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A History of the Vote in Canada

Chapter 3
Modernization, 1920–1981

We have seen how the right to vote expanded gradually until the First World War and then how the electorate doubled when women gained the franchise. By 1920, nearly all adults had the right to vote, although many individuals were still disenfranchised by administrative arrangements, and some groups were disqualified on racial, religious or economic grounds.

At the beginning of the period covered in this chapter, few special measures were in place to protect the right to vote by facilitating voting or encouraging those who had the franchise to exercise it. The conventional procedure for casting a ballot – an elector appearing in person at the polling station on the day set for the election – was the only available option. Citizens were presumed to:

  • be present in the riding on the appointed day
  • have the time needed to get to a polling station and vote
  • hold employment that did not interfere with voting
  • have no characteristics – such as a disability or language difficulty – that might pose an obstacle to voting

Sixty years later, these assumptions were recognized as faulty and no longer held sway in electoral law and administration.

Photo of a voter looking on as a deputy returning officer places her ballot in the ballot box, in 1963

Decision Day, 1963

A Toronto voter looks on as the deputy returning officer places her ballot in the ballot box. It was not until 30 years later, when the electoral law was amended (Bill C-114, passed in 1993 and discussed in Chapter 4), that voters were entitled to place their own ballots in the ballot box.

This chapter traces how the law and election administration have been shaped and reshaped to accommodate the broad diversity that characterizes the Canadian electorate. Legislative and administrative innovations made voting more accessible and convenient, modernized the election machinery, and removed racial and religious disqualifications.

Photo of Sir Robert Laird Borden, Prime Minister from 1911 to 1920

A New Era Dawns, 1920

Despite criticism of his 1917 election tactics, Sir Robert Laird Borden, prime minister from 1911 to 1920, is credited with ushering in the modern era of electoral law with passage of the Dominion Elections Act, predecessor of today's Canada Elections Act.

As we learned in Chapter 2, Sir Wilfrid Laurier feared the War-time Elections Act would open an abyss that might not close for generations. Laurier was referring to a clash between Canadians of French and British origin, but in the years immediately after the First World War, it seemed that the hysteria of 1917 might extend to other groups as well. Anti-German sentiments, for example, did not fade entirely with the end of the war. During social disturbances such as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, anti-alien feelings were widely expressed. In the 1920s, hostility to racial and religious minorities swept across North America, and these feelings intensified until 1945. One way this hostility was expressed was in exclusionary electoral laws.

Photo of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, from a postcard used in Laurier's 1911 election campaign

Prophetic Pronouncement, 1917

Sir Wilfrid Laurier feared the effects of the 1917 election on French-English relations and opposed some of the changes in electoral law that preceded it, but he remained opposition leader after the votes were counted. This image is from a postcard used in Laurier's 1911 campaign.

But not all developments in the franchise were negative. The War-time Elections Act governed just one election, that of 1917, being replaced under Borden's Conservative government by the Dominion Elections Act in 1920.Footnote 1 The act established the post of Chief Electoral Officer and isolated the incumbent from immediate political pressures by specifying appointment by a resolution of the House of Commons, not by the government of the day. Thus began the tradition of an independent, non-partisan agency administering the electoral process – in fact, the first such agency in the world.

The new act gave the Chief Electoral Officer the status of a deputy minister and the tenure of a superior court judge, which at that time was for life. During debate on the act, there was opposition to lifetime tenure. J. A. Currie, the MP for Simcoe North, said, "You are only setting up a form of Prussianism when you are appointing officers for life." Other MPs also questioned the value of the office. But many agreed with Norman Ward's assessment: "a most salutary reform." (Ward, 181)

The first Chief Electoral Officer, Oliver Mowat Biggar, presided over what could have been the most chaotic election in years. No fewer than 75,000 newly minted election officials were appointed to supervise a completely redesigned process serving an electorate that, including women, was more than double the number of those eligible to vote before 1917. Despite these innovations, Biggar recounted in his statutory report that the problems involved in the election process itself were comparatively small, given the large number of people involved.

An important job of the Chief Electoral Officer was, and still is, to prepare a report after each election. The report, required under the Canada Elections Act, gives the Chief Electoral Officer a regular opportunity to assess how the electoral law is working and to suggest reforms to Parliament. Many of these have concerned access to the vote – how to ensure that electors can exercise their franchise. This, too, has had positive effects on the electoral process, as Parliament has adopted and extended many such recommendations.

In his report after the 1921 election, for example, Colonel Biggar recounted the difficulties of electors – particularly women – who had been left off voters lists. He suggested the appointment of more revision officers and advised making more advance polls available. Parliament responded by reducing the number of voters needed for setting up an advance poll from 50 to 15.

Similarly, after the 1925 election, Colonel Biggar pointed out that with the election being held on a Thursday, the advance voting provisions had been of little use to commercial travellers: they were already out on the road when the advance polls opened for the three days preceding the election. In 1929, the law was changed to establish Monday as election day.

Chief Electoral Officers and Their Times

Just five people have held the position of Chief Electoral Officer since it was established in 1920.

Photo of Olivier Mowat Biggar, the first chief electoral officer, 1920–1927Oliver Mowat Biggar (1920–1927), the first Chief Electoral Officer, oversaw the development of federal election administration under the new law. It was his task to implement a system that centralized financial and organizational aspects of federal elections for the first time. Under him, reforms were begun to improve the accuracy and completeness of federal voters lists and to make advance polling more widely accessible.

Photo of Jules Castonguay, second chief electoral officer, 1927–1949Jules Castonguay (1927–1949) launched the first attempt to establish a permanent list of electors. The last vestige of property qualification was eliminated during his tenure. He was responsible for introducing, in 1935, the short-lived innovation of sending a postcard telling each registered elector where to vote. Dropped in 1938, the postcard was reintroduced in 1982, when technological advances made the practice more cost-effective. During his term of office, a system was introduced that allowed Canadian military personnel serving overseas to vote.

