Background information

A Brief History of Federal Voting Rights in Canada

The Voting Rights through Time activity uses brief case studies of specific groups to show that not everyone has always had the right to vote. However, these examples do not tell the whole story. The following is a summary of some key milestones in voting rights at the federal level. Note that voting history is complex, and this chart does not cover everything.

Evolution of Federal Voting Rights

1867British North America ActWhen Canada is formed, only men who are British subjects, who are 21 years of age or older and who have property are able to vote in federal elections. First Nations men who meet these criteria can vote if they give up their status and Treaty Rights. People who are excluded from voting provincially cannot vote federally.
1917Wartime Elections Act and Military Voters ActDuring the First World War, all male and female members of the armed forces and female relatives of soldiers are offered the right to vote. This is the first time that some women, and some men under the age of 21, can vote in a Canadian federal election.
1918Many women can vote federallyCanadian women now have the right to vote in federal elections if they meet the same eligibility criteria as men. First Nations women who meet these criteria can vote only if they give up their status and Treaty Rights.
1920Dominion Elections ActA new elections law brings in major changes, such as the appointment of a Chief Electoral Officer, but does not provide consistent voting rights across Canada. Those disqualified from voting in their home province because of their race are ineligible to vote in federal elections. Across Canada, First Nations people living on reserves are not eligible to vote.
1934Inuit are disqualifiedLegislation specifically excludes Inuit from voting in federal elections.
1948All Asian Canadians gain the voteThe federal vote is now open to Canadians regardless of provincial exclusions. (Japanese, Chinese and other Asian Canadians can vote federally, no matter which province they live in.)
1950Inuit are able to voteInuit obtain the right to vote in Canadian federal elections.
1960First Nations women and men can voteFirst Nations women and men are able to vote no matter where they live and without giving up their status and Treaty Rights.
1982Canadian Charter of Rights and FreedomsThe Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms affirms the right of every Canadian citizen to vote and to stand as a candidate.

Facts of Interest:

  • Confederation: In 1867, voting is considered a privilege. Only select people could vote: men aged 21 or older who were British subjects by birth or naturalized citizens and who owned certain property or paid rent and had income. These rules excluded a large portion of the population of Canada from voting. Only about half the adult male population could vote.
  • Property ownership: For many decades after 1867 and until 1920, a property‑based qualification required voters either to own property to a certain value or to pay rent or to make a certain annual income.
  • Voters lists: Voters lists indicate who may vote in an election. From 1867 to 1917, the responsibility for drawing up these lists shifted back and forth between the provinces and the federal government. This had the effect of disqualifying people in certain provinces.
  • First Nations: First Nations men could vote from 1867 onward only if they gave up their status and Treaty Rights. During the First and Second World War, First Nations men and women who served in the military were given the right to vote. First Nations women and men would get the vote unconditionally in 1960.
  • Métis: Voting restrictions were not formally imposed on Métis men who were allowed to vote if they met the age, citizenship and property ownership conditions. A Métis man was elected to Parliament in 1871. Métis women got the vote in 1918 along with many Canadian women.
  • Inuit: Inuit were not mentioned in federal election law until 1934, when they were explicitly excluded from voting. They gained the right to vote in 1950.
  • Religion: Religion was not normally a factor in voting eligibility after 1867, but during wartime, Mennonites, Doukhobors and Hutterites, among others, were restricted from voting because they opposed military service. Conscientious objectors were deprived of their voting rights in 1917 and again from 1938 to 1955.
  • Wartime: During the First World War, some Canadians were denied the vote if they were born in an enemy nation or if their primary language was that of an enemy country. They got back the right to vote in 1922.
  • Persons of colour: There was no formal rule prohibiting Canadians of colour from voting. They could vote if they met the gender, age, citizenship and property ownership conditions.
  • Occupation: Certain occupations (government workers, judges and election officials) were excluded from voting for many years, with federally appointed judges first voting in 1988. Today, only the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada is unable to vote.
  • Mental disability: From 1898 to 1993, many citizens with an intellectual disability were disqualified from voting in federal elections.
  • Prisoners: Prison inmates were disqualified from voting from 1898 until 2004, when all prisoners got the right to vote, no matter the length of their sentence.
  • Residence: Until 1993, Canadians living abroad were not allowed to vote, unless they were serving in the military or in the federal civil service.

