A History of the Vote in Canada:  A Review Article

by Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University.

Originally posted January 2, 1999
World History of Democracy site.

A History of the Vote in Canada (HVC) was published by the Canadian federal government in 1997 as one of several projects marking the 75th anniversary of Elections Canada, the body responsible for the administration of federal elections in Canada.    One opens the book expecting it to argue that the proper supervision of elections is a vital element in national political life.

It does so very successfully.   This history of the franchise and of electoral procedures in Canada is both fascinating and provocative.    HVC has an obvious relevance for Canadians interested in their political history, but readers concerned with electoral institutions elsewhere will find food for thought, too.

HVC shows that the history of the vote, the extension of the Canadian franchise (the right to vote), and the implementation of orderly and honest elections, has been "by no means smooth or steady." (p. xiv)

Evolution of the right to vote was neither consistent nor ordered...not extended gradually and steadily to encompass new categories of citizens; rather, it evolved haphazardly, with the franchise expanding and contracting numerous times ... (p. 2)
Aside from the election of syndics in mid-17th century New France, early elections in Canada were based on the practice and the presuppositions of 18th-century Britain.    In the period of early English settlement, it was taken for granted that good government required legislative institutions comparable to the mother country's.     At the same time, the ability to vote was not seen as something that should be universally available.    It was restricted, and properly so, first to loyal British subjects and, among them, to substantial men of property.

Thus, British governors and their masters in London actively encouraged the creation of legislative assemblies where they believed conditions would allow, even to the point of granting the vote to people who would not have qualified for the franchise in England.    On the other hand, the franchise was constantly under scrutiny to make sure that the wrong type of people did not acquire it.    If they did, it was sometimes taken away from them.

For example, in Prince Edward Island, the governor of 1773 allowed a representative assembly to be formed, once enough Protestant Scots had arrived to  counterbalance the earlier Acadian (French) settlers.   His first thought was to restrict the franchise to freeholders, in line with English practice at home.   However, almost all settlers were tenants or even squatters at this point, so out of necessity all Protestants were allowed to vote.     For the eighteenth century this was a very wide franchise and it did not last.   As the colony slowly grew, property qualifications were brought in.   In 1787, Protestant tenants in the three towns on the Island lost their vote, and in 1806 and 1830, progressively more restrictive property qualifications were enacted.

Throughout the pre-Confederation period (that is, before 1867), in every Canadian colony, there were both pressures for a wider franchise and resistance to an over-large electorate.    There were always many people whom the authorities (whether British governors or, later, elected colonial assemblies) saw as unfit for the franchise.

There were residents who were not qualified because they were not British, or (presumably) not loyal subjects.    (Aboriginals did not originally come into it:    they were members of separate nations in treaty relationship to the Crown, not part of colonial society.)     All  the early British colonies were originally planted in areas previously settled by French Canadiens or Acadiens.    There was suspicion of them because they were French, but more because they were Catholic.   In Britain itself, office and the franchise were open only to those who would swear to uphold the king against the Catholic descendants of James II, and denounce Catholicism  and papal authority.    The oaths designed to ensure loyalty on these issues had the effect, in Canada, of stigmatizing not just Catholics, but also Jews and some non-swearing groups like the Quakers.

As HVC shows, this was just the beginning of a series of exclusions against those regarded as non-British or, later, non-Canadian.  Catholics were soon enough accommodated; however, in the 1810s, recent American immigrants were seen as a threat in Upper Canada (Ontario); in the 1860s in British Colombia, it was Chinese immigrants and aboriginals, and later, "Hindus" and Japanese; before and during World War I, prairie settlers of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian origin were the menace.    In all those cases and others, efforts were made to keep these groups from voting.   Sometimes the threat was quickly seen to be absurd, or overshadowed by a worse one, but at other times the restrictions were long-lasting.

Even among those not deemed "foreign," most adults were also disqualified from voting because they did not have a sufficient stake in the community.    This prejudice, though hardly unique to England, was very well established in English common law.    A variety of property qualifications were enacted in all the colonies at various times to keep the riff-raff out.    As we've already seen, such restrictions could either be relaxed or tightened up, as the needs of public policy, in the eyes of the establishment, required.    Property qualifications were used much longer in Canada than in the United States, into the 20th century, almost as long as they were in Britain.

