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The chaotic story of the right to vote in Canada

By Matthew McRae

An illustration of people in line waiting to vote. The man in front places his ballot in the box on the table.

Illustration: CMHR, Arielle Villarin

Story details

When you vote in an election, you’re never voting alone. The moment you step into a polling station, you are walking in the footsteps of thousands of people who fought for their right to vote. 

The story of the right to vote in Canada is the story of a centuries-long struggle to extend democratic rights to all citizens. It’s a chaotic tale that includes rebellions and riots, as well as protests, and visits to the Supreme Court of Canada. Without further ado, here is the story of voting rights in what is now Canada.

Democracy before Canada

Any story about democracy in what is now Canada has to begin with Indigenous peoples – the First Nations, Inuit and Métis – who have long had their own unique laws and systems of governance. Indigenous groups had (and still have) their own distinct political systems, created to fit the needs of their communities.

Many of these political systems have been inclusive and democratic. Before and after contact with Europeans, both the Mi’kmaq and the Iroquois had village councils that operated by building consensus. The political systems of the Inuit and the Métis were also very egalitarian, meaning all people were treated as equals.1

Women have often played key roles in Indigenous systems of governance. For example, among the Iroquois, women conducted all assemblies connected to the sachems (peace chiefs), and had the power to nominate, censure, and even recall sachems. This was happening at a time when European women were almost completely excluded from participation in politics.2

Because women are the life-givers in our Nation it is the women who carry the water... And so any decision that impacts the water or impacts life is a decision that requires women. And that’s a huge consequence and that’s a huge thing because that means that any decision that we make that will affect life, we must ask women.

Dawnis Kennedy (Anishinaabe), as quoted in the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Compared with many Indigenous societies, the European colony of New France, which included large parts of present-day Quebec and Ontario, was extremely undemocratic. New France was controlled by a governor appointed by the King of France.3 This isn’t to say there wasn’t any voting going on. Early in the history of the colony, the people of New France were allowed to vote for representatives called syndics. The syndics, however, had no real power and the position ceased to exist after 1674.4 New France remained largely undemocratic until it was taken over by the British Empire in 1763.

Rebellion and responsible government

When the British established colonies in what is now Canada, they brought with them their own form of governance, which included elected assemblies (also known as legislatures or parliaments). It would be a mistake to call these colonies democratic, however, partly because these elected assemblies had very little power.

Real control lay in the hands of governors appointed by the British government in London – and those governors could (and often did) ignore any law the legislatures tried to pass.

Many voters began to resent the power of the governors and wanted to reform the political system so that power rested in the legislatures. In 1837 and 1838, things got so bad that some reformers rebelled against the British government. The British army crushed those rebellions, burning villages, executing leaders and deporting those who had participated. 

After the rebellions, reformers kept trying to push for change using peaceful methods, and eventually achieved their goal. In 1848, Nova Scotia won “responsible government” – a government where elected representatives held most of the power. The other colonies followed suit soon after.

Slideshow

  • A painting of the battle of Saint-Eustache, fought December 14, 1837. Afterwards, most of the remaining rebels fled to the United States.

    Photo: McCord Museum, M4777.6
  • An image of one of the rebel leaders, Wolfred Nelson, drawn by fellow rebel Jean-Joseph Girouard, 1837–1838. After the Rebellions, Nelson gave up violence and tried to achieve a more democratic government through legal means.

    Photo: Library and Archives Canada
  • Nova Scotia reformer Joseph Howe actually defended himself in court and fought in a duel in his quest to achieve responsible government.

    Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, Photograph Collection of Tintypes, Ambrotypes and Daguerreotypes, Location 43-4-3.

Brawls, booze and ballots

In 1867, some of the British colonies in North America joined to form the new nation of Canada, which inherited the system of responsible government. This didn’t mean that everyone was happy with the voting process, however. Many people recognized that elections were messy, violent affairs rife with corruption and vote buying. 

Until 1874, all voters had to announce their vote publicly. Unscrupulous candidates could bribe potential voters with alcohol, or hire a gang of bullies to protect their supporters while scaring off his opponent’s voters. This combination of gangs and drunkenness meant that violence at polling stations was commonplace, and at least 20 people died in 20 different election riots before 1867.No one knows how many more were injured.

In 1874, Canada introduced the secret ballot, so that people now voted privately. This made it harder to intimidate voters or to buy their vote, because you could never be certain for whom they were going to vote. It was a great improvement, though the problems of violence and corruption did not go away entirely.

Passions ran so high that a terrible fight broke out. Punches and every other offensive and defensive tactic were employed. In the blink of an eye table legs were turned into swords and the rest into shields… the faces of many and the bodies of nearly all attested to the doggedness of the fighting.