Case Study 1: Japanese Canadians and Democratic Rights

Background information

Japanese Canadians began immigrating to Canada during the last decades of the 19th century, settling primarily in communities along the coastal areas of British Columbia (BC). They found work in the resource industries, such as fishing, farming and logging, and operated small businesses in urban areas.

These immigrants experienced various forms of discrimination and prejudice, based on race and economic factors, from sectors of the general public and the provincial government. This discrimination intensified during the latter part of the 19th century as Japanese Canadians entered the workforce in larger numbers and were seen to be taking jobs away from Caucasian workers. Anti-Asian sentiment, stoked by newspapers and BC politicians, resulted in the passing of laws that took away Japanese Canadians’ right to vote provincially in 1895. Japanese Canadians living in BC then lost their right to vote federally in 1920, since the federal law recognized provincial exclusions.

Many Japanese Canadians struggled against this prejudicial treatment and advocated for their right to participate in the democratic process like other citizens. In 1900, Tomekichi Homma launched a legal suit to get on the voters list, and in 1936 a delegation travelled to Ottawa to speak before the House of Commons. These initiatives were met with opposition, especially from BC parliamentarians.

Discrimination against Canadians of Japanese origin intensified when the United States and Canada went to war with Japan following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Along Canada’s west coast, the Japanese population came to be seen as a security threat. Many people in BC advocated noisily for something to be done about the risk to national security allegedly posed by Japanese Canadians. Eventually responding to these calls, the federal government, under the War Measures Act, suspended civil and democratic rights and, in 1942, relocated all Japanese Canadians from the coast of BC. Ironically, the relocation of Japanese Canadians outside BC had the unintended effect of giving them the right to vote in federal elections, as they were no longer subject to BC law. The federal Parliament then took measures to disenfranchise them in 1944.

Japanese Canadians did not regain the right to vote in federal elections until 1948. After years of lobbying for recognition of their treatment, Japanese Canadians received an official apology from the federal government in 1988.

Why were Japanese Canadians discriminated against and denied their democratic rights?

  • Economic fears: Japanese Canadians seemed willing to work for lower wages, which trade unions and many workers saw as stealing their jobs.
  • Racial prejudice: There was widespread prejudice against Japanese Canadians because of their perceived foreignness and cultural differences from Canadians of European background.
  • Fear of Japanese militarism: The brutal struggle with Japan during the Second World War and questions about Japanese Canadian loyalty had the effect of intensifying anti-Japanese sentiment across Canada, especially in BC.

What changed?

  • The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights had an impact in Canada on notions of racial inequality and democratic and civil rights.
  • The wartime fear of the Japanese faded after the war ended.
  • National ideas about fairness, equality and basic rights of citizens evolved.

Case Study 2: Women’s Right to Vote

Background information

When Canada was formed in 1867, only men could cast a ballot in Canadian elections. Each province had slightly different rules, but essentially women were excluded from the vote everywhere in the country. Change happened slowly and incrementally for Canadian women. Women (and men) actively mobilized in a multitude of ways, and often faced opposition from men and women alike. Women’s suffrage organizations were first established in the 1870s in Toronto under the leadership of pioneer activists such as Dr. Emily Stowe. Other groups formed soon after and created alliances with international organizations, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

In the early 20th century, long-held ideas about the suitability of women for public life began to shift. The greatest momentum for women’s equality came from the Prairie region of Western Canada. Manitoba women were especially active, presenting numerous petitions to the legislature, lobbying politicians, partnering with organizations, lecturing on equality and building public support. Their efforts bore results, with Manitoba being the first province to grant some women the vote in 1916, followed a few months later by Saskatchewan and Alberta.

