Case Study 1: Japanese Canadians
Japanese Canadians have lived in Canada since the 1870s. Most of them lived in British Columbia, where they worked as fishers, farmers and business owners. Racism against Asians led the BC government to ban Japanese Canadians from voting, which in turn affected their federal voting rights. During the Second World War (1939–1945), when Canada was at war with Japan, the democratic rights of Japanese Canadians were further restricted. For perceived security reasons, Japanese Canadians were forcibly relocated away from the Pacific coast and barred from voting federally, no matter what province they were in. It wasn’t until 1948 that Japanese Canadians were finally granted full federal and provincial voting rights.
In the years that followed, Japanese Canadians never stopped asking for an apology. They finally got one in 1988, when the federal government formally apologized for past injustices.
British Columbia joins Confederation. Canada’s population now includes a Japanese Canadian minority. They have the right to vote provincially and federally if they are men, age 21 or older, and own property.
Because of the racist attitudes of many people in the province at that time, the British Columbia government passes a law banning Japanese Canadians from voting in provincial elections. Since federal voting rights are tied to provincial ones, Japanese Canadians living in BC cannot vote in federal elections.
Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia get the federal vote when Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier’s government brings in a new Canada-wide electoral law that prevents provinces from excluding any ‘class’ of citizens.
Japanese Canadians are still denied the provincial vote in British Columbia.
Tomekichi Homma takes his legal fight to vote in British Columbia elections all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which rules in his favour. This decision is later overruled in England. Japanese Canadians continue to be excluded from voting provincially in BC.
During the First World War, Japanese Canadians join the military to fight for Canada. These soldiers and all Canadian military serving overseas can vote in the 1917 federal election
Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government passes a new federal election law. It states that a person cannot vote federally if they are not allowed to vote provincially due to their race. This means that Japanese Canadians in BC are again denied the right to vote federally as well as provincially.
Japanese Canadians living in other provinces have the right to vote, but there are very few of them outside BC.
The Japanese Canadian Citizens League sends a delegation to the House of Commons to request the right to vote. Prime Minister Mackenzie King says he had not known they wanted to vote.
They are allowed to speak before a special committee, but do not succeed in getting the federal vote for Japanese Canadians.
After Japan attacks Pearl Harbor in the Second World War, Canada declares war with Japan. Japanese Canadians are seen as a security threat, and racism gets worse. Twelve weeks later, the Government of Canada orders all Japanese Canadians to be moved from the BC coast and confined in internment camps.
Canada is still at war with Japan. Parliament changes the elections law so that Japanese Canadians who have been moved from British Columbia are not allowed to vote federally, no matter where they live now.
After the Second World War ends, Parliament gives Japanese Canadians the right to vote in federal elections again.
The Canadian government formally apologizes to Japanese Canadians for denying them their civil and democratic rights. Here Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signs the apology while Art Miki, President of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, looks on.
Case Study 2: Women
The 1867 British North America Act allowed only men to vote.
Women formed groups in the 1870s to promote equality and fight for the right to vote by lobbying governments, marching and presenting petitions.
Different provinces had different rules for women and voting. The first success came in 1916, when Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta gave women the vote. In 1917, some women were given the right to vote in the federal elections during the First World War. In 1918, gender was removed as a criterion for voting at the federal level, and many women got the right to fully participate in elections by casting a ballot and running as a candidate. However, some women continued to be barred from voting for reasons other than their gender. It was not until 1960 that First Nations women obtained the right to vote.
At Confederation, only men who are 21 or older and who own property are able to vote. Women are disqualified both federally and provincially.
The National Council of Women is formed to fight for women’s right to vote. Similar organizations spring up across Canada.
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald proposes expanding the right to vote in federal elections from ‘male persons’ to certain women.
Macdonald’s proposal is withdrawn due to opposition in Parliament.
Manitoba becomes the first province in Canada to grant some women the vote.
A year earlier, Manitoba women collected 40,000 names on a petition in favour of the cause.
Source: William Rider-Rider, Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada, PA-002279 (modified from the original). Colourized image courtesy of the Vimy Foundation.
During the First World War, Canadian women in the armed forces and female relatives of military men are allowed to vote in federal elections. The Canadian military nurses in this photo were stationed in France when they cast their ballots.
Many Canadian women win the right to vote federally and, a year later, to stand as a candidate for the House of Commons. In 1921, Agnes Macphail is the first woman elected to the Canadian Parliament.
There was a lot of resistance to giving women voting rights in Quebec. It was the final province to do so. It took the efforts of activists like Thérèse Casgrain to bring about change.
All First Nations women (and men) are given the right to vote in federal elections without any conditions. Before this, they could vote only if they gave up their Treaty Rights and status. Here, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker greets a First Nations woman.
In 1993, Kim Campbell becomes the first female Prime Minister of Canada.
Today, Canadian women have rights equal to men, yet still face barriers to participating fully in political life.
Case Study 3: Youth
In 1867, at the time of Confederation, only certain men aged 21 and older could vote in federal elections. People were considered mature enough at this age to make important decisions. During the two world wars, people under 21 could vote if they were in the military, but those rights were removed once peace returned. However, the wartime service of young Canadians led some parliamentarians to ask whether the voting age should be reduced.
In 1970, a full century after Confederation, the voting age was reduced to 18 with little debate, likely due to changing perceptions of the role of youth in society. Today, there is discussion in society about how to get more youth involved in the democratic process. Many are pushing for lowering the voting age to 16.
When Canada is formed in 1867, the minimum age for voting in federal elections is 21.
The Fathers of Confederation believe that people younger than 21 lack the knowledge and maturity to elect their representatives.
During the First World War, everyone who serves the country through military service is given the right to vote, no matter how old they are.
People are supposed to be 18 to serve in the military, but many who enlist are younger.
The First World War ends. The minimum voting age returns to 21.
Military personnel who had been able to vote at a younger age lose that right.
During the Second World War, everyone serving in the military is able to vote in a federal election, no matter how old they are. Around 700,000 people in the military are under 21.
Under Premier Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan lowers the voting age to 18 for provincial elections. It is the first province to do so. This move prompts several other provinces to lower the voting age to 18 or 19.
The voting age for federal elections returns to 21 for military personnel, the same as for other Canadians.
Youth at a national conference ask a panel of parliamentarians whether the federal voting age should be lowered.
Some prominent parliamentarians, such as Agnes Macphail and John Diefenbaker, are open to the idea.
Youth are active in the 1968 election, which brings Pierre Trudeau to power. Mobilized by the youth culture movement of the 1960s, they rally, march, lobby and petition Parliament on many issues.
Two different bills to lower the voting age are introduced in Parliament—one as a private member’s bill and one by the government.
With little debate, the voting age for federal elections is lowered to 18. Millions of new voters can cast votes in the 1972 election.
PEI allows 16-year-olds to vote in a provincial plebiscite on electoral reform because these youth would use the new electoral system at the next election, when they are 18.
Voting age for provincial elections in PEI (and all of Canada) remains at 18.