Description of an election brawl that broke out at a Montreal polling station in 1820. [6]

The frequency of election violence meant that polling stations often received visits from the army or the police. This picture of election security was taken near the Montreal courthouse in 1860.

Library and Archives Canada, PA-165422

Who gets to vote?

By 1874, Canada had responsible government and the secret ballot. Despite this, many people were still very critical Canada’s political system, because it severely restricted who had the right to vote. 

Women and Indigenous people were almost completely excluded from voting and few minorities were represented in the legislatures.7 Initially, Roman Catholics were also banned from voting, though most restrictions on Catholic voting were removed by the 1830s. Enslaved people were similarly banned from voting until 1834, when slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire, including in the territories that would become Canada.

In many places, the law also blocked poor people from voting: in order to vote, you were required to own a certain amount of property. Starting in the 1870s, Canadian labour activists called for an end to property requirements in voting.8 Property requirements were eliminated from federal elections in 1920, but in some places, they stuck around for a very long time. On Prince Edward Island, property requirements still existed as late as 1964. In fact, if a voter owned enough property in two or more electoral districts,9 they could actually vote multiple times in a single election!10

For many years, even if you were an eligible male who met all property requirements, there was another big obstacle to voting – distance. Each electoral district had only one voting location, called a polling station. In the days before cars, a journey to the polling station could take an entire day or more. There’s no way to tell how many voters gave up their right to vote in the face of long distances and terrible weather. 

All these restrictions meant that elections were usually decided by a truly tiny slice of the adult population. Sometimes, the results were absurd. For example, the first election on Vancouver Island, held in 1856, saw only 40 people vote, electing just seven members to the legislature.11

There is no inalienable right in any man to exercise the franchise.

John A. Macdonald in Parliament in 1865, arguing that voting is not a right, but a privilege. [12] Later generations of Canadians would disagree with him and declare that all Canadian citizens should have the right to vote.

Indigenous votes

For Indigenous people, the path to voting rights was long and difficult. Since the founding of the first British colonies in North America, Indigenous people had generally been prevented from voting in colonial, provincial or federal elections. 

In 1876, the Canadian government passed the Indian Act, which was meant to control the lives of Indigenous people and was used as a tool for assimilation. The Act did not attempt to acknowledge the many forms of Indigenous governance that already existed. Instead, it ignored them and imposed a European governance system. The Act created elected chiefs and band councils to govern Indigenous communities, and only allowed adult males to vote.

The Act also declared if an Indigenous person wanted to have the right to vote in a federal election, they must become “enfranchised”, which meant giving up their “Indian status”. This often meant having to leave the safety and support of their community. It also meant being cut off from their culture. As well, enfranchised Indigenous people lost access to their Treaty rights. In the 1920 and 30s, the Canadian government even gave itself the power to remove Indian Status against the will of an Indigenous person through forcible enfranchisement. Enfranchisement became a tool for assimilation of Indigenous people.13

It was not until 1960 that those deemed status Indians by the government gained the right to vote without having to be enfranchised. Inuit men and women had won the right to vote slightly earlier, in 1950 – but ballot boxes were not in all communities until 1962, and communities without a ballot box were unable to vote.

We have considered the elective system as not being intended for us Indians and we would therefore return to our old method of selecting our life chiefs according to our Constitution of Iroquois government.

From a petition of the clan mothers of St. Regis to the Governor General of Canada, demanding the re-institution of Indigenous governance, 1898 [14]

Women and the vote

By the mid-nineteenth century, the largest single group of people who could not vote were women. In fact, in 1867, Canada’s new constitution, the British North America Act, made a point of officially excluding women from voting.

Ten years later, in 1877, a group of women in Toronto founded what would become the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association — Canada’s first organization dedicated to achieving voting rights for women.15 It would not be the last. During the 1880s and 1890s, similar organizations would be founded by women in almost every other province. By 1900, some women were winning the right to vote in municipal elections across Canada, but women still could not vote provincially or federally.

Some women first won the right to vote provincially in Manitoba in 1916, and other provinces and territories soon followed. Some women first voted in a federal election in 1917, although they could only vote if they were serving in the armed forces or had relatives that were serving in the armed forces! 

In 1918, a federal law was passed that ensured no one could be denied the right to vote in a federal election due to their gender. Even that wasn’t the end of the story, though. In Quebec, women only won the right to vote provincially in 1944, after many years of activism and advocacy.

We are going to insist on women having the vote…. We are heartily sick of being governed, ruled, judged, sentenced, imprisoned and even hanged by men and man-made laws.

