Politics

Should permanent residents be able to vote in NWT communities?


Permanent residents should be granted the right to vote in municipal elections, the majority of Yellowknife’s councillors said on Monday, as a city MLA tries to make that a reality.

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson told councillors their city could become a leader across Canada by enfranchising permanent residents. At the moment, virtually anywhere in the country, voters must be Canadian citizens.

Johnson estimates the territory is home to at least 1,000 permanent residents.

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A permanent resident is someone who has the right to live permanently in Canada after immigrating from another country, but is not a Canadian citizen. Permanent residents remain citizens of other countries.

After securing the support of most councillors present at Monday’s meeting, Johnson said he will press ahead with a private member’s bill to change the Local Authorities Elections Act.

I’m not necessarily in favour of monkeying around with voting rights. These are rights that are guaranteed to citizens of this country.

COUNCILLOR BRIAN WILLOWS, HAY RIVER

If successful, Johnson’s bill would see permanent residents able to vote in Yellowknife’s next municipal election, scheduled for 2022.

However, town councillors in Hay River struck a different note, expressing reservations about the merits of handing the vote to permanent residents.

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Municipalities across Canada – including Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary – have supported granting permanent residents the right to vote, but have yet to make that a reality. New Brunswick in the past allowed permanent residents to vote in municipal elections, but stopped doing so in 1998.

Johnson said the territory itself already has a precedent: the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement allows permanent residents of Tłı̨chǫ territory to vote in elections at local government level.

“You can become a Tłı̨chǫ citizen and vote in Tłı̨chǫ elections if you meet their residency requirements as a permanent resident, which is kind-of a weird anomaly,” he told councillors. “It’s the one place in Canada that occurs.”

In response, Mayor Rebecca Alty joked: “The Tłı̨chǫ communities have already beat us to it, but we’ll advertise it harder.”

Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, presents plans to expand municipal voting to permanent residents. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio

Alty, supporting the change, said it would live up to Yellowknife’s commitment to acting as a welcoming and inclusive community.

More than a dozen supporters attended Johnson’s presentation. Present at City Hall were leaders of the territory’s francophone economic development and employment agency, CDÉTNO; immigrants to Canada; and people whose family members or friends are at various stages of the immigration process.

Johnson’s bill will also include what he considers a “non-controversial” amendment permitting online and telephone voting in municipalities.

The case for expanding the vote

Councillors Niels Konge, Shauna Morgan, Julian Morse, and Robin Williams joined Alty in supporting Johnson’s plan.

The MLA argued permanent residents pay taxes, have rights and responsibilities, and should be given the right to vote locally.

“They pay taxes, they have kids in our schools … they become members of our community, yet they don’t have any ability to vote,” Johnson said.

Morse said anyone living in the community and paying into the public purse without the right to vote was enduring “taxation without representation.”

Permanent residents have often spent years in the country and their community, said François Afane, executive director of CDÉTNO.

Afane described how securing permanent residency can take at least a year – often longer – and the road to full citizenship can take roughly seven years. (Canadian citizens must live in Yellowknife for 12 months before becoming eligible to vote in the municipality.)

Afane told councillors expanding the right to vote locally could be a great selling point, attracting immigrants to the territory.

Johnson added: “My ulterior motive here is I’m pro-immigration, because our population is declining. When I look at our GNWT budget, every time we lose a person we lose $35,000. And when you look at the labour force projections, 80 percent of new jobs are high-skill.

“A national news story saying the Northwest Territories is open to immigration – we want immigration, we want people to come here and start businesses, and we want skilled workers to meet our labour demands – I think is an all-around good news story.”

June vote planned

Councillors Cynthia Mufandaedza and Rommel Silverio were absent from council chambers on Monday. Only Councillor Stacie Smith expressed any note of opposition to Johnson’s plan, and even then did so half-heartedly.

“I’m not against this by any means, but, I mean, we represent the population of the city,” Smith said. “For the sake of those community members who are saying no, I’m just going to stand there on their side.”

A formal motion in support of Johnson’s proposed bill will be considered by council on March 9.

Johnson says he will now “walk the hallways” to drum up support among MLAs before putting the bill to a vote in June.

If the amendment becomes law, city administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said the change wouldn’t be too onerous to implement. Proof of permanent residency (usually in the form of a credit-card sized permanent residents’ card) would become a form of identity permissible at voting booths.

‘I don’t understand the motivation’

Johnson also reached out to Inuvik and Hay River about his proposed bill.

At Hay River’s town council meeting on Monday evening, the mood among councillors was markedly different to that in Yellowknife earlier on the same day.

Councillor Steve Anderson said: “When I came to Canada, I was a permanent resident. Then I became a citizen three years later, which gave me the option to vote. I was proud to become a citizen so I could vote.

“I think becoming a citizen afforded me the right, and I think I would lean more toward that. Until you become a citizen, I would suggest you can’t vote.”

Councillor Brian Willows, concurring, said: “It raises a number of questions. I don’t understand the intent – whether it’s altruism or political opportunism in the case of Yellowknife. I have no idea how many permanent residents we do or don’t have.

“I’m not necessarily in favour of monkeying around with voting rights. These are rights that are guaranteed to citizens of this country. Until I get more answers as to what the intent of all this is, it’s probably best to put it off.

“At this point, I don’t even understand what the motivation is.”

Councillor Keith Dohey, acknowledging “pros and cons” to enfranchising permanent residents, said he was not “necessarily dead-set against it.”

“As a general rule,” said Dohey, “if you’re paying taxes in a municipality then you should probably have a say in who’s representing you.”

Hay River’s councillors agreed to further consider Johnson’s proposed bill before returning to formally discuss a motion at a later date.

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.

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