A case of related interest is the women's vote.   It is common knowledge in Canada that the province of Quebec lagged behind the rest of the country in allowing women to vote:   thanks to a long-standing conservative coalition, Quebec women could not take part in provincial elections until 1940 (though they could vote in federal elections earlier).    HVC shows, however, that Quebec was also ahead of the rest of Canada, because women voted quite frequently in the early 19th century.    This occurred because the exclusion of women, in a period when property was a key qualification, was justified in most colonies by an appeal to English common law.   But in Quebec, English common law did not apply, and otherwise qualified women exercised the franchise, usually without meeting resistance.

It was in the 1830s that Reformers (generally proponents of a wider franchise) and clerical conservatives alike began to see elections as inappropriate for women.    This was about the same time that other provinces and Great Britain itself began to pass new legislation preventing women from voting -- indicating that there was interest by women (or a male fear of it) in those places, too.   Thus the prohibition against women voting cannot be seen as resulting from an age-old characteristic of Quebec or French Catholic society.   It may be more appropriate to see it as part of the ongoing debate in a number of 19th century societies over political inclusion and exclusion -- an instance where "exclusion" won a long-lived victory.

When the Canadian colonies confederated in 1867, the electoral tradition in all provinces was in some respects a very conservative one.   Not only was it accepted by many people, and established in law, that the majority of adults had no say in public affairs; there was little resistance to the idea that the franchise and the electoral process itself could be manipulated to assure that the right people participated -- and of course, that the right people won.

For example, at Confederation, voting was oral and public in all provinces but New Brunswick.   The necessity of a voter standing on a platform and declaring his preference to the world at large allowed plenty of scope for intimidation, at, before, or after the poll.     Efforts to bring in the secret ballot were resisted as contrary to the "manly spirit of the British people" and as contrary to the realities of electioneering.   HVC quotes an MP who defended hardnosed politics  in the Canadian House of Commons in 1874:

Elections cannot be carried without money.   Under an open system of voting, you can readily ascertain whether the voter has deceived you.   Under vote by ballot [the secret ballot], an elector may take your money and vote as he likes without detection. (p. 44)
A Canadian government would lose a vote of confidence over electoral finance before the century was over, but such an open statement shows how far the Canadian establishment, at least, was from seeing elections as a disinterested expression of the will of the majority, even of the qualified voters.   Indeed the Conservative party of John A. MacDonald had "a profound aversion to universal suffrage, which he considered one of the greatest evils that could befall a country." (HVC, p. 49).    MacDonald, who did not lack for other achievements (including Confederation itself), considered "the greatest triumph of my life" the Electoral Franchise Act of 1885, which created a federally-administered franchise that was more restrictive than had existed earlier, when provinces defined the franchise for federal elections.

This slow struggle over the franchise came to a head during World War I, in one of the most shocking incidents in Canadian political history.    In 1917, when it appeared that the Allies were losing the battle on the Western Front, and that volunteer enlistments would not meet the need for new Canadian troops, the Prime Minister, Robert Borden, brought in a conscription bill.    Canadian legend has it that French-speaking Quebec was hostile to conscription, but Quebec's attitude was hardly unique.   Conscription was an issue that might sink the government.

To avoid an electoral defeat, the Borden ministry forced through two acts that widened the franchise to include pro-conscription elements and expelled from the franchise people assumed to be hostile to the draft.    Serving military personnel otherwise not qualified were given the vote (including female military nurses), as were, at home, "spouses, widows, mothers, sisters and daughters of any persons, male or female, living or dead, who were serving or had served in the Canadian forces." (p. 58)  At the same time conscientious objectors, individuals born in an enemy country, and naturalized citizens whose mother tongue was that of an enemy country were disenfranchised.    This resulted in  tens of thousands of people losing the vote, out of an electorate of only a little over two million.

Finally, the new acts allowed a political party that received military votes (and the Conservatives were assured of getting the vast majority of them) to redistribute those votes to any electoral district where those votes might be useful.

Such blatant rigging of an election led to thorough reforms when the war was over (reforms which, to be fair, were introduced by the Borden government).   The Dominion Elections Act of 1920 established a near-universal federal franchise for adult Canadian citizens, men and women.   Women's suffrage had been making progress on the provincial level before 1917; the actions of the Conservative government in granting some but not all women the federal vote destroyed most of the existing arguments about women's unsuitability for politics.   The electoral rolls of 1917 had included 2,093,799; the rolls in 1921, the next election, topped 4,400,000.

As important as the near-universal franchise was the fact that the Dominion Elections Act established the office of the Chief Electoral Officer, appointed not by the government of the day but by a resolution of the House of Commons as a whole, and given substantial guarantees of independence (originally, a life term).