While things were changing in the provinces, the federal vote remained closed to women. However, there was a limited advance in 1917 during the First World War, when women serving in the military or who had a relative serving in the armed forces became the first women in Canada to have the opportunity to vote in a federal election. The momentum continued: a year later, in 1918, Parliament passed a law that removed the gender barrier to voting and gave many Canadian women the right to vote. This did not mean that all women had the right to vote. Exclusions remained—not on the basis of gender, but for other reasons, such as race.

The struggle for women’s equality did not end in 1918, as many women continued to be denied the right to vote. Women in Quebec obtained the provincial vote only in 1940, and First Nations women were excluded from the federal vote until 1960. Today, women are prominent in the political life of Canada, yet they still face obstacles to full participation in the democratic process.

Why was there so much resistance to women getting the vote?

  • Assumed male superiority: Many religious and cultural beliefs held that women were subordinate to men.
  • Public versus private domains: There was a long-standing belief that men were better suited to public life (politics and business) and women were more suited to private (domestic) life.
  • Role in society: Many thought that women occupied a special role, inconsistent with politics, that included household duties, child rearing, and being caregivers and supporters to men.
  • Implied weakness: There was a common notion that women would not contribute to political life, as they were considered not strong enough, too easily led, not logical in their thinking and overly emotional.
  • Knowledge: Women were thought to lack the knowledge essential to casting an informed vote.
  • Family vote: It was assumed wives and daughters would vote the same way as their husbands and fathers, and so provide an unfair advantage.

What changed?

  • Political gain: Women made up approximately 50 percent of the population and represented untapped votes for political parties.
  • Agency: Women wanted change and so they organized, mobilized, coordinated their efforts and made their voices heard.
  • Effects of the First World War: Women’s role in the First World War, taking on a number of jobs previously reserved to men, proved that their abilities had been underestimated. After the war, both the United Kingdom and the United States also enfranchised women.
  • Equality: Ideas about gender equality, fairness and the positive contribution of women to Canadian public life were constantly evolving.

Case Study 3: Youth and the Vote

Background information

For much of Canada’s history, 21 was the “age of majority,” when a person was considered mature enough to participate in the democratic process and vote in elections. However, this presented a distinct contradiction, as people under 21 could be called to serve in the military, work and pay taxes, and get married and have children of their own.

In 1867, the minimum voting age was 21. This remained the case, with a couple of exceptions during the two world wars, until 1970, when the voting age was lowered to 18. Throughout these 100-plus years, debates and discussions took place in Parliament and in living rooms across Canada about lowering the voting age. A major change took place when people under 21 were recruited to fight for Canada during the First and Second World Wars. Their service was recognized, and during these conflicts all military personnel were offered the vote, no matter their age. When the wars ended, the privileges that had been granted to them as soldiers disappeared, and the minimum voting age went back to 21.

Starting in the 1940s, things began to change; Saskatchewan offered the vote to 18‑year-olds in 1944. Other provinces followed suit, lowering their voting ages to 18 and 19. However, the federal voting age continued to be set at 21 well into the late 1960s, when Canada and much of the world experienced something of a youth revolution. Young Canadians were becoming more socially and politically aware and radicalized. They wanted to be involved, and they pushed for ways to participate in deciding their own democratic present and future. Parliamentarians heard their arguments and debated lowering the voting age. A series of bills proposing legislation were introduced in 1969, and the voting age was eventually lowered to 18 in 1970.

Why was the voting age not lowered from 21 sooner?

  • Maturity: Many thought that young people were not prepared to participate in the democratic process, as they were seen as lacking sufficient knowledge and life experience to make good choices.
  • Responsibility: Voting was viewed as a serious responsibility and privilege that individuals could exercise only once they were old enough.

What changed?

  • Military service by those under age 21 in both the First and Second World War was a positive factor demonstrating maturity, courage and loyalty.
  • Youth became an increasingly significant group. The population of young people grew significantly after the Second World War, and more and more young Canadians entered the workforce.
  • In the 1960s, Canadian youth organized and sought to engage in the democratic process and have a voice in how they were governed.
  • Change was happening not only in Canada but around the world, as other countries also recognized that youth were ready to participate and so lowered their voting age.