By Desmond Cole, project coordinator of City Vote
Just over a year ago, Toronto city council asked the province to let permanent residents vote in municipal elections. It was a big victory for advocates like myself, and for the thousands across Toronto who believe local elections need to be more inclusive and representative. We called that campaign I Vote Toronto, and gathered dozens of community organizations and thousands of residents under its banner.
Since that historic vote, Torontonians may not have heard much about the city’s request, which the province received and promised to consider. But in fulfilling its local mission, I Vote Toronto also inspired municipalities across Ontario and the country to begin debating and considering the idea of permanent resident voting in local elections. Our success has inspired others to imagine change where they live.
Last fall, city staff in North Bay, Ontario, recommended that permanent residents be included in its municipal elections. The city of about 65,000 residents is one of few places in the province where immigration rates are on the rise. Advocates like Don Curry of the North Bay and District Multicultural Centre believe those residents should be voting. “They are paying their share but do not have a voice,” Curry told the North Bay Nugget in September 2013.
In March 2014, a group commissioned by the City of Kitchener also recommended that permanent residents receive local voting rights. “Why not give people that are committed to coming to our country a chance to be part of the process,” councillor Dan Glenn-Graham told the CBC. Glenn-Graham is now running for mayor of Kitchener, and he and other local allies can bring this issue to voters on the campaign trail.
The city of Saint John, New Brunswick, added its voice to the cause in January 2014, when the Common Council formally asked premier David Alward to extend the municipal vote to permanent residents. A letter from Saint John mayor Mel Norton stated that extending the vote would make his government more democratic and accountable. In an exciting turn of events I could not have anticipated a year ago, New Brunswick may even grant the extension before Ontario does.
Every municipality that has taken up this issue in the last year has made reference to the successful vote at Toronto city hall. We made an important stride towards change, but we are by no means alone in our desire to give newcomers a stronger voice in their local communities. There are several important ways we can continue to build on this momentum.
Bid to unite campaigns
First of all, we must unite these local campaigns, all of which have sprung up organically through the work of concerned community organizations, advocacy groups and elected officials. To that end, we have created City Vote, a campaign to support advocacy for permanent resident voting in municipalities all across Canada. We will share resources, ideas, stories, and updates on this movement as it continues to grow.
We must also take advantage of the upcoming municipal elections across Ontario. Candidates for mayor, city, council and school trustee will be knocking on doors in their communities. Of course, we hope they will endorse the growing calls for permanent resident voting. But at the very least, we will urge them to inform residents who cannot vote about City Vote. By the end of this year, we will have identified residents from all corners of the province who want to make our elections more inclusive.
Finally, we must connect with and support groups who are currently engaging other critical advocacy for newcomers. Earlier this year, the city of Hamilton proclaimed itself a sanctuary city – in other words, the city committed to ensure that every resident, regardless of immigration status, has access to city services. It is no coincidence that a similar proclamation in Toronto preceded the successful motion on permanent resident voting. City Vote must situate itself within the broader movement to ensure newcomers have equal rights and opportunities in Canada.
Thankfully, the campaign has a history of strong partnerships within this larger newcomer-serving community. Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, a multi-service community hub in central Toronto, incubated the campaign in 2008 and helped it grow. Maytree has been supporting policy development and hosting forums on the issue since 2007. Groups as large as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and as small as warden Woods Community Centre have offered their time, energy and support. The foundation for growth is solid and diverse.
You’ll hear from me again soon for the official launch of City Vote. Meanwhile, I’ll be working to solidify the new connections I’ve made in Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, and all across Ontario. What a difference a year makes!