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Changing Rights, Changing Voters

Black and white photo of a Japanese woman wearing a hat and long coat putting a ballot into a metal ballot box.
Credit: Canadian Centennial Collection, Nikkei National Museum, 2010.23.2.4.666

Parliament has made many changes to federal voting rights in the last century. A detailed account is available in A History of the Vote in Canada but an overview with some examples is provided here.

Whenever Parliament changes voting rights, Elections Canada's role is to support our democracy by implementing these changes at the polls.

Voting rights in 1920

Black and white photo of two young First Nations men wearing military uniforms standing next to each other and smiling
First Nations people who served during the Second World War could vote without having to give up their Indian status. They lost the right when the war ended. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, PA-142289

A change in voting rights at the federal level is one of the reasons Elections Canada was created in 1920. Women had won the same voting rights as men two years earlier in 1918. This change doubled the number of eligible voters in Canada, and one of the agency's first tasks was to develop new, expanded voting lists to reflect this change.

About 50 per cent of the population was eligible to vote in the 1921 election. Canadian men and women could vote if they were 21 or older. People with certain jobs, such as judges and government workers, were excluded. So were people from certain racial backgrounds, such as South Asian Canadians. First Nations people could only vote if they gave up their Indian status under the law. Election law did not exclude Canadians from voting because of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation.

A crowd of young people outside cheer and pump their hands in the air. A young man waves a Canadian flag while a woman in front of him carries a handmade sign with the word 'vote' on it
Parliament lowered the official voting age from 21 to 18 in 1970. Credit: Dave Chidley, The Canadian Press

During the first few decades after Elections Canada was created, there were relatively few changes to who was eligible to vote. Inuit lost federal voting rights, while South Asian Canadians living in some provinces gained them.

Canada made more changes to voting rights during the Second World War. Those who served the war effort, including those between the ages of 18 and 21, and First Nations, gained the right to vote. Those who were seen to be against the war, including conscientious objectors who would not serve for religious reasons, lost their right to vote. This included Mennonites, Doukhobors and Hutterites. Finally, Canada denied all Japanese Canadians the right to vote during the war partly because Japan was an enemy nation but also due to long-standing racist attitudes.

A journey towards inclusion

After the war, Canada continued earlier efforts to expand federal voting rights. In 1948, racial and religious barriers were removed. Inuit gained back the right to vote federally in 1950, and in 1960, First Nations men and women obtained the right to vote unconditionally.

Parliament lowered the official voting age from 21 to 18 in 1970. The change added about two million people to the number of eligible voters in Canada—the largest increase since women won the right to vote in 1918.

In 1982, Canadians' democratic right to vote was enshrined permanently in the Constitution as part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter also provided Canadians with a way to argue for expanded voting rights. Over the next two decades, judges, prisoners and people with mental disabilities relied on the Charter to win the right to vote federally.

Nine men wearing scarlet Supreme Court of Canada robes trimmed with white fur stand at a long wooden podium
Federally appointed judges weren't allowed to vote in federal elections until 1993, when election laws were updated after a Supreme Court challenge. Credit: Library and Archives Canada

While Canadians with physical disabilities always had the right to vote in principle, they did not always have access to voting services. In 1992, Parliament changed election laws to make voting more accessible. It required wheelchair-accessible polling stations and tools for voters with impaired vision.

Voting Rights Today

Today, about 75 percent of Canada's population can vote in federal elections. The remaining 25 percent does not meet the age or citizenship requirements. Changes to voting rights happen less often, but still occur. For example, until recently Canadians living abroad for more than five years were not able to vote. Changes to the Canada Elections Act in 2019 now allow Canadian citizens to vote regardless of how long they have lived outside the country.

With each legislative change, Elections Canada implements measures to help eligible Canadians exercise their democratic rights. This can involve helping voters register, or making sure appropriate voting options are available where they are needed. Elections Canada also uses a permanent, continually updated database known as the National Register of Electors to inform voters about upcoming federal elections.

Did you know?

Elections Canada keeps a database of voters who live outside of Canada called the International Register of Electors. Anyone who has added their name to the register automatically gets sent a ballot to vote by mail during a federal election.