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A History of the Vote in Canada


WE BEGAN WRITING the first edition of this book in 1995 to mark Elections Canada's 75th anniversary and to offer Canadians a lasting legacy – the fascinating account of the struggles and reforms that shaped Canada's electoral system and led to the guarantee of universal suffrage in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. First published in 1997, A History of the Vote in Canada recounts how Canadians acquired the right to vote over two centuries and how they overcame obstacles to exercising this right. It is the history of an idea and a right, rather than a history of institutions, the latter topic having been extensively explored elsewhere.

The many legislative changes introduced since the book's first publication prompted me to publish this second edition, which includes new sections on challenges arising from the Charter, the reform of political financing, the redistribution of electoral boundaries and Elections Canada's growing role on the international scene.

From a historical perspective, our current democratic rights are a relatively recent phenomenon. For a long time before and after Confederation, fewer people were entitled to vote than were disenfranchised, since the right to vote was conditional upon gender, race, religion, property and other measures of wealth.

The secret ballot – which safeguards the right of all citizens to vote freely and in private, without fear of intimidation – is younger than our country itself, since it was adopted seven years after Confederation.

For more than a century, the qualifications governing the right to vote evolved in a piecemeal fashion. It was not until 1920 that Parliament permanently took control of the federal franchise and created an independent body to administer federal elections.The right to vote was not enshrined in the Constitution until 1982, with the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The advent of the Charter had a profound impact on the administrative and legislative framework governing the exercise of democratic rights – namely, the right to vote and the right to be a candidate – and of fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of conscience, of opinion, of expression, of the press and of association.

By constitutionally protecting these rights and freedoms, the Charter recognizes the fundamental equality of each person. Recognition of this equality and of the intrinsic worth of each person, regardless of origin or status, is the founding principle of democracy and the cornerstone of any successful democratic society.

Although the Constitution now guarantees the right to vote, we cannot take the exercise of this right for granted.The various practical mechanisms that enable electors to cast their ballots – such as advance voting, the special ballot, mobile polls and level access at polling stations – are as essential to protecting this right as is the legislation that guarantees it.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Canada's electoral system has undergone a host of legislative and administrative reforms, some exacted by the Charter – or arising from Charter-based legal challenges – and others linked to Canadians' changing lifestyles and values.

At the same time, Elections Canada has become a modern, professional organization with an expanded field of action. Election management systems have been computerized, the National Register of Electors has come into being, and numerous mechanisms have been put in place to facilitate registration and voting. The Chief Electoral Officer gained a new mandate to establish information and educational programs that give the public a better understanding of the electoral process.

In addition, significant legislative measures have imposed greater controls on political financing, better containing the influence of money on electoral campaigns while ensuring a fair balance between the equality of political players and individual freedom of expression.These measures were further designed to ensure increased financial transparency on the part of all political entities so that electors can make informed and meaningful choices.

This context has increased the demands on Elections Canada. Managing an electoral system that provides electors with more flexible ways of voting, while imposing stricter controls on political entities, has become ever more complex and challenging. Canada's electoral system is often mentioned as an international model for both its fairness and its effectiveness. Elections Canada regularly provides peer support to countries making a transition to democracy. The agency has also developed successful partnerships with other electoral administrations and international bodies to help maintain its leading edge in knowledge about electoral matters. Canadians can be proud of our international presence, which promotes democratic progress at home and around the world.

In telling the story of a 200-year process based on often very complex laws and regulations, we may have emphasized some viewpoints more than others or overlooked people and events that some may consider crucial to the account. But to quote Leonard Cohen, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."Footnote 1 If there are gaps in this narrative, let those "cracks" be an invitation to readers to shed further light on the ideas and events that shaped the evolution of our most important democratic right.

The following persons made the publication of both the first and the second editions of this book possible: Louis Massicotte, political scientist, University of Montréal; Pierre Dufour, historian; Michael Kinnear, historian, University of Manitoba; Lisa Young, political scientist, University of Calgary; and David Jørgensen, freelance writer. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to these contributors and to all the others, in particular my staff, who collaborated in the realization of A History of the Vote in Canada.

Canada's electoral system is continously evolving. And democracy, like life, is ever changing. In a democratic society, each new generation must secure the foundations of the system through vigilance in safeguarding democratic rights and diligence in exercising them fully.

Footnote 1 “Anthem,” The Future, Stranger Music Inc. [BMI], 1992.