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The Evolution of the Federal Franchise

Most Canadians today take it for granted that almost all adult citizens have the right to vote. It is quite astonishing to realize that, in the country's early days, the number of people who were allowed to vote was actually much smaller than the number who were not.

It was a far cry from "one man, one vote." Initially only men could vote, and then only some of them. The right to vote and to be a candidate at a federal election was restricted to males over the age of 21 who met certain property qualifications. Excluded were all women, Aboriginal people and members of certain religious denominations. By the time the office of Chief Electoral Officer was established in 1920, the road to wider voting rights was well travelled, but the journey was still not complete. Disqualifications on racial and religious grounds, for instance, were not entirely eliminated until 1960.

Such disqualifications had their roots in the decisions of early provincial legislatures, and affected the federal franchise for decades. At the first general election after Confederation in 1867, only a small minority of the population qualified as electors in a country that consisted of four provinces, represented by 181 members of Parliament. During the late 1800s, the right to vote was not laid down in federal law; rather, the franchise laws of individual provinces were used to determine who had the right to vote. This had the effect of denying voting rights to certain groups, such as immigrants from Japan, China and India who were not of Anglo-Saxon origin.

In 1885, the Canadian Parliament established a complicated federal franchise, based on property ownership. The application of the rules differed from town to town and from province to province. In the same year, Aboriginal people living in certain parts of the country were given the right to vote.

The First World War brought the greatest changes to the federal franchise. In 1915, the right to vote by mail was granted to military electors in active service. In 1917, Parliament passed the Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act. The right to vote was extended to all British subjects, male or female, who were active or retired members of the Canadian Forces, including Indians (as defined by the Indian Act) and persons under 21. Some 2,000 military nurses, the "Bluebirds," became the first Canadian women to use this right. Civilian men who were not landowners, but who had a son or grandson in the Canadian Forces, were also temporarily granted the franchise, as were women with a close relative serving, then or previously, in the Canadian Forces.

Surprisingly perhaps, this extension of the franchise was not a recognition of basic rights. Rather, the Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden was acting to give the vote to groups seen as likely supporters, including Canadians on active military service and their female relatives at home. The same legislation also took away the franchise from likely opponents, such as conscientious objectors, Mennonites and Doukhobours, and recently naturalized citizens from non-English speaking countries.

In 1918, the franchise at federal elections was further extended to all women 21 years of age and over. The following year, the women's suffrage movement made great advances and women became eligible for election to the House of Commons. In 1921, Agnes Macphail became the first woman to be elected to the House.

In 1920, a new Dominion Elections Act created the office of Chief Electoral Officer. From this point onward, the federal franchise would be established by federal, not provincial, law. British subjects by birth or naturalization were qualified to vote, but certain foreign-born citizens continued to be excluded until 1922. Now there were 235 seats in the Commons. For the December 6, 1921, election, approximately 4.4 million electors were on the lists. About 50 percent of the population was qualified to vote.

The year 1948 brought more changes. The last vestiges of the property qualification, still in use in Quebec, were abolished. The right to vote was extended to Canadians of Asian origin. A student could be registered in two constituencies: that of the family home and that of the university (but could vote in only one).

In 1955, spouses of military electors acquired the right to vote under the same Regulations (although they could still vote as civilians if they were based in Canada). The provision disqualifying conscientious objectors was abolished the same year.

A new Canada Elections Act, passed in 1960, removed further barriers to voting. Until then, registered Indians living on reserves had been specifically disqualified, although Inuit people had been qualified to vote since 1953. The right to vote in advance was extended to any elector who expected to be absent from his or her polling division on election day.

A decade later, in 1970, a revised Canada Elections Act lowered the voting age and the age of candidacy from 21 years to 18. The right to vote was restricted to Canadian citizens, although British subjects eligible to vote as of June 25, 1968, kept their right to vote until 1975. The new Act also introduced a system of proxy voting for fishermen, seamen, prospectors and full-time students absent from their electoral districts on both election day and the advance voting days. The right to vote in advance was extended to persons with disabilities, and level access was required for all advance polling stations.

With the extension in 1977 of the right to vote by proxy to airline crews, lumber and survey teams, and trappers, yet more barriers were removed.

In 1982, the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms embedded in the Constitution the right of all citizens to vote and to be a candidate, at the same time opening the door to court challenges based on discriminatory voting regulations.

The adoption of the Charter ushered in further changes. About 500 federally appointed judges cast federal ballots for the first time in 1988, after a section of the Canada Elections Act prohibiting them from voting was ruled unconstitutional. Another court ruling that year enabled persons with mental disabilities to vote, and Parliament removed the disqualification from voting for inmates serving sentences of less than two years.

In 1992, Parliament amended the Act to improve access to the electoral system for persons with disabilities. The requirements included level access at all polling stations. Mobile polling stations were introduced. The following year the electoral legislation was amended again to enable special ballot voting by any elector who cannot go to a regular or advance poll. The special ballot is now used by students away from home, travelling vacationers and business people, incarcerated electors, and those temporarily living outside the country, including members of the Canadian Forces and public servants.

On October 31, 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the section of the Canada Elections Act that prevented inmates serving sentences of two or more years from voting contravened the Charter. All incarcerated electors may now vote by special ballot in federal elections, by-elections and referendums regardless of the length of the terms they are serving.

The suffragette movement, the First World War, the lowering of the voting age and the elimination of racist policies have all played significant roles in bringing the right to vote to all adult Canadians.

Now all Canadian citizens 18 years of age and older are qualified to vote, with the exception of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada and Assistant Chief Electoral Officer (if any), who must remain impartial at all times.

At the most recent federal general election in 2004, out of a total population of almost 32 million people, the names of about 22.5 million were on the final lists of electors. Almost all of the remainder were either not Canadian citizens or were under the age of 18. A total of 61 percent of all electors exercised the right to vote.

It is clear that the path to today's very wide franchise has not always been a smooth one; over the years, the advances have sometimes been offset by regressive moves introduced to meet the circumstances of the times. The adoption of the Charter has been the single most effective trigger for the removal of the last vestiges of discrimination.

With advance voting, universal access to the special ballot, election day registration, and an insistence on level access at polling stations, virtually all adult Canadians now have both the right to vote and the means to do so.

A History of the Vote in Canada

For a thorough study of the evolution of the federal franchise, see A History of the Vote in Canada, written by a team of historians and academics.

December 2014