The term franchise denotes the right to vote in public elections for members of Parliament, provincial legislatures and municipal councils. The Canadian franchise dates from the mid-18th-century colonial period when, as a general rule, restrictions effectively limited the vote to male property holders. Since then, the particular voting qualifications and the pace of expanding the categories of eligible voters have differed according to jurisdiction and have reflected changing social values and constitutional requirements.
As the colonies that came to form Canada in 1867 became self-governing (see Representative Government), they eventually gained control of defining who could vote. Hence, the rules differed substantially between the colonies. All were heavily influenced by English law, which restricted the franchise to men with property assets of a specified value and prevented Catholic persons from voting. However, the unique circumstances of each of the colonies meant that these rules could not be simply transferred directly.
For most of the pre-Confederation period, most colonies required property ownership to qualify to vote, although the amount of property required varied over time and across the different colonies. In Nova Scotia, there were no property qualifications between 1851 and 1863. Upon getting an elected assembly in 1785 (see Responsible Government), New Brunswick initially opted to extend the franchise to those without property, but brought in strict property restrictions in 1791. New Brunswick also restricted Catholic persons from voting, thus disenfranchising the Acadian people. Both Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Québec) maintained property restrictions throughout this period. Prince Edward Island was an exception, as few residents on the Island owned land (see PEI Land Question).
Most colonies initially followed the British practice that required eligible voters to take an oath of loyalty. These oaths explicitly renounced papal authority, which disenfranchised Catholics. The references in oaths to the “Christian faith” also excluded Jewish persons. In addition, some religious communities, such as Quakers, were prevented by their faith from taking oaths. Nova Scotia abolished religious qualifications in 1789; New Brunswick did so in 1810. Prince Edward Island enfranchised Quakers in 1785 and allowed non-Protestants to vote in 1830. Upper and Lower Canada had no religious exclusions — though until 1833, groups such as Quakers could not vote because of the need to take oaths.
Finally, women voted regularly in Lower Canada from 1791 until 1849 and there are reports of women voting occasionally in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. However, for most of this period and in most of the colonies only men could vote (see Women’s Suffrage).
In 1867, the definition of the franchise was left to the provinces. This meant that eligibility to vote in a federal election could vary from one province to the other. All provinces, however, restricted the franchise to male British subjects who were at least 21 years old who had a property qualification. For the first 50 years after Confederation, the Liberal and Conservative parties manipulated the federal franchise in a blatantly partisan fashion. At various times up to 1920, the federal franchise was based either on the electoral lists drawn up by the provinces for provincial elections or on a federal list compiled by enumerators appointed by the governing party in Ottawa. Because until 1885 the vote was based on provincial law, elections were staggered, meaning they could be held on different days in different places. Voters in one constituency might already know which party was likely to form government. Given the importance of patronage in this era of Canadian politics, this created a powerful incentive to vote for the governing party.
Canada's most controversial franchise legislation was adopted by Parliament during the First World War. The Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act of 1917 enfranchised female relatives of men serving with the Canadian or British armed forces as well as all servicemen (including those under 21 and status Indians); it disenfranchised conscientious objectors and British subjects naturalized after 1902 who were born in an enemy country or who habitually spoke an enemy language. Prime Minister Robert Borden's Conservative government openly admitted that the legislation was biased in its favour. The 1917 election results proved that they were right. Such abuses and shifts in the policies governing the right to vote ended in 1920 with the adoption of the Dominion Elections Act, which established a standard Dominion-wide franchise.
Although occasional instances were recorded of women voting in pre-Confederation Canada until 1849, Canadian women were systematically and universally disenfranchised. Apart from the temporary and selective enfranchisement of women under the Wartime Elections Act, women were first granted the right to vote federally in 1918.
In 1916, Manitoba became the first province to enfranchise women for provincial elections; in 1940, Québec was the last province to do so. In 1951, the Northwest Territories became the last territory to grant women the vote. (See also Women’s Movement; Women’s Suffrage.)
From the time that Asian peoples first began arriving in the 19th century and through much of the first half of the 20th century, most Canadians of Asian heritage were denied the right to vote in federal and provincial elections. Federally, the Electoral Franchise Act (1885) explicitly denied Chinese Canadians the right to vote; but, in 1898, new legislation extended the franchise to Asian voters. In 1920, the Dominion Elections Act said that if a province discriminated against a group by reason of race, that group would also be excluded from the federal franchise, meaning that British Columbia residents of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian background lost their right to vote in national elections. (Saskatchewan also disenfranchised the Chinese.) With the extension of the federal franchise to Japanese Canadians in 1948, the last statutory disenfranchisement of Asian Canadians was removed.