Photo of Nelson Jules Castonguay, third chief electoral officer, 1949–1966Nelson Jules Castonguay (1949–1966) saw the end of religious discrimination in the law, extension of the franchise to all "registered Indians," and introduction of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. During his tenure, special arrangements were made for electors in sanatoriums, chronic care hospitals and homes for seniors. Voting by postal ballot became available to spouses of military personnel posted abroad, and the right to vote in advance polls was made available to everyone who would be away from home on election day.

Photo of Jean-Marc Hamel, fourth chief electoral officer, 1966–1990Jean-Marc Hamel (1966–1990) implemented many changes in election law and administration, including registration of political parties, establishment of an election financing regime controlled by the 1974 Election Expenses Act and the creation of the position of Commissioner of Election Expenses, which in 1977 became the Commissioner of Canada Elections. After 1982, Mr. Hamel oversaw the execution of amendments arising from legal challenges to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. During his term in office, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years, and measures to increase the accessibility of the vote for electors with disabilities were put into place.

Photo of Jean-Pierre Kingsley, fifth chief electoral officer, 1990–2007Jean-Pierre Kingsley (1990–) adopted a proactive role for his office by recommending and promoting key initiatives. While continuing the reforms needed to comply with the Charter, he ushered Elections Canada into the age of computerized election administration. Under his leadership, Elections Canada gained a new mandate to inform and educate voters, particularly those most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights. Other achievements include the introduction of the 36-day election calendar, digitized electoral geography systems and products, and the establishment of the National Register of Electors. As well, the election financing regime was expanded to regulate third-party advertising and election financing of all political entities. With content ranging from election results to financial reports of political entities, the Elections Canada Web site was developed as a tool for public information. During Mr. Kingsley's tenure, Elections Canada participated in many significant international development missions aimed at the promotion of democratic electoral processes through co-operation, capacity building and mutually beneficial relationships. Following his recommendations to Parliament, the Canada Elections Act was amended in 2006 to authorize the Chief Electoral Officer to appoint returning officers.

The Dominion Elections Act

Parliament's overhaul of the electoral law in 1920 not only established the post of Chief Electoral Officer but also centralized the financial and logistical operations of federal election administration for the first time. It was a comprehensive revision of the election law, yet flaws remained in the system, some of which were not removed until the 1980s.

Image of 1988 election proclamation for Nunatsiaq

Never on Sunday

Since 1929, the law has specified that elections are to be held on a Monday unless that day is a federal or provincial holiday, in which case voters cast their ballots on Tuesday. Election proclamations have followed a similar format for the past 200 years (see also illustration). This 1988 proclamation is for Nunatsiaq, which was then Canada's largest riding in area (a distinction held since 1993 by Nunavut) and its smallest in population.

The most serious deficiencies were the continuing obstacles to voting for some female electors; exclusion from the franchise of specific groups for racial, religious or economic reasons; and administrative disenfranchisement of individual voters. In the last category were a number of small but irritating hindrances, many of which were cleared up by periodic electoral reform between 1920 and 1982.

Voters Lists

As was the case before 1920, the new law provided for elections to be conducted on the basis of lists of electors; in urban areas, the lists to be used were provincial lists compiled previously, but in rural areas, an enumeration would be conducted. These lists proved contentious, not only in their compilation, but also in what they contained and how they were published. The most serious problem – placing the names of eligible women on the electoral rolls – was solved by 1929, but methods of preparation, revision and publication continued to be debated and modified over the years.

The reason for the distinction between "rural" and "urban" polling divisions and the two different methods of compiling and revising voters lists was concern about the completeness and accuracy of existing voters lists in rural areas. This fear was borne out in the 1921 election, when lists from rural Ontario proved virtually useless.

The law, therefore, stipulated that in rural polls (places with a population of less than 1,000), lists were to be "open." People would be enumerated by specially appointed "registrars" in a door-to-door canvass. Voters missed by the enumeration could swear themselves in on election day, as long as another voter named on the list vouched for them.

But in urban polls, voters left off a provincial list had to apply to a revisions registrar – one was available in each constituency for 10 hours a day for six days. After this time, urban lists were "closed" until the next election. The argument used to justify this difference in treatment was that rural areas were harder to canvass, so election day swearing-in was needed to protect the franchise of rural voters. It was not until 1993, when Bill C-114 eliminated the distinction between urban and rural polling divisions, that urban voters had access to this provision.

The urban/rural distinction appears to have been a significant impediment to the exercise of the franchise for many electors. Some constituencies contained both rural and urban polls, and voters did not always know which type of poll they lived in – which meant that they might not take the steps necessary to have their names added to the list. In addition, to add to electors' confusion, a few months before the 1921 election, the definition of "rural" polls was changed. Now towns with a population of less than 2,500 were considered "rural." (This number was subsequently revised several times.)

But the most serious impact that became apparent in the 1921 election was that large numbers of women seemed to have been prevented from voting, despite the removal of legal restrictions in 1917–1918.

In Quebec, for example, women did not have the vote in provincial elections. (Indeed, Alexandre Taschereau asserted that they would never get it so long as he was premier – which he was until 1936.) As a result, women's names did not appear on provincial voters lists. In rural polls, women left off the lists could swear an oath on election day; in urban areas, they had to apply to a registrar within the specified period to have their names added to the list.

The results are apparent in the figures for elector registration. In Ontario, 99.7 percent of the population aged 21 or older was registered; the comparable figure in Quebec was 90.6 percent. The nine-point difference is the equivalent of 107,259 people. As there were 581,865 women aged 21 or over in Quebec in 1921, it seems likely that the vast majority of unregistered people were women, who were thus unable to exercise the federal franchise.

In 1929, the act was amended to abolish the use of provincial voters lists, making it much easier for Quebec women to be registered on federal voters lists, even though they did not gain the provincial franchise until 1940.