One might expect that the story was essentially over in 1920, but the last section of HVC shows that the recent era has its own interest.

First, the federal franchise was not quite universal.   The Dominion Electoral Act allowed racial exclusions already existing in a given province to stand.   This meant that British Columbia was able to keep people of Japanese, Chinese, or "Hindu" (East Indian) origin from participating in federal elections, and Saskatchewan likewise was able to prohibit voting by "Chinese."  Aboriginal people in all provinces were not allowed to vote federally unless they gave up all rights they might possess as members of a band -- a step that almost none of them were willing to take.    Also, resentment of the Doukhobor religious sect in British Columbia resulted in members losing the franchise in a revision of the Act in 1934, ostensibly because they were conscientious objectors.

During the interwar period a number of British Columbia Members of Parliament were willing to justify these exclusions.   An independent MP named A.W. Neill was something of a star in these debates.   In 1936 he argued against Japanese enfranchisement, saying a petition from the affected community was "sob stuff" and "claptrap." (p. 81)     Similarly only "sickly sentimental" parliamentarians favored the enfranchisement of Doukhobors. (p. 84)   During the Second World War, when Japanese-Canadians were expelled from British Columbia and interned elsewhere in Canada, Neill was happy to support a bill excluding the internees from voting in other provinces:  "This is a white man's country, and we want it left a white man's country." (p. 82).

All of these racial and religious exclusions had to wait until after World War II to be lifted.

The same post-1920 period saw an increasing commitment, if originally a rather slow one, to making the electoral process accessible to those entitled by law to participate.    For instance, long after Inuit were allowed to vote, there was no way for them to cast their ballots.    But even in densely settled southern Canada, many people could not effectively exercise their rights -- commercial travelers being just one example.    The older attitude was a rather unsympathetic one.   If individuals could not avail themselves of the normal electoral process, perhaps they should not be voting in the first place.   It was not a matter for the government to concern itself with.    With the creation of the office of Chief Electoral Officer, there began a change.   From the beginning, the CEO has been an advocate for the individual voter.    By the 1970s, Elections Canada was extensively involved in revising procedures to the benefit of people formerly left out.

No doubt the rather unromantic story of the implemention of the universal Canadian franchise is a great source of pride to Elections Canada, and with reason.    It is clear from HVC that slow changes in public attitudes about political inclusion have been very important in making the franchise truly universal; however, the existence of a non-partisan institution with practical clout and a commitment to inclusion has clearly been very important.

The institutional, legal, and cultural commitment to an open political process was capped by the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.   Included in its provisions was an article  guaranteeing the rights of Canadian citizens to vote in federal and provincial elections and to stand for office in them.    This marks a defining moment:   the older British and Canadian legal and constitutional tradition held that there no fundamental right to vote.  (see p. 81)   Since 1982, court cases have established that denial of this right to citizens is in almost all cases not justified in what is, in the words of the Charter, "a free and democratic society."   Prisoners, for instance, can now vote, unless they have been convicted of election-related offenses.

A History of the Vote in Canada has a lot to offer people who have a general interest in the history of democracy and electoral institutions.    The history of elections in Canada is a long one -- very long indeed if one includes its "prehistory," the history of parliamentary elections in England.    Nonetheless, that history has been a turbulent one.   Ever since the eighteenth century legislative elections have been a normal and important aspect of Canadian life.    For much of that time, however, the exercise of the franchise in an honest process has been much more problematical.    The public and institutional commitment to the electoral aspects of democracy has been uncertain, to say the least.   An elaborately rigged federal election has taken place in living memory.   Local prejudices against certain "foreign" groups have been in place even more recently.

After reading this book, Canadians and other residents of established democracies may well feel less condescending to countries where elections are commonly dishonest or violent.    They certainly should.

But HVC goes beyond inspiring the feeling that "there but for the grace of God go we."   That sentiment often becomes a cheap substitute for clear thought.   HVC, by showing in some detail what is necessary to make the right to vote a practical reality, does its readership a great service.

A few words on the book itself.    This is a handsomely designed and well illustrated work, clearly intended for as wide an audience as possible.    There are a number of places where the final editors could have paid more attention to typography or wording, but in general it is a pleasure to read and handle.   The bibliography is brief but practical.

Bibliographical information:

A History of the Vote in Canada.   Ottawa:   Canadian Government Publishing -- PWGSC, 1997.
ISBN 0-660-16172-9

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
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