Through a process called enfranchisement First Nations people could give up their Indian status and vote in federal elections as early as 1867. (A status Indian is an individual registered under the Indian Act, it is a legal recognition of a person’s First Nations heritage and it affords certain rights such as the right to live on reserve land.) The term enfranchisement was used both for those who gave up their status by choice and for the much larger number of Indigenous men and women who lost status automatically for one of several reasons by which the government attempted to eradicate status entirely. This included the loss of status upon completion of university and upon the marriage of a woman to a non-status man. First Nations men who served during the Second World War gained franchise without having to relinquish status, but could only continue to vote if they moved from their homes on reserves.
In the 1920s, the government imposed elected leadership structures on top of traditional forms of governance on reserves. While a theoretical enfranchisement occurred under this imposition (i.e., bands elected leadership that dealt with the federal government), it was not well received and often boycotted. Many communities did, and still do, have two chiefs: the elected chief (who is officially recognized by government) and a traditional chief.
Non-status Indians received full voting rights at the provincial level, starting in British Columbia in 1949 and ending with Québec in 1969. The federal franchise was first extended to non-status Indians in 1950. The franchise fully extended to status Indians in 1960 under the John Diefenbaker administration, 12 years after a parliamentary committee recommended that First Nations be fully enfranchised. (See also Indian Act; Enfranchisement.)
The Dominion Franchise Act (1934) disqualified Inuit people, along with status Indians, from voting in federal elections. Though most Inuit were enfranchised in 1950, they were unable to vote for a number of reasons. Until the 1962 general election, Inuit were rarely enumerated (i.e., added to official lists of people entitled to vote) and ballot boxes were not brought to Inuit communities in the Arctic.
The Métis have never experienced restrictions on their right to vote. Métis have by and large not been covered by treaties or statutes such as the Indian Act; therefore, there existed no legal means by which to disenfranchise Métis.
Canada now has a virtually universal franchise at both the provincial and federal levels. Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states 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 and to be qualified for membership therein." This provision paved the way for the successful court challenge to the disenfranchisement of judges and persons with intellectual disabilities. The courts struck down the denial of the vote to these groups by accepting the inclusiveness of section 3 of the Charter and by finding under section 1 of the Charter that such limitations could not be justified as "reasonable" in a "free and democratic society."
In challenges to the Canada Elections Act between 1986 and 2002, prison inmates in Manitoba and Ontario met with mixed success in their various Charter challenges to the statutory denial of their right to vote. The question was eventually resolved in the prisoners' favour in a 5 to 4 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (Sauvé v. Canada, 2002). As a consequence, all restrictions on prisoners' voting rights at both the federal and provincial levels were struck down.
The courts have given generous interpretation to the right to vote under Charter challenges made against restrictions on the franchise. Nonetheless, one restricted category of otherwise eligible voters remains. In 1993, the Canada Elections Act was amended to grant the vote to Canadians living abroad for up to five years at a time. The exclusion of Canadians living abroad for more than five years at a time was subject to a Charter challenge in the Ontario Court of Appeal, which ruled against the challenge. Elections Canada applied the Ontario ruling at the federal level, as is the agency’s practice. The Supreme Court has not considered this matter. Its ultimate resolution will rest in large measure on how the courts choose to weigh competing arguments about the right to vote and place of residency.
National Register of Electors
A National Register of Electors was established in 1997 to prepare voters' lists. It replaced door-to-door enumerations at election time, which were said to be expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive. The computerized registry is maintained in Ottawa by Elections Canada, an independent and non-partisan agency that administers federal elections. It is updated with information (name, address, sex, and date of birth of Canadians eligible to vote) supplied by such provincial and federal agencies as Vital Statistics registrars, the Canada Revenue Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Post. The relevant information on electors contained in the register is in turn shared with provincial, territorial and municipal electoral officials for the preparation of their voters' lists.
The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship. In Canada, the right to vote has gone from being held by a relatively small group — Protestant men who owned property — to being widely held. The development of the franchise in Canada thus reflects Canada’s maturation as a liberal democracy.