Trent Ernst, Editor
In the earliest days of this confederation, only some men over the age of 21 had the right to vote. Women, aboriginals, certain minorities and even certain religious denominations were not allowed to vote. According to British Common Law, “Women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.”
In 1885, Parliament established Federal Franchise, based on property ownership. Franchise, in this case, is the right to vote gained through democratic process. Before this, franchise was a provincial matter. As the four provinces that existed at the time were still independent, with different rules, there was no one defining characteristic for who had the right to vote.
In Nova Scotia, for instance, a man had to own a property worth $150, while in Quebec, the same person would have to own property valued at least $300 in the city or $200 in a rural area. In Ontario, people who made at least $250 annually were allowed to vote, while in New Brunswick, if you made less that $400 a year, you weren’t allowed to vote.
In BC, there were no income or property restrictions, but any person of Indian or Chinese origin were not allowed to vote.
But Sir John A. McDonald’s government was able to get a law passed that gave federal parliament control over who could vote. The new law still defined who had the right to vote based on real property, the amount of rent paid or the amount of income a person made. This meant that people without property who made less than $300/year weren’t allowed to vote, nor were people of “Mongolian and Chinese race”.
13 years later, that law was overturned by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who gave control of who was allowed to vote back to the provinces. However, the federal government did pass a law that provinces couldn’t exclude a citizen—who otherwise would be able to vote—from voting based on their profession, occupation or class. Since many, though not all, of the provinces had introduced universal male suffrage (which, like franchise, means the right to vote), it meant that most men of European decent were allowed to vote.
Suddenly, Chinese and Japanese Canadians were allowed to vote. First Nations were not, however, as the interpretation of the law was that you couldn’t exclude anyone based on their class, and First Nations, as everyone at the time new, did not belong to “any class of persons.”
Some were allowed to vote, but as time went on, this right was taken away. In 1915, for instance, Quebec withdrew voting rights for First Nations living on reserves, and in 1919, that was extended to the entire country.
Voting rights were eroding elsewhere, too. In 1901, BC decreed that no one could vote unless he was able to read the provincial election legislation, written in English. In Manitoba, they translated the act into French, German, Icelandic and a few other Scandinavian languages, alienating not only the Asian immigrants, but people from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine.
When the First World War broke out, a large chunk of the eligible voting population went off to war, leaving behind a great number of people who were mostly opposed to the war. Robert Borden’s government was in trouble of losing the next election, so Borden pushed through two new election bills. The first gave the vote to any British subject, male or female, who was an active or retired member of the Canadian Armed Forces. This gave the right to vote to many First Nations, and, for the first time, women, as the act included about 2000 military nurses.
The second act, called the War-time Elections act, which conferred the right to vote to the spouses, the widows, the mothers, the sisters and the daughters of any person who had served in the Canadian forces, provided they met the age, nationality and residency requirements for their respective provinces.
The act also took away the right to vote for conscientious objectors, like the Mennonites and Doukhobors, as well as recent immigrants from enemy countries.
The act also gave back the power of determining who had the right to vote to the federal government. It was an obvious attempt by Borden and his conservatives to increase the size of their vote, and the president of the Canadian Suffrage Association quipped the act would have been more honest if it had simply just disenfranchised everyone who failed to promise to vote for the Conservatives.
While the two acts created schisms along racial divides, it did give certain women the right to vote, and in 1918, the year after the two previous acts were passed, women were given the right to vote. A year later, women were given the right to stand for federal office, and in 1920, federal law was changed to give both males and females universal suffrage, regardless of provincial law.
It took until the next war before Asians were given the right to vote in Canada, with Chinese and Indo-Canadians being given the right to vote in 1947 and the Japanese in 1948. In 1955, religious exclusions were lifted, and in 1960, all First Nations were given the right to vote, nearly one hundred years after the first Federal election in 1867.
These rights to vote were because of the hard work of men and women, of politicians and ordinary people. They were abused, mocked, ridiculed and otherwise outcast, but in the end they won the right for everyone, regardless of sex, race, religion or property ownership to have the chance to vote.
So if you’re feeling disenfranchised, if you are feeling powerless, the only one taking franchise away from you is you. People have fought long and hard so that everyone, not just rich white dudes with land, could vote. That includes you.
So, what are you waiting for? Polls open at 8 am on Saturday, Nov 15. Be there.