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Conclusion – A History of the Vote in Canada

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The history of the first century and a half of Canada's electoral system—from its beginnings in the colonies that would form Canada to the appointment of the country's first Chief Electoral Officer in 1920—is mainly the story of how voting rights were extended to people who had been excluded because of their income or gender.

Following the creation of the office that would become Elections Canada, the story revolves around how the electoral process and its administration have been transformed. In part, this was done by enfranchising those who had been deliberately excluded because of their race or religion and by eliminating most cases of inadvertent disenfranchisement. That part of the story is an account of how legislators, courts and election officials have worked to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote can exercise this fundamental democratic right of citizenship freely, easily and confidentially.

An elaborately carved rectangular stone panel with an 'X' in the centre surrounded by various decorative motifs.

Set in Stone

This carved limestone panel, titled Vote, is one of a series adorning the House of Commons Chamber.

The "X" in the centre represents the most common symbol made by voters when marking their ballots. The faces symbolize that all Canadian citizens have the right to vote. © House of Commons Collection, Ottawa

Since the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, further legislative and administrative reforms have resulted in greater access to the vote. Today, with advance polls, mail-in ballots, polling-day registration and uniform level access at polling places, virtually all citizens age 18 or older have both the right to vote and the means to do so. The regulation of election finances and of activities of political entities and third parties has given further substance to voting rights by controlling the influence of money on elections in this country and by advancing fairness and transparency in elections.

Reviewing the history of the vote as Elections Canada marks its 100th anniversary reminds us that progress has been uneven. Our centralized federal electoral system evolved from a patchwork of disparate practices in the colonies that formed Canada. The vote, once a privilege restricted to property-owning men, has become a universal right of citizenship, but restrictions on voting for religious and racial minorities as well as for the Inuit and for First Nations people registered under the Indian Act persisted up to the mid-20th century. Other restrictions—for judges, prisoners, expatriates and certain people with mental disabilities—were removed only after being challenged under the Charter. Likewise, a legal challenge led to the development of criteria for identifying physically accessible polling places.

While many restrictions have been identified and addressed, certain groups continue to face barriers to voting or running for office in a federal election. Reducing these barriers to ensure a meaningful and healthy electoral democracy is one of Elections Canada's priorities. So is educating young people about the federal electoral process so they are prepared to participate once they reach voting age.

Photo showing a teenage girl in a classroom putting a ballot into a ballot box.

Learning About Elections

During the 2019 General Election, some 1.2 million elementary and secondary students experienced the voting process firsthand through Student Vote. CIVIX, a charitable organization engaged by Elections Canada, delivered the program, in which students learned about government and the electoral process, researched political parties and their platforms, and cast ballots for the candidates in their schools' electoral districts. © CIVIX

However, Elections Canada cannot accomplish these priorities alone. There are many ways to participate in our democracy, such as by voting, working for a candidate or as an election officer, or running for office. By getting involved in these and other ways, Canadians ensure that our democracy continues to grow and evolve.

Nothing in democracy is set in stone. As we have seen throughout this book, the rights and institutional protections that are the legacy of history are not static or impervious to change. But the very qualities that make them flexible and adaptable to shifting social values also make them fragile and potentially vulnerable. Like democracy itself, they must be tended with care and given the means to flourish. This is the challenge that must be met afresh by each new generation of voters.

The evolution of the vote through the decades

Many important changes have taken place in the federal electoral system over the past 100 years. Here are some highlights:

The Dominion Elections Act consolidates Parliament's control of the federal franchise, introduces advance voting and establishes the post of Chief Electoral Officer.
The first federal election is held at which women vote on the same basis as men after the Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women was passed in 1918.
The government introduces a standing list of electors to replace enumeration, but after one election, this approach is found to be impractical and expensive and is abandoned.
Inuit are granted the right to vote.
The last vestiges of discrimination against religious groups, such as the Mennonites and the Doukhobors, are removed from the federal elections Act.
The government extends the right to vote unconditionally to all “registered Indians.”
The voting age is lowered from 21 to 18; 18-year-olds vote for the first time in the 1972 general election.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenches the rights to vote and to be a candidate.
Measures are formalized to ensure access to the vote for people with disabilities. The Referendum Act provides the legal and administrative framework for conducting federal referendums on any question related to Canada's Constitution.
Special ballot voting is expanded to include voting by anyone who cannot vote on election day or at an advance poll, including Canadians living or travelling abroad. Also, inmates serving sentences of less than two years, judges and certain people with mental disabilities are qualified to vote.
The Canada Elections Act is amended to provide for the establishment of the National Register of Electors, eliminating door-to-door enumeration.
Longer and staggered voting hours are introduced.
The Supreme Court decision in Sauvé v. Canada strikes down the Canada Elections Act restriction of voting rights for inmates serving sentences of two years or longer.
Bill C-76 repealed the requirements for electors living abroad to have been away from Canada for less than five years and to express intent to return to Canada to live.