Photo of four women members of the Manitoba Political Equality League

Exercising a New Right, 1921

It was women like these members of the Manitoba Political Equality League who were behind the successful struggle for women's suffrage. But at the 1921 general election, the first at which women could vote under the universal suffrage provisions of the Dominion Elections Act, some women learned that having the right to vote and exercising it were two different things. One of the difficulties was ensuring names were on voters lists.

These changes did not come without protest. The Conservative leader, Arthur Meighen, felt that allowing swearing-in on election day in towns of 2,500 could lead to fraud. Charles G. ("Chubby") Power, a Liberal member of Parliament, agreed, saying that some people might show their patriotism "through their willingness to vote more often than the law considers judicious." (Debates June 19, 1925; 4548) Despite these warnings, there appears to have been little such "patriotism" in the ensuing decades.

Beginning with the election of 1930 and until the 1990s, most federal elections were conducted using lists assembled by enumerators during the election period. For most of this period, urban enumerators worked in pairs; in rural areas, there was only one enumerator per poll. In urban areas, enumerators were appointed from lists of names submitted to each returning officer by the parties of the candidates placing first and second in the electoral district in the previous election.

Photo taken during the 1963 general election showing a district list of electors and notice giving the location of polling stations posted on a tree

Privacy Matters

The location of polling stations was clearly posted for all to see during the 1963 general election. The same practice applied to voters lists until 1982, when concerns about privacy prompted its abandonment, to be replaced by a voter notification system based on postcards sent to everyone who had been enumerated. Since 1997, however, preliminary voters lists have been compiled from the National Register of Electors, following the 1996 amendment to the Canada Elections Act.

Once lists were compiled through enumeration, voters – particularly in urban polls – had to make sure that their names appeared if they wanted to be able to cast a ballot. A few copies of the pertinent list were posted in every polling division so that voters could check on the accuracy of the enumeration. In his 1926 report, Colonel Biggar stated that the lists had been drawn up in haste, that publicly posted lists were subject to damage by weather and vandals, and that many people felt they had been left off "on party grounds." Since revising officers were normally partisan appointees, simple mistakes were often attributed to bad faith. Biggar suggested that there should be wider access to the lists so people could check their accuracy more easily.

The Election "Telegram"

Despite steady improvement in electoral law, the "telegram," a form of electoral fraud well known in the nineteenth century, did not disappear until the middle of the twentieth century. Campaign organizers "sent a telegram" by giving a voter an illegally obtained ballot already marked in favour of the organizer's candidate. Inside the booth, the voter concealed the blank ballot received from the deputy returning officer, then emerged with the pre-marked ballot, which was placed in the ballot box. Presenting the blank ballot would garner a "reward" from the organizer, who would then mark the ballot and repeat the process with another voter. Since the reward was received only after the ballot was cast, a voter could swear with impunity before entering the booth that he had received neither money nor other inducements. This fraudulent practice was finally laid to rest with the introduction of administrative controls.

Jules Castonguay, the second Chief Electoral Officer, took up the issue again after the 1930 election, reporting that there was no easy way for voters to protect their right to vote by ensuring they were on the voters list. He suggested that every household receive a copy of the list for the relevant poll. This recommendation was adopted – eventually – after a different method was tried in 1934.

Photo showing a child in a dog cart used to promote a "Yes" vote in the 1942 plebiscite on conscription for military service, with a second child and an adult looking on

Too Young to Vote, 1942

The rules governing eligibility to vote in federal elections also apply to federal referendums. Here, the Rooney Club of Toronto uses a dog cart to promote a "Yes" vote in the plebiscite on conscription for overseas military service, held on April 27, 1942. The other national referendums were on prohibition (1898) and the Charlottetown Accord (1992). In 1992, Parliament adopted the Referendum Act to govern the conduct of consultative referendums on the constitution.

The 1934 innovation was to send each registered elector a postcard showing where to vote. The Chief Electoral Officer's report described this as "quite onerous," because each card had to be addressed individually. The postcards were dropped after this election, and from the 1940 election until 1982 (when postcards were reintroduced), voters were sent a copy of the list showing the name, address and occupation of all voters in the relevant poll.

Cartoon from the Vancouver Sun in 1965 suggesting that the job of an enumerator is not always easy

The Enumerator's Challenge, 1965

"But Rodney, are you sure the Geneva Convention requiring you to give only your name, address and social security number applies?" As this cartoon by The Vancouver Sun's Len Norris suggests, the enumerator does not always get co-operation. With the advent of the National Register of Electors in the spring of 1997, enumeration is now a thing of the past.

The government of R. B. Bennett also introduced a standing list of electors (a form of permanent voters list) in 1934. There was to be a final enumeration, and constituency registrars would revise the lists annually after that. All voters lists, both rural and urban, would be "closed" – anyone left off inadvertently would have to apply to be put on and could not vote until that was done.

One annual revision was undertaken, and the list was used for the election of 1935, but financial constraints prevented revision of the electoral register after that. The technology of the day was insufficient to overcome the logistical obstacles, so the effort was abandoned in 1938, and enumeration was restored as the method of compiling lists.

MPs who had experienced Bennett's electoral register system saw it as far too expensive and cumbersome, and even the Chief Electoral Officer, whose reports were normally circumspect, said that it was no improvement on the pre-election enumeration system. Jules Castonguay observed that the updated elections act had not worked effectively. Sending individually addressed postcards to notify electors was costly and time-consuming, he said. The government adopted Mr. Castonguay's suggestion of sending a poll list to each voter, and the idea of a permanent list did not resurface until the 1980s.

Access to the Vote

A significant innovation of the 1920 elections act was the provision for voting in advance of election day by specified groups of voters: commercial travellers, railwaymen and sailors could vote during the three days (excluding Sundays) preceding an election.