Women’s rights advocate Mary Cotton Wisdom writing in Cotton’s Weekly, 1909. [16]

Slideshow

  • In January 1914, the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg (now the Burton Cummings Theatre) was the scene of a “Mock Parliament”a parody play where women debated whether men should have the right to vote. The Mock Parliament was part of efforts to get some women the right to vote in Manitoba.

    Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen
  • For a short while, between 1809 and 1849, women who owned the required amount of property could vote in what is now Quebec. This handwritten record of votes from 1827 shows that Agnes’ Wilson’s vote was not challenged.

    Photo: Library and Archives Canada, RG 4, B72
  • In 1916, Emmeline Pankhurst, a British advocate for a woman’s right to vote, visited the home of Nellie McClung, who was instrumental in helping some women win the vote in Manitoba and Alberta. Women who belonged to certain groups – Japanese Canadians is one example – would only win the vote many years later.

    Photo: Royal BC Museum and Archives, Image B-06786
  • Women’s rights activist Margret Bendictsson and her husband Sigfus created the monthly magazine Freyja in Winnipeg in 1898. Edited and published in Icelandic, it became the longest-running magazine in Canada advocating for a women’s right to vote.

    Photo: University of Manitoba, Elizabeth Dafoe Library, Icelandic collection
  • In 1917, Canadian military nurses, seen here voting here at a military polling station in France, were among the first women to vote in a Canadian federal election.

    Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Canada Department of National Defence, photograph by William Rider-Rider, PA-002279

Ending racism and discrimination in Canada’s vote

After 1918, many people still faced voting restrictions. Governments in Canada often banned visible minorities from voting. For example, in British Columbia, Indo Canadians and Chinese Canadians were denied the vote until 1947, and Japanese Canadians could not vote until 1949. Even Japanese Canadians who had fought for Canada in the First World War (1914–1918) were blocked from voting. The federal government often supported these racist bans, with Japanese Canadians unable to vote in a national election until 1949. 

Religious groups also sometimes faced discrimination. Some religious groups, such as Mennonites and Doukhobors, were prevented from voting in federal elections from 1917 to 1920. The ban was because most members of both these groups refused to perform military service for religious reasons, and the government wanted voters who would support Canada’s participation in the First World War. The Doukhobors were again blocked from voting federally from 1934 until 1955.17

For other groups, it took even longer to win the right to vote. Three groups in particular had to fight for their right to vote in court. The courts ruled that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, introduced in 1982, protected everyone’s right to vote. However, Canadians with intellectual disabilities won the right to vote only in 1988. So did judges, who had been disqualified from voting since 1874, because it was thought that judges needed to be impartial. Finally, in 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that all prison inmates had the right to vote, as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.18

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a feminist, an anti-slavery advocate and a prominent member of Canada’s Black community who published her own newspaper in Ontario, The Provincial Freeman. She advocated for a woman’s right to vote in the 1850s, decades before the first women’s suffrage associations were formed.

Photo: Library and Archives Canada, C-029977

Japanese Canadian delegates in Ottawa, 1936. The delegation asked the government for the right to vote, but their request was denied, with the Prime Minister claiming he was unaware that Japanese Canadians wanted the right to vote.

Photo: Japanese Canadian National Museum, Tatsue Okamoto Collection

Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 3.

Accessing the vote

Even when people had the right to vote, there could still be barriers that prevented them from casting a ballot. This was especially true for persons with disabilities. For example, for some individuals with mobility issues, polling stations could be difficult or even impossible to access. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, Canadians with disabilities pushed for reforms that would make voting more accessible to all. In response, the federal government made changes to the voting process. Legislation was passed requiring nearly all polling stations to be wheelchair accessible. Elections Canada also began using mobile polling stations that could travel to institutions where seniors and persons with disabilities live, essentially bringing the ballot box straight to some voters. 

For visually impaired voters, special templates were created to help them mark their own ballot. What’s more, if a voter was unable to mark their own ballot because of a physical disability, new rules allowed a government official to mark the ballot for them, in the presence of a witness. Last but not least, the government expanded the use of a mail-in ballot, so that Canadian citizens could vote regardless of where they were in the world. It’s all a far cry from the days where there was only one polling station that could take more than a day to travel to.19

Indigenous self-government

For many Indigenous people, their struggle for democratic rights did not end in the 1960s, when they won right to vote in federal, provincial and municipal elections. They also want to have their traditional forms of governance acknowledged and respected. One example of the struggle for Indigenous self-governance is the story of the Nisga’a people. 

