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Preface – A History of the Vote in Canada

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Canada has always been an electoral democracy. As a nation, we haven't had to fight for the right to vote. There has never been any revolutionary bloodshed nor a Berlin Wall to tear down. Yet, electoral democracy as we know and understand it today is very different from what it was 150 or even 50 years ago. Things we take for granted—both in the sense that, for us, they are necessary features of democracy and in the sense that we expect them to unfold as a matter of course—were not always so.

As related in A History of the Vote in Canada, the story of our electoral democracy is one of struggle and reform that takes place over more than 250 years, starting from the early days of European colonization. Universal adult suffrage came about step by step, with many bumps in the road along the way.

In the early years of Confederation, many people were denied the vote because they did not meet certain qualifications for owning property or because of their gender, race or religion. In 1918, restrictions based on gender were eliminated. Property qualifications were abolished in 1920. Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the early 1960s, racial and religious barriers were lifted, as were restrictions on voting for Inuit and First Nations peoples. In 1970, the voting age was lowered from 21 years to 18.

The adoption in 1982 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed universal suffrage and led to the lifting of all remaining restrictions, except the one imposed on the Chief Electoral Officer.

For the right to vote to be meaningful, however, voters must be able to exercise that right no matter where they live and no matter what their physical or intellectual abilities; their race, religion or gender; or their economic circumstances. Voters must also be able to trust that elections are conducted in a way that is fair and transparent.

That means the history of the vote in Canada is about not only the extension of the franchise, but also the evolution of electoral administration in line with changing social values. Over the years, various measures have been taken to ensure that voting is accessible, convenient and secure; that the identity of those involved in an election is known; and that there is a level playing field when it comes to political financing.

In 1920, Parliament created an independent and non-partisan office to administer federal elections by appointing Canada's first Chief Electoral Officer. In doing so, Canada was a global pioneer—the agency was one of the first of its kind in the world. This office would eventually become Elections Canada.

When it was created, the office consisted of just four people: the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), an assistant and two stenographers. Canada had roughly 4.5 million electors at the time. There were no federal voting lists. Returning officers were appointed by the government of the day. Polling stations could be situated anywhere, even in someone's living room.

Today, Elections Canada is a modern organization that employs over 700 people. It maintains the permanent National Register of Electors. Canada has some 27 million electors who are served through over 20,000 polling locations and by some 230,000 election officers across the country during an election. Returning officers are appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer and must meet certain qualifications. In addition to administering elections and political financing rules, Elections Canada provides voter information, carries out research, conducts education programs for students and offers outreach to electors. Most importantly, 100 years after its founding, everything it does continues to be guided by the principles of independence and non-partisanship.

Yet, despite the progress that has been made over the years, real barriers to voting remain. The Canadian population is incredibly diverse, with people of many different languages, cultures, religions, abilities and economic circumstances. Elections Canada endeavours to keep this diversity in mind when communicating with Canadians about taking part in the electoral process.

In recent years, the administration of elections has faced threats from outside actors through disinformation and cyberattacks. To respond to these threats, Elections Canada collaborates with federal security agencies as well as with its Canadian and international counterparts.

Elections Canada must also be prepared to deal with unexpected events and difficult circumstances. At the time of writing, the world is dealing with COVID-19. Although the full implications of this pandemic remain unclear, it would obviously have an impact on the conduct of a federal election. The agency has developed plans on how an election could be delivered in the context of the pandemic.

Other challenges have threatened the integrity of the administration of federal elections. These relate to evolving communications technology, the impacts of social media and the protection of electors' personal information.

To better understand the challenges involved in the administration of elections, Elections Canada consults with Canadians. One way we do this is by fostering discussion among experts and key stakeholders, including political parties and organizations representing various categories of electors. The process also helps us assess the administration of each election and report to Parliament with recommendations that could lead to better administration of the Canada Elections Act.

Our electoral history is one of progressive change. It is built on the successes of the past and continual adaption to the changing circumstances, values and expectations of Canadians. Our democracy owes much of its stability and broad social acceptance to a deep sense of continuity.

In celebrating Election Canada's 100th anniversary, we commemorate the work of those who came before us and our proud heritage. I have the honour of being Canada's Chief Electoral Officer at this time in our institution's history, and I am thankful to those who have served in this role before me. With the support of former CEOs Jean-Marc Hamel, Jean-Pierre Kingsley and my immediate predecessor, Marc Mayrand, we are marking this milestone by revising and updating A History of the Vote in Canada. First published in 1997 by Jean-Pierre Kingsley for the agency's 75th anniversary, with a second edition in 2007, this publication chronicles the origins of our electoral process and the reforms that saw the gradual expansion of the franchise. It also looks at the evolution of the ways in which Elections Canada regulates political financing and administers elections.

I would like to acknowledge all those who worked on the first two editions of this book. My special thanks go to those who were involved in putting together this revised and updated third edition. In addition to the many staff members at Elections Canada who worked on this project, I would like to recognize the contribution of P.E. Bryden, Historian, University of Victoria; Louis Massicotte, Political Scientist, Université Laval; Alain Pelletier, Expert in electoral policy; James Robertson, Expert in parliamentary procedure and law; and Michael Dewing, Freelance Writer. I extend my sincere thanks to them and to all those who collaborated in revising A History of the Vote in Canada.

Stéphane Perrault Chief Electoral Officer of Canada