Although most people would consider advance voting a positive step, the provision was controversial from the first. A former minister of finance, W. S. Fielding, saw it as a waste of money; it was, he said, "like creating a steam engine to run a canoe" for a mere handful of voters. Fielding maintained that railwaymen and others should cast their votes by proxy. This would interfere with the secrecy of the ballot, he conceded, but most men, at least in his home province of Nova Scotia, made no secret of how they voted, so the loss of secrecy did not matter much. (Debates April 13, 1920; 1163)

This grudging attitude toward advance voting endured for decades. In 1934, it was extended to workers in "airships" (as aircraft were described in the law until 1960) and to fishermen – although MPs pointed out that fishermen were unlikely to be in port for the brief advance polling period if it occurred during fishing season.

The advance polls were available only to voters who expected to be absent from the riding on business on election day; they had to swear to this and obtain a certificate. It was thus no easy matter to vote at an advance poll, even if a voter was among the lucky few who qualified.

Another step that improved access to the vote was legislation increasing worker entitlement to time off for voting. The measure was first introduced in 1915, when employers were required to give their workers an hour off while the polls were open (in addition to their lunch hour). In 1920, this was increased to two hours.

During the interwar years, the only new group to obtain the vote consisted of people receiving public charitable support or care in municipal poorhouses (who had not been enumerated in the past because they lacked a "home" address). They received the franchise in 1929. On the whole, the two decades after the First World War were marked by modest but steady improvements in the conditions under which electors exercised the right to vote.

The Second World War and Its Aftermath

The next stage in the evolution of the franchise saw the lifting of racial and religious restrictions on voting, some of which had been in effect for many years. It was also a period of innovation in the accessibility of the vote, with legislative and administrative changes to facilitate voting and make it more convenient for electors.

The interval between the world wars saw the spread of antagonism toward minority groups in Canada. A degree of mistrust or suspicion of "aliens" had persisted since the First World War. As is common in periods of economic distress, this grew into hostility toward minorities during the Great Depression of the 1930s, exacerbating the social conflicts arising from competition for scarce jobs and societal resources. Finally, the crisis of the Second World War provoked further racial animosity, particularly toward Canadians of Japanese origin.

One result of these powerful social currents was the continued disqualification of particular groups on racial or religious grounds. Many ordinary Canadians seemed to accept these developments as a fact of life. To their credit, some MPs from all parties opposed racism and social injustice in impassioned speeches in the Commons. But in the pervasive climate of intolerance, especially in the 1930s, their voices did not prevail.

Photo of an internment identification card of a Canadian citizen of Japanese origin in 1941

Japanese Canadians

In addition to being registered and interned during the Second World War, citizens of Japanese origin had been excluded from voting since British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871. This internment identification card, belonging to Sutekichi Miyagawa, was presented to the National Archives of Canada in 1975, along with a collection of related items.

When the Second World War was over, Canadians seemed to realize that they had mistreated minority groups, and disenfranchisements of earlier years began to be reversed. By 1960, when all Status Indians were finally granted the unconditional right to vote, disqualifications on racial and religious grounds had been eliminated altogether. At the same time, legislative and administrative change was making it possible for more and more Canadians to exercise their right to vote in various ways.

Racial Exclusions

One of the significant exceptions to universal adult suffrage in the Dominion Elections Act of 1920 was a clause stating that people disenfranchised by a province "for reasons of race" would also be excluded from the federal franchise. In 1920, only one province – British Columbia – discriminated against large numbers of potential voters on the basis of race. British Columbia excluded people of Japanese and Chinese origin, as well as "Hindus" – a description applied to anyone from the Indian subcontinent who was not of Anglo-Saxon origin, regardless of whether their religious affiliation was Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or any other. Saskatchewan also disenfranchised people of Chinese origin, although the number of persons affected by the exclusion was much smaller than that in British Columbia.

British Columbia had a long history of such discrimination: when it entered Confederation, 61.7 percent of the province's population was of First Nations or Chinese origin, while people of British origin accounted for 29.6 percent of residents. Under successive provincial governments, measures excluding First Nations people and people of Asian ancestry from the franchise were extended as immigration increased toward the end of the nineteenth century.

The exclusion was challenged in the Homma case of 1900, but in 1903, the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council (at that time the ultimate court of appeal for Canada) upheld the prerogative of the British Columbia legislature to decide who could vote in provincial elections.

Denial of the franchise had far-reaching implications, because provincial law also required that pharmacists, lawyers, and provincial and municipal civil servants be registered on the voters lists. As a result, Canadians of Japanese and Chinese origin were barred from these professions and from contracting with local governments, which had the same requirement.

Even military service was not enough to qualify people of Asian ancestry for the vote. After the First World War, the British Columbia legislature decided, following much debate, not to give the vote to returning veterans of Japanese origin, much less to other Japanese Canadians. Some had voted in the 1917 federal election – under the terms of the Military Voters Act, provincial disqualification had not deprived them of the federal vote. In the debate on the 1920 elections act, however, Hugh Guthrie, the solicitor general of the day, made clear his objection to enfranchisement:

So far as I know, citizenship in no country carries with it the right to vote. The right to vote is a conferred right in every case ... This Parliament says upon what terms men shall vote ... No Oriental, whether he be Hindu, Japanese or Chinese, acquires the right to vote simply by the fact of citizenship ...

Debates April 29, 1920; 1821

Guthrie maintained that his government was not discriminating but merely recognizing "the provincial disqualification imposed by the law of any province by reason of race."

In 1936, a delegation of Japanese Canadians asked the House of Commons to extend the franchise to them. Prime Minister Mackenzie King said that he had been unaware that they wanted the franchise. A. W. Neill, MP for Comox–Alberni, an area with a significant Japanese Canadian population, said the request for the franchise was "sob stuff" and "claptrap." Another member for British Columbia, Thomas Reid, suggested that the whole affair was a plot to enable the Japanese government to plant spies in British Columbia. Needless to say, given such views, the franchise was not extended.

