Ana Bailão at City Hall, March 12, 2012.
If Ana Bailão gets her way, thousands of new Canadians will be given the right to vote in the next municipal election.
On Thursday the councillor for Ward 18, Davenport successfully moved a motion at Community Development and Recreation Committee asking staff to report on the possibility extending the franchise to non-citizen permanent residents. The report will come back to the committee in May.
There are roughly 250,000 permanent residents in Toronto, many of whom have lived here for years and are on the path to becoming citizens. Bailão believes that denying them a say in local government cuts them off from the place they've come to call home.
"I think we have a duty to reach out to them. I think they will be more engaged," she says. "I think when we talk about being a city of immigrants and ‘diversity is our strength,' you know what, this can't be just a motto anymore."
Permanent residents are immigrants and sponsored refugees who are living in Canada but have not yet been granted full citizenship. To keep the status, they must have lived within Canada for two of the past five years. They retain citizenship in their home country but have many of the same rights as Canadians, including access to healthcare, protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the ability to work or study anywhere in the country.
But they are not allowed to vote at any level of government.
Jehad Aliweiwi, executive director of Thorncliffe Neighbourhood office, says that's not fair, considering that permanent residents work, pay taxes, and use government services every day.
"The concept of taxation without representation is unfair and unjust, and one that has to be corrected. And this is one way of addressing that," says Aliweiwi, who was part of a panel on immigration that gave a presentation to the committee on Thursday.
Despite Toronto's multicultural reputation, he argues, the city is lagging behind places like Oakland, Chicago, and many European municipalities that allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.
Ideally, Aliweiwi says, immigrants would have the right vote at all three levels of government. But it's most important that they take part in municipal votes, which choose the people in charge of basic services like transit, garbage collection, and school bus routes.
"Immigrants are residents of their neighbourhoods, communities, and cities well before they are citizens of Canada," Aliweiwi says.
Councillor Jaye Robinson, chair of the committee, backed Bailão's motion but she cautions that extending voting rights is not something the city can do on its own. It would require Queen's Park to make changes to the provincial Municipal Elections Act, something that Robinson doesn't see happening before the next scheduled election.
"To make it for 2014, it's absolutely not feasible," she says.
But she has little doubt that many permanent residents in her ward would jump at the chance to vote if they could.
"When I was out door knocking, it's remarkable how many people you come across who have that status," she says. "And they really feel disengaged... They feel like [not being able to vote] is a big obstacle for them to feel part of the city."
Bailão agrees that the motion passed Thursday doesn't mean change is coming anytime soon, but says our famously diverse city needs to "make a statement."
"I think we need to start leading by example," she says.