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Making It Count
Every Canadian over 18 has the right to vote, but these days, a third of us don’t even bother.
It’s a shame because it took centuries of struggle to win that precious right — the democratic right to decide how we’re governed.
Democracy in this land goes way back to time immemorial. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a group of First Nations in what is now southwestern Ontario. It goes back thousands of years, making it one of the oldest living democracies on earth.
Clan mothers and male chiefs both played important parts. At a time when European women
weren’t allowed anywhere near politics, Haudenosaunee women could nominate, reprimand, and even fire their leaders.
When European settlers arrived, they didn’t recognize these Indigenous systems of self-government. The newcomers brought their own ideas—and they were very strict about who could participate. In Quebec, the first European-style election took place in 1657.
There were about two thousand people in New France at the time, but only about 100 of them were allowed to vote.
Why so few? Simple. They owned land.
Starting in the mid-1700s, the Maritimes and Upper and Lower Canada set up elected assemblies.
Democracy in action, right? Not exactly.
To vote or run for office, you had to be: a property owner, a British subject, a man, and… Protestant.
But the assemblies they elected didn’t have much power — the British-appointed governors and their friends still made the final decisions.
Ordinary people got so frustrated that violent rebellions broke out in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837 and 1838. The British Army quickly crushed the uprisings.
Afterwards, reformers took a more peaceful approach, which gradually led to more “responsible government” — one that responded to voters’ wishes.
Well … some voters’ wishes.
Early on, the law didn’t technically prevent women from voting, as long as they owned property. And, a few women — usually widows — showed up at polling stations from time to time. But eventually all the provinces closed the loopholes that allowed women to vote. In a final blow, when Canada became a country in 1867, the Fathers of Confederation put it in writing.
Women might have been silenced, but they hadn’t given up. Suffragists organized themselves. They lobbied, wrote letters, and even used humor to get their message out. Suffragists held a “mock parliament” in Winnipeg in 1914 debating whether men deserved the right to vote.
They held events called “Pink Teas” that looked like typical social functions but were really a chance to discuss strategies to win the vote for women.
In 1917, the ruling Conservatives gave women the right to vote in federal elections — as long as they were in military service, or had relatives fighting at the front. It was expanded to most women the next year.
Or rather, most white women. Indigenous people, and other Canadians of colour would be forced to wait decades for equal voting rights.
In 1876, the Indian Act imposed European-style government — which actually made First Nations communities less democratic. Elected chiefs and band councils had to be men, and only men could elect them. Women were completely left out.
Decades later, thousands of Indigenous men volunteered to fight for Canada in the World Wars. They were rewarded with the right to vote … but only while serving in the military. And, if First Nations veterans chose to live on-reserve after returning to Canada? You guessed it — no vote.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1960 that all First Nations people received the right to vote.
Most Inuit got the vote in 1950 but the federal government didn’t bother registering them or even sending ballot boxes to the Arctic until 1962.
The story isn’t any better when it comes to voting rights for people of colour. Until slavery was abolished in Canada in 1834 — Black people were not even considered “persons” under the law.
After emancipation, Black men could vote — if they met the property ownership requirements.
But — just because there were no laws preventing them from voting, it didn’t mean they could do so freely.
Meanwhile, Chinese labourers, who helped to build Canada’s new national railway in the late-1800s, were banned from voting in British Columbia. In fact, B.C.’s ban on Asian- and South-Asian-Canadian voters stayed in place until 1948.
Some Canadians were also barred from voting due to their religion. At times throughout Canada’s history, Catholics, Jews, Mennonites, Doukhobors and other religious minorities faced persecution and exclusion.
The 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms made it clear that every Canadian citizen over 18 has the right to vote. It also led to court challenges that confirmed the right for people who didn’t have it: federal judges, people with intellectual disabilities, and Canadians living abroad.
And as of 2002, all prisoners, no matter what crimes they had committed, were able to vote.
Nobody’s saying our system is perfect. But we do benefit from living in one of the top democracies in the world. And, when election time comes, Canadians get to have their say.
So, make your vote count!