Site Meter

Monday, May 02, 2011

Many people have died for the right to vote

Many people have died for the right to vote

Put an end to election apathy and show your solidarity with protesters around the world by casting a ballot, write Ronald F. Caza, Sara Ulmer and Yan Zawisza.

Utpal Baruah, REUTERS

Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, which still dominate the news, force us to realize the importance of exercising our own right to vote.

In the past several months, the voices of Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and the people of many other nations have cried out in unison for the right to elect representative governments which, in many places for the first time, would determine by democratic means the destiny of these countries and their citizens. In fact, all over the world, be it in Haiti, Sudan, Iraq or Afghanistan, we have seen the images of citizens ready to die, and far too many that have, for the right to express themselves on a very fundamental question: Who will make the important decisions affecting their lives and those of their families? So much is expressed in the most simple of gestures: casting a ballot.

The rise of these democratic movements prompts us to recall the very beginnings of our democracy.

In Athens in the sixth century B.C., male citizens were free to attend and speak at the assembly and to vote on the laws presented.

These democratic principles, which disappeared with the fall of the Athenian Empire, re-emerged centuries later in Europe, thanks in large part to European philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. In England, John Locke instigated the idea that government did not derive its authority from divine will, but rather through a contract between individuals and society. In France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted on the principle of general will and the responsibility of each citizen to protect the life and liberty of all.

Armed with these ideas, citizens fighting for the right to participate in the political process and to shape their own destinies were able to free themselves from the rule of two of the most powerful empires of that period (as a result of the American Revolution in 1775 and the French Revolution in 1789).

Countless individuals sacrificed their lives so that in the future, all of us could be free from authoritarian rule. And let us never forget that the first step taken by an oppressive regime motivated by hate and the desire to retain power is to eliminate its citizens’ “right to vote.”

In Canada, before Confederation, authority rested in the hands of only a few influential people who could count on the support of the Governor General, representative of the English monarch. Gradually over time, citizens united to make their voices heard. Finally in 1848, Nova Scotia was the first colony in British North America to achieve responsible government, that is, a government requiring the support of its citizens. In the years that followed, the concept of responsible government made its way across the colonies, although it remained effectively a shadow of the system of voting we know today.

At the time of Confederation in 1867, only 11 per cent of the population was allowed to vote. The fundamental criteria were that the voter be male and 21 years of age or older. However, rules varying from province to province could also require a minimum of property or income and sometimes even limited the right to vote based on profession or ethnicity.

In 1916, what was called “universal manhood suffrage” was largely achieved when most men aged 21 and over were allowed to vote.

In 1918, women obtained the right to vote in federal elections, but it was only in 1951, when the Northwest Territories granted women the right to vote, that women could finally vote in all elections in Canada. Asian-Canadians, prevented from voting for extensive periods of time in some parts of the country, were only permanently given this right for good in 1949. And finally, as astonishing as it may seem, aboriginal people were only granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1960, and in all provinces only in 1969.

Since that time, the right to vote has only continued to expand. In 1970, the minimum voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years of age. Since 1982, Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes that: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly.” The Supreme Court of Canada, which had already described voting as “the most important democratic duty which most Canadians will undertake in their lives: their choice as to who will govern them” and qualified it as a “sacred democratic function as a citizen,” invoked Section 3 to declare unconstitutional a provision of the Canada Elections Act that prevented prisoners serving a sentence of two years or more from voting.

Since this 2002 decision, all Canadian citizens possess the right to vote, with the exception of the chief electoral officer and assistant chief electoral officer. Now, all Canadian citizens, from billionaires to the homeless, have the right to vote, and each of those votes are equal.

Unfortunately, while the right to vote has been recognized as a fundamental right and in essence a duty, a new problem has emerged over the past several years: more and more Canadians are choosing not to vote.

During the 2008 elections, only 59 per cent of electors voted and less than 40 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24 cast a ballot. If this trend continues, our government will soon be elected by a minority of its citizens. Will we then still be able to speak of a representative government?

Why is it so important to vote in federal elections? From a practical point of view, the party that will be called on to form the next government will have the authority to take, on behalf of all of us, fundamental decisions that will significantly impact our lives. This is not simply a question of financial issues, as important as those are, but also of issues such as whether to send our citizens to war and of nominating the next justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, who will decide on matters affecting the fundamental rights of citizens vis-à-vis the state for decades to come.

We should not lose sight of the fact that once elected, a majority government is not legally bound by its campaign promises. We must therefore ensure that the party elected to lead this country reflects the values and visions of the majority of Canada’s citizens.

To explain why they haven’t voted, some say that their vote has no impact on the final result, but this is simply false. History shows us that a handful of votes can make all the difference. In 2008, one member of Parliament was elected by a margin of 17 votes and another by a margin of 22 votes. In simple terms, this means that if only nine and 11 voters respectively had voted for the second place candidate rather than the winner, those few votes would have changed the result. The vote of each person can have a profound impact on the results of the elections.

That is why, although voting requires only a simple gesture, it is the most important tool by which to participate in the future of our country.

Exercising your right to vote couldn’t be easier. All the information you need to vote, including where to vote, can be found on Elections Canada’s website ( or by calling 1-800-463-6868.

Given current events, the least we can do is to vote in solidarity with those in North Africa and the Middle East who are literally dying to vote. Let us make sure that the politicians hear our voices, as a sign of respect for the families of those who have given their lives this year in the hopes of obtaining that same democratic right.

It is time to stand up and be counted.

Ronald F. Caza is a partner and Sara Ulmer and Yan Zawisza are students-at-law at the law firm Heenan Blaikie.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

No comments: