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Welcome but not equal

Next month, Halifax elects a new government, but the newest Haligonians won't get their say

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As a former professor at the University of Sadat City in Egypt, Mohamed Farouk is no stranger to political and community activity. He worked with various political parties on developing, implementing, and evaluating their strategies to help “the most needy areas in the region.”

Farouk, who holds a PhD in agricultural engineering, works for the Nova Scotia Crop and Livestock Insurance Commission and sits on the board of the Nova Scotia Institute of Agrologists, came to Canada in 2013. He’s eager to invest his knowledge and experience in the province. As a permanent resident, he enjoys most of the same rights as Canadian citizens, with one exception: he can’t vote.

But change is coming. On June 7, the federal government struck its Special Committee on Electoral Reform—the same day the Ontario government passed legislation allowing municipalities to use ranked ballots starting in 2018. Last year, Halifax urged the province to change the Municipal Elections Act to allow the city’s 14,000 permanent residents to vote, a position the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities also supports.

But the provincial government has said it will only approve the move if permanent residents are also allowed to run for office. The result is a stalemate that means there will be no extension of the franchise for this year’s municipal elections.

“I think this is part of being a welcoming community,” says Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. “I think it’s also an issue of recognizing that permanent residents play a role in our society already. In many cases, they have lived here for years, their kids are in school and they’re involved in their communities, coaching soccer. They have made a commitment to Halifax, and I think it’s a fair thing to allow them to have a vote.”

It doesn’t appear likely to happen in time for next month’s municipal election, but if Halifax succeeds in convincing the province to change the rules it would become the first city in Canada to extend the vote to non-citizens. There are international precedents: municipalities in about 40 countries allow non-citizens to vote.

Outgoing District 8 councillor Jennifer Watts is in favour of the proposal. At her annual participatory budgeting meetings to decide how to spend the district’s capital fund, every resident who wants to, regardless of eligibility to vote, has a say.

Watts says letting permanent residents vote “is an important way for the municipality to step out in front when we say we want newcomers to come and to engage in our community as fully as possible. One of the really important ways you can do that is through engaging in the election process.”

While she doesn’t think the prospect of the vote will entice people to move to Halifax, she says it will send a strong message that the city wants newcomers to settle here.

“Through two election campaigns I’ve met people I may have known through school activities or volunteer work, and I had no idea they weren’t citizens,” she says. “You’ve been here for awhile. You’ve made all these contributions to the community and the economy and you can’t vote?”

Farouk agrees that the change would send a message, but he also thinks it would help newcomers become involved faster.

“It will show municipal appreciation for the opinions and perspectives of permanent residents who moved here recently,” he says. And he thinks giving newcomers a say in policy-making may allow them to integrate faster “by motivating them to have a better understanding of their rights and responsibilities.”

In April, Claudette Legault, director of programs and services for the Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), spoke at an event on increasing voter engagement. She noted that 95 per cent of permanent residents intend to become citizens, and that 60 per cent of them say they were engaged in community work in their home countries.

In an interview with Halifax Magazine, Legault says, “There are a number of jurisdictions looking at this, and the first one out of the block sends a message across the country that Halifax is a community that wants to engage newcomers…and what more public demonstration of that is there than you getting a say in who is making decisions in your community and your neighbourhood.”

Permanent residents can apply for citizenship after three years. But the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website says to expect application processing to take 24 to 36 months. Some immigrants can easily wait six years before being able to vote.

Legault worries that those who might be keen to get involved in the electoral process could lose some of that enthusiasm over such a long period of time. She says that the citizenship process is “taking much longer than it ever did” and as a result, newcomers can “feel like they are stateless and will never be citizens of the country. The right to vote is very important to them.”

Seventy-six-year-old Eulalia Fernandez came to Canada from Havana in 2010. She lives in Eastern Passage with her daughter and son-in-law, who are citizens. “Natasha and her husband always vote,” she says. “I cannot vote until I get my citizenship, but if I could vote I would do it. That would be good for the community, no? All the things that need to be taken care of and the community wants, for example, they are now going to build a new high school here, it would be good to somehow vote for them.”

Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak notes that many permanent residents, like Fernandez and Farouk, are eager to participate in the voting process. In addition to making them feel more welcome, he sees another benefit for Nova Scotia.

“It would have some impact on policy discussions,” he says. “Aspiring politicians would have to talk to newcomer residents. It allows for relationships to be built early on, before some of the residents feel that pull to larger centres.”

If the province does make legislative changes, it would have to decide whether to give permanent residents the vote throughout the province or in Halifax alone. While the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities doesn’t have a formal position on the subject, it did write a letter of support for the Halifax proposal. And union president Keith Hunter says his personal view is “Yes, let them vote. They’re living here and they’re using all the services we provide and paying for them, so why not have a vote in municipal elections?”

Steve Adams was the only municipal councillor to vote against the Halifax proposal, telling Metro Halifax newspaper, “Citizenship is something not to be taken lightly… It’s a privilege to live in this country. You have to go that extra step and become a citizen to illustrate your commitment.”

But Urbaniak doesn’t buy that argument. “Canadian citizenship is an expression of long-term adherence and loyalty,” he says. “I don’t think making this change will compromise that. I don’t think this would result in fewer permanent residents deciding they need not bother to aspire to Canadian citizenship.”

For his part, Farouk says, “Of course I would be happy to participate in elections… I believe this will make me more involved in the community and give me the motivation to educate myself more on this province to make the right choices for myself and the future of my family here.”

In the meantime, he will wait.


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