Photo of Japanese Canadians exercising their right to vote in the 1963 general election

The Universal Franchise, 1963

By the 1963 general election, held on October 8 that year, the last traces of racial and religious discrimination had been expunged from the law governing the federal franchise.

The war years and the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought expulsions and internment for Canadians of Japanese origin. In 1944, Parliament amended the Dominion Elections Act to deny the vote to the Japanese Canadians forced to leave British Columbia and relocate in provinces where they had not previously been disqualified from voting. Extending British Columbia's racially based disenfranchisement laws to the rest of Canada provoked considerable reaction from MPs representing other provinces.

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) member for Cape Breton South, Clarence Gillis, said:

While we know that the war with Japan is a serious matter and that many atrocities have been committed by the people of that country, there is no reason why we should try to duplicate the performances of that country.

Arthur Roebuck, the Liberal MP for Toronto–Trinity, said that he

... could not face the minority groups in my own city – the Ukrainians, the Poles, yes the Italians, and many others – if I allowed this occasion to pass without making myself absolutely clear before this House and the country that, when it comes to racial discrimination against anybody, count me out.

Two Sides of the Question

Thomas Reid, an MP representing New Westminster, British Columbia, opposed extending the franchise to Canadians of Japanese origin in 1936. Clarence Gillis, member for Cape Breton South, Nova Scotia, opposed the government's plan to extend racial restrictions on the franchise in 1944. Reid's point of view prevailed in 1936. The objections of Gillis and some other MPs were ignored, and restrictions on citizens of Japanese origin were not lifted until 1948.

Photos of MP Thomas Reid from New Westminster and MP Clarence Gillis from Cape Breton

Not all members were of like mind, however. A. W. Neill supported the disenfranchisement, stating that the relocated Japanese Canadians were "being spread all over Canada like the smallpox disease. ... This is a white man's country, and we want it left a white man's country."

Prime Minister King denied that the policy was racist: a Japanese Canadian who had lived in Alberta before 1938 would not lose his vote, he argued, only a Japanese Canadian who moved there from British Columbia after 1938. The evacuees were "still citizens of British Columbia," he said, and subject to its laws even though they no longer lived in the province. (Debates July 17, 1944; 4912–4937)

After the Second World War, the most virulently anti-Japanese MPs lost their seats to more moderate members, and public opinion began to shift as well. Travel and other restrictions on Japanese Canadians continued until 1948, when Parliament deleted the reference to discrimination in the franchise on the basis of race. The discussion was brief, occupying just one column in the House of Commons debates for June 15, 1948. Although First Nations people would not be enfranchised for more than a decade, this particular form of racism in Canadian electoral law now belonged to history.

Religious Exclusions

Several religious groups were disenfranchised by the War-time Elections Act of 1917, mainly because they opposed military service. Most prominent among them were the Mennonites and the Doukhobors. This disenfranchisement ended with the end of the First World War, but the treatment later accorded the two groups in the development of the franchise varied enormously.

Mennonites migrating to Canada in the 1870s had been given an exemption from military service by an Order-in-Council dated March 3, 1873, but they lost the franchise during the First World War because they spoke an "enemy language" (German). They regained the vote when the Dominion Elections Act of 1920 superseded the War-time Elections Act.

The Mennonites attracted relatively little anti-alien hostility, as their way of life allowed them to blend into the farming communities where they lived. By contrast, the Hutterites and the Doukhobors aroused more animosity, not so much because of their pacifist beliefs, but because they practised communal farming. The Hutterites had migrated to Canada from the United States in 1918 to avoid conscription. Although they sparked some opposition locally where they settled, generally they attracted little notice, and they rarely voted.

Photo of William Lyon Mackenzie King casting his ballot under the watchful eye of a deputy returning officer

Mr. King Goes to Ottawa

William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister from 1921 to 1926, 1926 to 1930 and 1935 to 1948, casts a ballot under the watchful eye of a deputy returning officer. Perhaps the photograph was posed, or maybe the DRO saw fit not to abide by the letter of the law concerning who should place the ballot in the box.

The Doukhobors were another matter. In 1917, and again from 1934 to 1955 (when the ban on voting by conscientious objectors was lifted), Doukhobors lost the federal franchise, ostensibly because their faith forbade them to bear arms. The debates in the House of Commons showed clearly, however, that the MPs who opposed giving Doukhobors the vote were less concerned about military service than about the Doukhobors' social views and behaviour.

Debate on the 1934 Dominion Elections Act in particular revealed the fear and narrow-mindedness of some British Columbia MPs, in contrast with more widespread support for freedom of religion from MPs of other provinces.

W. J. Esling, the Conservative member for Kootenay West, stated that if MPs from other provinces had been in his constituency, they "would all have been quite willing to disenfranchise this religious sect."

Another Conservative MP, Grote Stirling, soon to be minister of national defence, said the Doukhobors behaved "with disgusting indecency." In particular, he resented the fact that they "voted Liberal en bloc," on the orders of their leader.

A. W. Neill, the Independent MP for Comox–Alberni, said that only "sickly sentimental" MPs wanted Doukhobors to have the franchise.

One of the MPs who did support the Doukhobors was J. S. Woodsworth, leader of the CCF. He praised the Doukhobors for their industriousness and protested against "religious tenets being made the basis for disfranchisement." Woodsworth and a number of Liberal MPs participating in the debate pointed out that the Doukhobors could hardly become good citizens if they and their descendants were disenfranchised.

Debating further revisions to the elections act in 1938, Esling, Stirling and Neill again opposed giving Doukhobors the vote. T. C. Love, provincial member for the region of British Columbia where the largest number of Doukhobors lived, claimed that giving them the vote would be the "end of true democracy in the West Kootenays." (Vancouver Province, April 7, 1938) The Doukhobors remained disenfranchised.