The Nisga’a spent almost a century asking the governments of British Columbia and Canada to acknowledge their land rights. Connected to this was the right to govern their own land. In May of 2000, after decades of negotiations, a final agreement was ratified by the Nisga’a, Canada and British Columbia. Known as the Nisga’a Treaty, it is the first Indigenous Treaty created in modern times in British Columbia.

One focus of the treaty is Indigenous self-government. The Nisga’a are now governed by the Nisga’a Lisims Government, as well as four village governments – all of which are democratically elected. At the same time, these governments operate within the framework of the Canadian constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For the first time in many years, the Nisga’a have control of their own land and their own governance.

The signature of the Nisga’a Treaty, August 4, 1998. The final ratification happened in May of 2000. During the negotiations, Nisga’a Treaty negotiator Lorne Gosnell said: “We want to negotiate our way into Canada.”

Photo: Gary Fiegehen

Voting for the future

The history of the right to vote in Canada is a messy story. Over hundreds of years, countless individuals have fought to improve our democracy and to have voting recognized as a fundamental right. The next time you have the chance to cast your ballot in an election, take a moment to think of all the people who stood up and demanded the right to vote. In the present, Canadians are still talking about how to make voting as fair, accessible and democratic as possible.

Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.  

Part of Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Ask yourself:

Who in my community might face obstacles to voting, and what can I do to help remove those obstacles?

How can I motivate others to use their right to vote?

In addition to voting, how can I take part in our political system?


Arthur J. Ray, ed. An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People: I Have Lived Here since the World Began (Toronto: Key Porter Books Ltd., 2010), 27.

Ibid., 26.

Conrad, Margaret and Alvin Finkel, History of the Canadian Peoples, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1867– 5th ed. (Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2009), 89–90.

Elections Canada. A History of the Vote in Canada – 2nd ed. (Ottawa: Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, xii

Ibid, 3.

Ibid.

For a short while, between 1809 and 1849, women in Quebec who owned the required amount of property were allowed to vote, as there was no law preventing women from voting. Women were officially banned from voting in what is now Quebec and Ontario in 1849. Other provinces also passed laws at this time officially banning women from voting. See A History of the Vote in Canada – 2nded., 21 and 61–62, as well as “Rights of Quebec women to vote and to stand for office,” Elections Quebec. (http://www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/english/provincial/voting/right-to-vote-of-quebec-women.php), accessed January 25, 2016. One of the first members of a minority group to be elected to a legislature in what is now Canada was Ezekiel Hart, who was Jewish. He was elected to the Assembly of Lower Canada (now Quebec) in 1807. It would be many more years, however, before either women or people from a visible minority were elected to office in what would become Canada. See the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hart_ezekiel_7E.html

A History of the Vote in Canada, 42.

An electoral district is a geographical area with defined borders. For example, Canada is divided into 338 electoral districts, and each of those districts is represented in parliament by one person. Normally, that individual is selected in an election by the voters in the district. 

10 PEI used to have electoral districts with two representatives – the first representative, called an Assemblyman, was elected by all voters. The second representative, called a Councillor, was chosen by voters who owned at least $325 worth of property in that district. This meant that if a voter had property in multiple electoral districts, they might be able to vote for Councillors in more than one district. The property requirement was finally eliminated by new provincial legislation passed in 1964. Elections PEI, White Paper on Democratic Renewal, Charlottetown: Elections PEI, 2015, (https://www.electionspei.ca/sites/www.electionspei.ca/files/democraticrenew.pdf), accessed July 8, 2019, 6. 

11 A History of the Vote in Canada, 34.

12 Ibid, 42.

13 Arthur J. Ray, ed. An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People, 203–204.

14 As quoted in Joan Sangster, One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018), 51.

15 Gina Feldberg, “Jennings, Emily Howard (Stowe),” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jennings_emily_howard_13E.html), accessed July 11, 2019. See also Sangster, One Hundred Years of Struggle, 80. 

16 As quoted in Sangster, One Hundred Years of Struggle, 70–71.

17 Elections Canada, A History of the Vote in Canada: Chapter 3 – Modernization, 1920–1981 (https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=his&document=chap3&lang=e), accessed July 11, 2019. 

18 See CBC Digital Archives, “Lifting voting restrictions on the mentally ill” (https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/lifting-voting-restrictions-on-mental-patients), accessed July 11, 2019, and “All inmates can vote” (https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/all-inmates-can-vote), accessed July 11, 2019. See also Elections, Canada, A History of the Vote in Canada: Chapter 4 – The Charter Era, 1982–2006 (https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=his&document=chap4&lang=e), accessed July 11, 2019.

19 Ibid.