right its meaning?

In their decision, the judges wrote a great deal about fairness and proportionality, but nothing about what the vote in Canada actually is: citizens within a specified geographic area choosing who their representative in the Canadian House of Commons will be. 

Whatever might be in voters' minds when they vote — be it for a specific party or policy —  the actual act of voting is choosing a person to represent a place in parliament. Whether that person takes his or her seat in the opposition, in the cabinet or in the backbenches does not change his or her primary appellation. 

It is not for nothing that even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is addressed in parliament as the Honorable Member for Papineau. That is the role to which he was elected: it happened to be him, but it could equally have been any one of his neighbours.

It's fundamental to the legitimacy of the Commons: every man and woman in it was chosen by and from their equals. (Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Many Canadians still prefer their representatives to have personal stakes in the riding they represent. Time spent living in a community is often the measure of a prospective office-holder's authenticity (one exception is party leaders in search of a safe riding in order to earn a seat in the House of Commons, as was the case with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh; voters are not immune to having their sense of importance flattered). 

It's fundamental to the legitimacy of the Commons: every man and woman in it was chosen by and from their equals, and that equality extends to the degree to which they are qualified to speak for their respective communities. It's a fraternity borne from navigating the same potholes, jostling one another on the same sidewalks, breathing in the scent from the same trees. 

Politicians who show up without paying those dues are dogged by questions about if they are really here for Canadians, as we saw with then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in the 2011 campaign, and reality TV star Kevin O'Leary in the Conservative leadership campaign in 2017.

I want the best for my former riding of Dartmouth-Cole Harbour in Nova Scotia. I miss Shubie Park, Sullivan's Pond and the lovely old houses of Dartmouth's downtown. But the people that live there aren't my neighbours.

To have respect for one's fellow citizens is to refuse the exercise of unreciprocated power over them. This remains true even if that power only comes in the form of a consequence-free vote.

Once the communities are removed from the Commons, the legitimacy of parliament will drift away from the citizens, and there will be no end of party operatives willing to grasp it for themselves.


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About the Author

Mark Reynolds is a freelance writer based in the U.S. with a strong interest in Canadian history. Since leaving Canada, he has lived in Strasbourg, Los Angeles and Chicago.

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