After the Second World War, as part of the general easing of racial and religious discrimination, racial disqualifications from the franchise were gradually dropped. In 1955, the last vestige of discrimination against a religious group in Canadian electoral law was repealed.

So far as I know, citizenship in no country carries with it the right to vote. The right to vote is a conferred right in every case ...

– Hon. Hugh Guthrie, Solicitor General
Debate on the Dominion Elections Act
House of Commons, April 29, 1920

Aboriginal Peoples and the Franchise

Aboriginal peoples in Canada consist of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. Each has its own history and experience of the franchise.

First Nations people in most parts of Canada had the right to vote from Confederation on – but only if they gave up their status through a process defined in the Indian Act and known as "enfranchisement." Quite understandably, very few were willing to do this. It is worth noting that this requirement to give up status was not imposed on them if they joined the military. In fact, the franchise was extended to members of the First Nations who served in both world wars – although until 1924, any First World War veterans who returned to their reserves lost the right to vote. A great many First Nations people also served with distinction in the Canadian Forces during the Second World War, and this was among the reasons eventually leading Canadians to conclude that all Aboriginal people should have the full rights of citizenship.

Proposals to extend the franchise to First Nations date at least to 1885, when Status Indians in Eastern Canada who met the existing requirements gained the right to vote. This was revoked in 1898, and in general such proposals met a great deal of hostility. Isaac Burpee, MP for Saint John, said that the Indian knew no more of politics "than a child two years old," while another New Brunswick MP, A. H. Gillmor, the member for Charlotte, called the proposal to give Indians the vote "the crowning act of political rascality" on the part of Sir John A. Macdonald.

One reason for this opposition, apart from prevailing paternalistic or racist social attitudes, was the notion that First Nations people would become the dupes of non-First Nations politicians. Both Canada and the United States have a long tradition of newly enfranchised voters voting en bloc, often as directed by their community leaders. As these voters gained more education and became more integrated into North American society, they tended to drift away from the influence of political "bosses."

Photo of an election officer visiting an Aboriginal community to make voting accessible to all electors

Access to the Vote

Before the 1993 extension of the special ballot to anyone unable to vote at a polling station, making voting accessible throughout Canada's vast land mass often required extensive travel on the part of election officials.

There was opposition to the franchise on the other side, as well. First Nations peoples had formed social groupings and elaborate systems of government well before their first contacts with Europeans. Many, therefore, looked unfavourably on nineteenth-century proposals for enfranchisement for at least two reasons: first, they perceived it as an end to their recognition as distinct nations or peoples and possibly the beginning of assimilation into non-First Nations society.

Second, voting in Canadian elections would mean participating in a system of government that was quite alien to the traditions, conventions and practices of governance of many First Nations peoples. Furthermore, electoral participation would have been essentially redundant – they already had their own systems for choosing leaders and governing themselves.

In short, First Nations people were unenthusiastic about having the right to vote if it meant giving up their individual and group identities. Thus, until the government of Canada extended the vote to "Indian persons" unconditionally in 1960, there is little evidence that First Nations people wanted it or sought it.

For almost a century after the 1885 debate, there was little pressure to extend the franchise to First Nations citizens, though it was granted in 1924 to First Nations veterans of the First World War, including veterans living on reserves. With the exception of those veterans, The Dominion Franchise Act of 1934 explicitly disqualified First Nations persons living on reserves and Inuit people from voting in federal elections.

Photo of an election officer visiting an Inuit community to make voting accessible to all electors

Elections in the North

The advent of modern communications technology, along with changes in the law such as the special ballot for mail-in registration and voting, has facilitated the task of conducting elections in the North and in other sparsely populated parts of the country for voters, candidates and election officials.

Inuit Canadians had the vote restored to them without qualification in 1950. Among other strategies to protect its sovereignty in the Arctic following the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, the Canadian government relocated individuals, families and communities into the high Arctic in the 1950s. At the same time, the government also extended, once again, the right to vote and all rights of citizenship to the Inuit. Until the early 1960s, however, they were rarely enumerated for federal elections. Most were geographically isolated well into the twentieth century, so in the absence of special efforts to enable them to vote, they had no means to exercise the franchise. In fact, it was only in the 1962 federal election that ballot boxes were finally placed in all Inuit communities in the eastern Arctic, thus permitting full exercise of the franchise. (Milen, 5)

The Métis, on the other hand, were treated as having the same rights as all other Canadians with respect to voting; thus, they never experienced any legislative impediments to the exercise of the franchise. Moreover, few Métis were covered by treaties or a federal statute like the Indian Act, so there was no basis on which to attempt to justify disqualifying them. In fact, the Métis in Manitoba exercised the right to vote as far back as 1873, when they voted to elect Louis Riel to Parliament.

A parliamentary committee recommended in 1948 that First Nations people be given the vote. The chairman of the Indian affairs committee said that

a great step would be taken toward the assimilation of the Indian into the population of the Dominion of Canada, and it would make not only Indians but the other Canadians realize that we are all united.

But it was not until John Diefenbaker became prime minister that the franchise was extended with no strings attached. Diefenbaker had long advocated extending the vote to First Nations people. In his memoirs, he described how, as a child growing up in Saskatchewan, he had met many Indians and had committed himself to getting them the right to vote. (Diefenbaker, 29–30) In 1958, Diefenbaker appointed James Gladstone (Akay Na-Muka, or "Many Guns") to the Senate, where he was the first member of First Nations origin.

Photo of John George Diefenbaker, Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963

A Question of Rights

John George Diefenbaker, prime minister from 1957 to 1963, achieved a long-held personal goal when Parliament extended the franchise to registered Indians in 1960 with no strings attached. They were no longer required to give up their Indian status in order to vote.

The right to vote is one of the great privileges of democratic society, for after all it is you the people, not the Gallup poll, who determine into whose hands the guidance of public affairs may best be entrusted.

– John G. Diefenbaker
June 15, 1962

On March 10, 1960, after a debate marked by virtually unanimous support, the House of Commons finally gave First Nations people the vote without forcing them to give up their status in exchange. In 1968, the first Status Indian elected to the House of Commons was Len Marchand, representing the British Columbia constituency of Kamloops–Cariboo. More First Nations people have been elected since then, though by no means in proportion to their presence in the Canadian population.

Status Indian women experienced a different and more complex history. Under the Indian Act, until 1985, an Indian groom conferred status on his non-Indian wife upon marriage, while the Indian bride of a non-Indian or a non-Status Indian man lost her status, as did any children of the marriage. They could no longer live on-reserve and lost the right to own reserve land or inherit family property; they could not receive treaty benefits or participate in band councils and political or social affairs in the community, and they lost the right to be buried in cemeteries with their ancestors.Footnote 2 However, they could decide to vote or not in a federal election without further concerns about loss of status. On June 28, 1985, Parliament passed Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Indian Act, which, among other things, removed this form of discrimination against First Nations women.

In each of the instances just recounted – extension of the vote to Canadians of Japanese and Chinese origin, to the Doukhobors and to First Nations people – change was accomplished by amending the existing electoral law. Such advances in the franchise might have been trumpeted as great achievements in human and democratic rights. For instance, J. W. Pickersgill, minister of citizenship and immigration in the previous Liberal government, suggested adoption of a special act to solemnize the 1960 enfranchisement of on-reserve Indians. But Ellen Fairclough, Canada's first female Cabinet member, who was charged with seeing the amendments through the House, said that this would be "merely gilding the lily," or in other words, unnecessary. (Debates March 10, 1960; 1957) In the more than 45 years since the unconditional right to vote was granted to all indigenous peoples in Canada, many voters from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities have recognized the importance of federal electoral participation and have exercised their right to vote.

Accessibility and the Electoral Process

Mechanisms to ensure that electors could exercise their franchise multiplied in this period. In 1948, for example, time off from work to vote was increased to three hours. This rose to four hours in 1970, before settling back at three hours in 1996, when polling hours were extended, making the extra time off unnecessary.

Photo of an elector with a disability struggling to access a polling station in his wheelchair

Restricted Right

By the 1963 general election, most legal restrictions on the franchise had been removed, but a voter with a disability might still face physical barriers to the polling station.

A greater change in voting procedures was the postal ballot for members of the armed forces. The Mackenzie King government instituted the system for military personnel serving overseas during the Second World War, allowing some 342,000 members of the armed forces to vote in the 1945 general election.

For the same election, proxy voting was introduced for Canadians being held as prisoners of war. Proxy votes, some 1,300 in 1945, were cast by the nearest relatives of those being held prisoner. The provision was restored in 1951 and used again during the Korean conflict, when 18 Canadians were prisoners of war.

Voting by people who were away from home on election day was accommodated by several innovative procedures in this period. In 1951, special arrangements were introduced in sanatoriums and chronic care hospitals. Voting at polling stations set up in these locations, and in homes for the elderly after 1960, would be suspended temporarily so that election officers (with permission from those in charge of the facility) could take the voting equipment from room to room, enabling anyone who was bedridden to vote if he or she wished to do so.

In addition, the military postal ballot was extended to the spouses of armed forces personnel in 1955, so that they could vote while accompanying their husbands or wives on a posting away from the home constituency.

Photo of a woman in a wheelchair using an access ramp

Exercising a Right

In the 1970s and 1980s, as public awareness of voters' diverse abilities and needs grew, better access for people with disabilities was achieved at many polling stations through administrative measures, but it was not until 1992 (Bill C-78) that the law was changed to require level access at polling stations.

Consolidation and Review, 1961–1981

By 1960, then, amendments to Canada's electoral law had resulted in significant advances over the situation in 1920: racial and religious discrimination was no longer a factor in voter qualification, and no major group was deprived of the franchise deliberately or directly. The most significant changes in the law were concerned mainly with refining the electoral process – changes that affected how the process worked, rather than the extent or nature of the franchise.

Among these modifications were recognition of political parties in the law and the appointment of impartial commissions to set new constituency boundaries to reflect demographic change. Both changes had significant effects on the electoral process; but from an elector's perspective, the most discernible result was probably the appearance of candidates' party affiliations on the ballot and the opportunity to make a tax-deductible political contribution.

This period also saw numerous changes undertaken to meet the varying needs of electors, including extension of advance voting provisions to all voters, adjustments to voters lists and reduction of the voting age from 21 years to 18. In addition, this was a time when the rights and concerns of people with disabilities began to gain greater public recognition, resulting in changes in their access to the polls and privacy in casting their ballots. Finally, the passage in 1969 of the Official Languages Act meant that voters everywhere gained the right to have access to election materials in either English or French.

Advance Voting

When first introduced in 1920, voting at advance polls had been limited to only a few classes of voters. Advance voting was extended to members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the armed forces in 1934, and to members of the military reserves in 1951. In each case, a voter at an advance poll had to swear on oath that he or she would be away on business on election day.

Photo showing an elector and election officers at an advance polling station

Advanced Practices

Any voter who finds it more convenient can vote at an advance poll, held on the Friday, Saturday and Monday in the week before an election. Before 1960, voters could take advantage of advance polls only if they had one of the occupations specified in the law. A Progressive Conservative government, believing it had been disadvantaged by a summer election in 1953, introduced an amendment in 1960 allowing voters to use an advance poll, provided they swore an oath that they would be away from home on election day. The oath was dropped in 1977.

The election of 1953 was held in August, when many potential voters were on vacation. Turnout was only 68 percent, compared with 75 percent in the June 1949 election and 75 percent in the June 1957 election. The Progressive Conservatives felt that they had been especially hard hit by this.Footnote 3 After they gained power at the 1957 election, the advance vote was extended to all electors who had reason to believe they would be absent from their polling division on election day and therefore unable to vote. Electors still had to swear an affidavit, however, under this 1960 amendment to the act. At the next general election – in 1962 – voter response was remarkable. The number of advance votes rose from an average of 10,000 in previous elections to nearly 100,000.

In 1977, the requirement to swear an affidavit was dropped. At the same time, a provision was introduced allowing people to vote at the returning office during the electoral period if they could not vote at an advance poll or on election day.

In 1993, voting in advance became more widely available when a provision was introduced permitting any elector to vote at the advance polls. Advance voting was no longer restricted to those who would be absent on election day.

Voter Notification

As we have seen, the 1934 provision requiring that a postcard be sent to each registered elector proved too expensive. Instead, voters were sent a copy of the list of electors for their poll. This system continued for several decades, but by the 1970s, many voters were objecting to what they considered an unacceptable invasion of privacy – in particular, women living alone and people who thought their occupation or the identity of the members of their households was no one's business but their own. There were also concerns that the lists – which together contained the names, addresses and occupations of the adults in every household in the country – could be used for other than electoral purposes.

In 1982, this provision was therefore dropped from the act. Instead, in a move reminiscent of 1934, each registered elector would receive a postcard confirming registration and showing where to vote; technological change had made this approach much more feasible and affordable than it had been in 1934. Electors who did not receive a card would know that they had to take steps to register if they wanted to vote.

Image of the voter notification postcard

Everything Old Is New Again

First introduced in the 1930s but abandoned as too expensive and time-consuming, the postcard system of voter notification was made feasible in the 1980s by technological advances. In 1982, postcards replaced the public posting of electoral lists, a practice that raised privacy concerns, among others.

Opening Up the Process

In the largest expansion of the vote since women were enfranchised in 1918, people between the ages of 18 and 20 got the vote in 1970 and used it for the first time in the 1972 election. Although reducing the voting age to 18 expanded the electorate considerably – by some two million young people in all – this change was not quite like removing religious or racial discrimination from the electoral law. Unlike extension of the franchise to racial and religious minorities, lowering the voting age aroused relatively little controversy. It was the 1970s, the youth culture was at its height, and a general opening up of social and political life had begun as the politics of participation took hold.

Photo of envelopes received by Elections Canada containing ballots of voters away from their electoral districts on election day

From Far and Wide ...

Since 1993, voting by special ballot has enabled electors away from home on election day – including anyone travelling or living abroad temporarily – to vote by mail. An ingenious system of envelopes within envelopes enables election officials to assure the integrity of the vote (so that no one votes more than once, for example), while also preserving the secrecy of each voter's choice.

This same social climate gave rise to greater recognition of the rights of voters with disabilities and others who might be excluded from voting for reasons related to physical abilities or illness. This recognition produced some legislative change, but for the most part, voters' special needs were addressed through administrative measures that were later incorporated into the law. Thus, for example, a 1977 amendment to the law introduced transfer certificates, allowing electors to vote at an advance poll with level access if their own was inaccessible. At the same time, throughout the 1970s, polling stations were located increasingly in public places, so that level access became more widely available. Special templates were also devised so that voters who were blind or visually impaired could preserve the secrecy of the vote, casting their ballots without assistance. These administrative arrangements became part of the law in 1992.

Photo of a man with a special ballot kit

Voting from Anywhere

By applying for a kit like this one, an elector who cannot go to the polling station can register to vote and cast a ballot by mail. The special ballot is especially helpful for Canadians temporarily living abroad or travelling during an election campaign.

Proxy voting was extended twice in this period – to fishermen, sailors and prospectors in 1970, along with people who were ill or had physical disabilities, and to airplane crews, forestry and mapping teams, and trappers in 1977. In 1993, proxy voting was repealed when the use of special ballots under the Special Voting Rules was expanded.

A third set of changes opened the vote to certain classes of electors living abroad. In 1970, public servants, mainly diplomats, and their dependants posted outside Canada became eligible to use the Special Voting Rules – previously available only to military personnel and their dependants. Civilian employees of the military (usually teachers and administrative support staff at schools on Canadian Forces bases) gained this eligibility in 1977. But, until 1993, ordinary Canadians who happened to be away from home and unable to vote, either on polling day or at advance polls, still could not cast a ballot.

After the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969, Elections Canada implemented a policy to ensure that electors were served in their official language in constituencies where at least 5 percent of the population spoke the minority official language. From the early 1990s onward, this service was ensured across Canada.

One slight narrowing of the franchise occurred in this period. In 1970, the law was amended to provide that British subjects who had not adopted Canadian citizenship would be disqualified from voting unless they took out citizenship by 1975. Before then, British subjects were qualified electors, but they had to be "ordinarily resident in Canada."

Photo of workers packaging election supplies for shipment to returning officers for a general election

Distributing Election Supplies

In the 1950s, some 50,000 packages of election supplies were shipped to returning officers across Canada at each general election. Today, the number of parcels has reached 110,000.

Footnote 1 The title was changed to the Canada Elections Act in 1951.

Footnote 2 Persistent challenges to this unfair law began with Mary Two-Axe Earley in 1967. Others followed in her footsteps. In February 1973, the cases of Jeannette Corbiere Lavell and Yvonne Bédard, both women who lost their Indian status by marrying non-Indian men, were heard together by the Supreme Court of Canada. On August 27, 1973, the Court delivered a 5-4 majority decision that the Bill of Rights did not apply to that section of the Indian Act, and the legislation was upheld. A similar case was brought before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 1977 by Sandra Lovelace, who was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2005. In 1981, the Committee found Canada in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Footnote 3 Debates January 27, 1954; 1515. J.W. Pickersgill, replying for the Liberals, said that “if there are a great number of Canadians who value their holidays more than their franchise, that does not mean they were disfranchised.”