Should Canadians living abroad be allowed to vote in the federal election?

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There are about 36,000 Canadians currently living abroad on the International Register of Electors, and they can cast their ballots in this federal election, according to Elections Canada.

The agency says there has been a surge of expats wanting to vote after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2019 that citizens living abroad for five years or more shouldn’t be denied the right to vote.

Many have asked CBC News why non-residents are able to have a say in deciding the next federal government when they don’t live in the country.

Is it fair to allow expats to vote?

Meghan McDermott — a staff lawyer of British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), which issued a statement in January 2019 welcoming the court’s decision — says it’s certainly fair to give expats a vote, regardless of how long they’ve lived outside of Canada.

“Any kind of time frame for revoking those rights [for expats to vote] has been found to be arbitrary and not backed up by any kind of evidence of harm to the resident population that does live here in Canada.

“It would be extremely unfair without having really good, compelling evidence as to how it’s harming anybody in Canada,” McDermott said. “To violate that right would have…massive impacts and [be] disenfranchising those citizens who are abroad.”

WATCH︱BCCLA’s Meghan McDermott argues for expats’ right to vote:

It’s ‘extremely unfair’ to disenfranchise expats, says civil rights lawyer

Meghan McDermott, a staff lawyer at B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says Canadians living abroad shouldn’t be deprived of the right to vote regardless of how long they stay outside Canada. 1:28 

Do expats pay Canadian taxes?

McDermott says there’s no rational connection between paying taxes and having the right to vote.

“There are a lot of people right now who are friends and neighbours and community members who live here and who pay taxes to our governments…and they don’t have voting rights — these are permanent residents, these are students here on a visa, refugees who are here.

“I would encourage those people [who question expats’ right to vote] to start sticking up for and advocating for the other people who are contributing to our society and who still don’t have the right to vote,” she said.

Allan Nichols — the founder and CEO of the Canadian Expat association based in Victoria, B.C., that intervened in the Supreme Court case — says it’s fallacious to believe expats don’t pay Canadian taxes.

“There are also many Canadians living in Canada who don’t pay taxes,” Nichols added. “We certainly wouldn’t look at those individuals and say, ‘you can’t vote because you’re not paying taxes.’… Of course, they still have the right to vote.”

Are expats dual citizens capitalizing on Canadian benefits?

McDermott says she understands some people may be irritated when seeing expats coming and going to enjoy Canadian healthcare and other benefits, but their indignation can hardly translate into a legal argument for the government to limit expats’ right to vote.

“Voting rights and citizenship…these are very strong rights, the cornerstone of democracy and an open and free society,” she said. “It would be extremely disproportionate and extremely harmful to get out and attack those rights of those dual citizens.”

Nichols says expats rarely return to Canada for health-care services because of provincial residency restrictions on access to those services.

“If they happen to be getting ill, they’re going to be treated abroad,” he said. “If it is such a case where they do need to come back to Canada and seek healthcare, they’re not eligible … right away.”

The British Columbia government, for instance, requires that people must be living in the province for at least six months per year in order to qualify for medical coverage under its medical services plan.

The Canadian government shouldn’t restrict expats’ right to vote unless there’s strong evidence to suggest honouring this right will harm voters living in Canada, advocates say. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

How do expats have ties with their home ridings?

Nichols says it’s incorrect to think Canadians living abroad are disconnected from home.

“I think the reason why people don’t see that is just because they [expats] are often geographically located a long way away, so they don’t see that connection. But in actuality, these communities — particularly those that are interested in voting — have a very strong connection with Canada.

Nichols also argues that giving expats voting rights would encourage them to maintain connection with Canada.

“Canadians abroad are proud Canadians — they’re educated, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re humanitarians, they’re entertainers, they have the ability to influence the world for the better and to encourage Canadian trade,” he said. “If we want Canadians to be further involved with helping Canada succeed, we need to encourage them further and not disenfranchise them.”

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