a vote for democracy
Our daughter Emiko received a standing ovation the other day from a roomful of strangers. It wasn’t for her piano playing (which is admittedly beautiful) and it wasn’t for her field hockey or taiko abilities (she’s skilled in those areas too). Her accomplishment? She voted in a provincial election for the first time. The retirement of the incumbent Port Moody MLA led to a provincial bi-election in our community on April 19, only months after Emi turned eighteen, the legal voting age in Canada since 1970 (when it was lowered from 21). When the scrutineer at the polling station announced out loud that Emi was voting for the first time the entire room burst into applause. It was a nice welcome to the democratic process.
In casting her vote in the advance poll, Emiko became the third member of our immediate family to do so. Amy, who received her Canadian citizenship only last year and is now able to vote in Canadian elections, voted earlier in the day, as did I.
As illustrated by the low voter turnout in most elections, many Canadians don’t care enough about their democratic duty as citizens to bother voting. And to blame low voter turnout on cynicism or disillusionment with government is to let people off too easily. One need only look at the tight races in recent elections that were won or lost on fewer than 100 votes to give lie to the commonly-stated excuse that one vote more or less won’t make a difference.
Given the lengths that previously-disenfranchised groups of people in Canada have gone through to get the right to vote, you’d think more people would cherish the right to have a say in who runs their city, their province and their country.
A quick troll through the internet turns up some facts that it make clear how precious the right to vote is, and how recent and hard-won it is for some Canadians. For Emiko’s sake, let’s look at women and Japanese Canadians.
Women in what is now known as Canada could vote before Confederation if they owned property, but that right was taken away with Confederation in 1867.
According to Wikipedia, ‘Widows and unmarried women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections in Ontario in 1884. Such limited franchises were extended in other provinces at the end of the 19th century, but bills to enfranchise women in provincial elections failed to pass in any province until Manitoba finally succeeded in 1916. At the federal level it was a two step process. On September 20, 1917, women gained a limited right to vote: According to the Parliament of Canada website, the Military Voters Act established that “women who are British subjects and have close relatives in the armed forces can vote on behalf of their male relatives, in federal elections.” About a year and a quarter later, at the beginning of 1919, the right to vote was extended to all women in the Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women. The remaining provinces quickly followed suit, except for Quebec, which did not do so until 1940.’
In 1919 women were given the right to hold public office at the federal level in Canada, and the election of 1921 was the first federal election that included female candidates. Four women ran and Agnes MacPhail was the only one elected. For 14 years she was the only female MP.
As for Japanese Canadians, almost from the moment they began to immigrate to Canada—looking for a better life for themselves and their children—they began to lobby for the right to vote, a privilege also denied other Asians and First Nations peoples. Over the years, a number of delegations travelled to Ottawa, pleading their case to no avail. During World War One over 200 Nikkei volunteers attempted to enlist in the Canadian Army, hoping to prove their loyalty to Canada. After being rejected in British Columbia, 195 issei volunteers and one nisei—Private George Uyehara—travelled to Alberta to join Canadian battalions of the British army. Stationed in Europe, 54 were killed and 92 were wounded. The issei veterans received the franchise in 1931, becoming the only Japanese Canadians qualified to vote, although that didn’t stop them from being stripped of their rights and interned, along with their fellow Japanese Canadians, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in late 1941.
It wasn’t until 1949 that all restrictions were lifted and Japanese Canadians were granted full rights of citizenship, including the right to live anywhere in the country and the precious right to vote. It was only then, eight years after the outbreak of the Pacific War, that they could begin the process of fully reintegrating back into society, rebuilding—and often reshaping—the lives that they had built before the war.
Given what those who came before us had to endure and the struggles they went through to be treated as equals, it is incumbent on all of us who benefit every day from their hard-won victories to hold dear to our democratic rights and to exercise them come election day. It is also important that we teach our children the basic tenets of democracy and the battles that have been fought to ensure that we have the rights and freedoms that we enjoy today as there are always those ready to chip away at those same rights.