The board of trustees of the largest school division in Winnipeg recently agreed to support the right of non-citizens to vote in municipal elections in Manitoba. In a November 19 board meeting, Mark Wasyliw, Winnipeg School Division trustee for Ward 3, brought forward a proposal to allow all Winnipeg School Division residents to vote in municipal and school board elections, regardless of citizenship. In an interview with radio station 680 CJOB, Wasyliw expressed the need to push for these electoral changes in order to increase both voter turnout and engagement in school board elections, especially among younger voters.

The proposal, which was passed unanimously by the Board, also calls for the voting age to be lowered to 16 years old, and requests that the Provincial Government allow voter identification through sworn oaths, in order to remove barriers preventing Winnipeggers experiencing homelessness from voting. The motion will have the Winnipeg School Division administration draft a letter on behalf of the Board of Trustees to seek a meeting with the Minister of Education to “discuss changing section 7 (1) of the Municipal Councils and School Boards Elections Act to remove the requirement of “Canadian Citizenship” from the criteria of eligibility for voters”, among other changes. The meeting minutes also state that the issues of the non-citizen vote, reduction of the legal voting age, and changes to voter ID requirements, will be presented to the Manitoba School Boards Association General Meeting in 2019.

It is not surprising that a proposal of this sort was born within the Winnipeg School Division. With 33,223 students, it is the largest school division in the city. In 2011, it was estimated that 29% of the Winnipeg population resided within the Winnipeg School Division catchment areas, according to the 2017/2018 Winnipeg School Division Demographic Report and based on Statistics Canada data.

The proportion of immigrants in the area encompassed by the Winnipeg School Division is estimated to be nearly 30%. In some parts of the Division’s catchment area, immigrants make up the majority of the population, including those for Tyndall Park School (56.1%), Lord Nelson School (52.9%), and Meadows West School (50.3% immigrants). This proportion of 30% is slightly higher than that of the entire Winnipeg Census Metropolitan Area (CMA), which was 25.7% in 2011 and 26.1% in 2016. Winnipeg, in turn, has a relatively larger percentage of foreign-born residents than the rest of Canada – 23.8% in 2016, vs. 21.9% for the entire country.

Newcomers by the numbers

What about the presence of non-citizens in Winnipeg, and particularly in the Winnipeg School Division? As expected, these percentages are lower than those of the total immigrant population, as the latter includes foreign-born citizens. However, the number of non-citizens in Winnipeg (11% in 2016), and particularly in the Winnipeg School Division, is also higher than the national average (7%) based on Statistics Canada data. Some of the wards that overlap the Winnipeg School Division boast even higher percentages. For instance, in 2011, non-Canadian citizens in the Daniel McIntyre Ward represented 17.3% of the ward’s population, and 17.8% of the residents of Point Douglas Ward were non-Canadian citizens.

While 11% may seem like a small percentage – and 7% even smaller – these are certainly not negligible numbers when it comes to elections. In the 2018 Winnipeg municipal elections, only 42% of eligible voters showed up at the polls!

Furthermore, a number of councillors and school trustees won by a small margin. For instance, City of Winnipeg’s election data shows that Councillor Jason Schreyer had an advantage of 9.6% over Rob Massey. Councillor Markus Chambers, in St. Norbert – Seine River, won by a difference of 6.2% with respect to Nancy Cooke, the candidate with the second most votes in the ward. In Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry, councillor Sherri Rollins won by an even narrower margin: only 5.6%. St. James-Assiniboia School Trustee Craig Johnson won by an advantage of five votes only. While it is impossible to know whether all adult non-citizens would show up at the polls, or whether their voting preferences would make a difference in electoral results, the non-citizen vote definitely has the potential to make a difference in some cases.

The rationale behind the non-citizen vote

The Winnipeg School Division’s proposal focuses on the fact that, although non-citizens are usually active members of their communities and schools, pay taxes, and contribute to society, they do not get a say on decisions that involve their property, their communities, and the schools attended by their children. Wasyliw explained to CJOB that non-citizen residents in the Winnipeg School Division “live here, often own property, pay taxes here, and aren’t allowed to vote in school board elections”. Wasyliw and school board chair Chris Broughton believe they should also be able to elect their municipal representatives, including school trustees. In a recent CBC article, Broughton stated that newcomers – including non-citizens – are engaged and contribute to their communities, and pay taxes, yet they are not given a voice on City Council and their school trustee boards. This proposal seeks to give representation to residents who are tax-paying, engaged members of their communities in every other sense.

The push for the non-citizen vote in Canada and around the world

Winnipeg is not the first Canadian city or municipality to propose granting the right to vote in municipal elections to non-citizens. Last April, the Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to request that the British Columbia government change its charter to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections; the motion, put forward by Councillor Andrea Reimer, noted that 11 municipalities across the country are also working towards similar goals.

In 2013, councillors in the City of Toronto also voted to explore the possibility of non-citizen municipal voting, though not unanimously, as then-mayor Rob Ford famously opposed the proposal along with Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong and then-Councillor Doug Ford, who now serves as the Premier of Ontario. In 2014, the Mayor of Halifax, Michael Savage, asked city staff to prepare a report exploring the possibility of the non-citizen vote in municipal elections; Calgary and Saint John were reportedly considering it as well. However, to this day, the possibility of voting is yet to materialize for non-citizens anywhere in Canada.

British subjects were able to vote in provincial and municipal elections in Canada in the past. Most provinces who used to grant this right made changes to their provincial legislation in the 80s and 90s, after which British subjects no longer had the right to vote. The last province to allow them to vote in provincial elections was Nova Scotia, where they were able to vote in the 2006 elections.

Outside of Canada, however, several countries have granted the right to vote in municipal elections to some (or all) non-citizen residents. For example,

  • Similarly to Canada, British subjects were able to vote in Australia until the 80s. In contrast, New Zealand has granted voting rights to permanent residents since 1975.
  • Norway allows non-citizens to vote in county and municipal elections, provided that they have resided in the country for a minimum of three years. By virtue of a reciprocity agreement, Spain allows Norwegian nationals to vote in municipal elections.
  • Several Commonwealth countries grant voting rights to foreign nationals from other Commonwealth countries (with certain local restrictions), including Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Jamaica, and Saint Lucia. Certain Commonwealth countries grant these rights to non-Commonwealth nationals, including Malawi and Namibia.
  • As of 2004, foreign nationals having resided in Belgium for over five years have been allowed to vote in municipal elections, granted that they sign an oath of agreement to the Belgian constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.  
  • In the European Union, EU citizens have the right to vote in their country of residence, even if they are not citizens of said country.

What comes next for the non-citizen vote in Winnipeg?

While this initiative has the unanimous support of all Winnipeg School Division Board of Trustees, as well as local organizations including Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, it is still unclear whether the proposal will become a reality for Winnipeg non-citizens. While the school trustees will request a meeting with Kelvin Goertzen, Minister of Education and Training, it is still unconfirmed whether the meeting will be granted, and the Minister’s office hasn’t yet issued a statement on his position regarding non-citizens voting in municipal and school trustee elections. Furthermore, should the amendments to the relevant acts be proposed at the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, it remains to be seen whether the Legislative Assembly would vote in favour of these changes and, in consequence, in favour of the non-citizen vote.