Why vote?

Failing to vote in the federal election on January 23 amounts to a betrayal of history and the many individuals and groups who fought to ensure universal suffrage is enjoyed by all Canadians 


Before Confederation in 1867, only the affluent were allowed to vote. Women property holders could vote, but they seldom did.

Following the 1858 election for the Province of Canada’s legislative assembly, Alexandre-Edouard Kierzowski’s victory at the polls was declared void because he supposedly did not possess property of sufficient value, according to his opponents.

Women were legally excluded from voting in elections with the coming of Confederation. After 1867, voting in Canada was by a show of hands at polling booths. This made it evident to candidates that those they had bribed had stayed bribed.

This show of hands also led to some rather contentious elections. For example, during the 1872 election in Manitoba, future Winnipeg Mayor Francis Cornish delivered an inflammatory speech which stirred up a mob to attack supporters of Donald Smith at a St. Boniface polling booth. The attack also involved the brandishing of a pistol and a few shots being fired. Although no one was killed, a few people were wounded.

When the mob returned to Winnipeg, they trashed the offices of the newspapers The Manitoban, The Metis and The Gazette, which were alleged to be against the candidate they favoured.

These mob scenes and violence at polling booths only abated when Parliament passed a secret ballot act in 1874.

The next major confrontation involved women. Within Manitoba, a number of suffragette organizations harangued male politicians to grant them the right to vote. Suffragist leaders such as Nellie McClung used humour and embarrassment to make their case. 

The most famous example of embarrassing male politicians was a mock parliament staged at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg by the Political Equality League in 1914, in which McClung played a premier refusing the right to vote to men. She lampooned the real Manitoba premier, Sir Rodmond Roblin, who had earlier claimed that “... nice women don’t want the vote.”

The Manitoba suffragettes supported the Liberals — although women were still not able to vote — in the next provincial election and were rewarded with the vote in January 1916.

Once the Manitoba government had granted the vote to women, other provinces soon followed, and the federal government couldn’t ignore the groundswell of support for universal suffrage. As well, the role women played in the war effort at home was finally being recognized.

In 1917, the first women allowed to vote in a federal election were the “Bluebirds,” nurses tending Canadian troops in Europe during the First World War. Full voting rights for women in federal elections were obtained a year later, but they were denied the right to become candidates until the passage of the Dominion Elections Act of 1920. In 1921, Agnes MacPhail of Ontario became the first woman Member of Parliament. 

Women may have received the vote, but conscientious objectors such as Mennonites and Doukhobors had their vote taken away from them during the First World War, despite earlier assurances by the Canadian government that their beliefs would be respected. 

Over 25,000 so-called enemy aliens from countries that Canada was fighting, who came here within 15 years of the war, also had their voting privileges revoked. Some 5,000 Ukrainian immigrants were interned as enemy aliens during the war. It didn’t matter that these immigrants had fled oppression in their homelands for the “freedom” of Canada.

At the height of the Winnipeg General Strike of May/June 1919, the federal government used the powers it obtained from the enactment of the War Measures Act to deport enemy aliens.

Aboriginal people as of 1920 had the right to vote, but could only do so if they gave up their treaty rights. It wasn’t until 1960 that this injustice was overturned.

Chinese immigrants were forced to pay a head tax in order to come to Canada — at first $50 and later $500 — and were denied the right to vote by two 1885 acts of parliament. Supposedly, their usefulness ended with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway and they were no longer welcome in “white” Canada. 

To prove their worth as citizens, many Chinese volunteered to serve in the Canadian military during the Second World War, serving with distinction. But, it wasn’t until three years after the war that they were finally granted full citizenship and thus the right to vote.

In 1928, Japanese immigration was limited to 150 people a year. And, during the war, they were wrongfully interned as enemy aliens — 13,000 of the 23,000 moved into the interior of Canada from the West Coast were naturalized Canadian citizens or Canadian born. Japanese-Canadians had also been denied the right to vote and run for public office 

until 1948.

The last major change to the Canadian voting system occurred in 1970 when the Elections Act was revised to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

And, no one should ever forget the 120,000 Canadian men and women who died fighting for the principles of democracy, including the right to vote, in two world wars and other conflicts.

From the preceding examples, it is evident that universal suffrage in Canada is the result of the contributions made over many decades by those who firmly believed in a participatory democratic system for all citizens. Not turning out to vote diminishes what they have accomplished.