An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Regulation Adapting the Canada Elections Act for the Purposes of a Referendum (voting age)

Status

Second reading (Senate), as of May 17, 2022

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Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, an excellent resource from the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Right to Vote at 16 ActPrivate Members' Business

May 4th, 2022 / 6:20 p.m.
See context

NDP

Taylor Bachrach NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

moved that Bill C-210, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (voting age), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Madam Speaker, I am so pleased to rise on this beautiful evening to speak to my private member's bill, Bill C-210, the right to vote at 16 act.

First and foremost, I brought forward this bill because I believe in the power of young people in our society and in our country: the power of young people as a force for change, the power of young people as a source of energy and enthusiasm, and the power of young people to bring new ideas and new ways of seeing old problems.

As a young person, I was interested in politics at a young age, as I am sure many in this place were when they were 16 or 17. In the almost decade and a half since I was elected, I have encountered so many inspiring young people, such as the group of Heiltsuk youth who were part of a peaceful protest in 2015 that helped win recognition of their constitutional rights to a commercial fishery, and Fruin and Jessica from Smithers, who appeared before Smithers town council when I was mayor to advocate for a ban on plastic bags. There are people like Andy from Prince Rupert, whom I met during the all-candidates debate in 2019. Shortly thereafter, he ran a community podcast on the COVID-19 response and started writing his first book. Of course, there are the courageous young people currently taking the issue of voting age to federal court with their charter challenge. Incredible young people are stepping up and showing they care about issues, and it is time they had a proper seat at the table.

I also brought this bill forward because I believe we in this place have a responsibility to continuously strive to strengthen our democracy, to leave this place and this country better than we found it. I think we can all agree on the premise that the more people see themselves reflected in our democracy and feel included in our democracy, the stronger that democracy is.

This bill presents a chance to bring a new set of voices into our electoral system, into our democratic conversation: those of 16- and 17-year-old Canadians. It is just as Canada did for women in 1918, Asian Canadians in 1948, indigenous people in 1960 and 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds in 1970.

However, the right to vote, the name of which is in the title of this bill, is never guaranteed. I do not think there are any in this place who would suggest that if the group of people I just listed were excluded, our democracy would be nearly as strong, but democracy and voting rights are something we must keeping fighting for. Speak to Indigenous people and they will tell you their voting access did not become an overnight reality in 1960. As we saw in the last federal election with the suspension of the campus vote program, there are still groups in our society, like students, that face barriers to voting.

Our democracy is a work in progress and it remains fragile. We see that around the world: in the United States, in France and here at home in Canada too. We are witnessing the rise of those who seek to destabilize western democracies. We are seeing the spread of misinformation, which is alienating citizens from their state. Only a year ago, an armed mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn an election that was free and fair.

Those forces are preying on real feelings of disillusionment. The fact is, many people do not feel represented by our political institutions. The antidote, in part, is to ensure that our democratic system is including as many people as possible, and that includes 16- and 17-year-old Canadians.

I called this my private member's bill, but truly this bill belongs to all of the representatives in this place and beyond who have championed this initiative over the years and who have brought forward this bill's objective not just at the federal level of government, but at other levels as well. The member for Ajax comes to mind. We were doing the math, and if his bill in this place had passed in 2005, the children born that year would have been old enough to vote in the last federal election. The member for Saanich—Gulf Islands tabled a bill to lower the voting age in the House. Of course, my colleague, the wonderful member for Vancouver Kingsway, at our count has tabled a bill seven times in this place. I understand his count is a little different, but when we get up to bigger numbers, it becomes hard to keep track.

I hope that others will see their efforts reflected in the bill as well, such as the member for Calgary Skyview, who, as a Calgary city councillor, brought forward a motion to lower the voting age, and the member for Orléans, who championed a voting age initiative in the province of Ontario. I want to specifically acknowledge the work of Senator Marilou McPhedran, who has championed lowering the voting age in the other place and whose bill, Bill S-201, is currently at second reading.

Indeed, this is a bill with cross-party support and initiatives in both houses, and I hope this momentum means that, very soon, it will pass into law.

Why should we lower the voting age to 16 in Canada? The first reason, I think, is an obvious one, and I believe a compelling one, which is that the issues we are grappling with as a country are issues that have a tremendous bearing on young people, their present and the future they will inherit, issues like housing affordability, student debt, the sustainability of our health care system and, of course, the existential issue of the global climate emergency, the impacts of which will affect today’s generation of adults in far-reaching and profound ways. Young adults deserve to have a hand in the decisions on these issues, and that is why I have brought forward this bill.

Another compelling reason for lowering the voting age is the impact it can have on some troubling trends when it comes to electoral turnout in our country. In the 2019 election, only slightly more than half, 53.9%, of people 18 to 24 years old voted. It turns out that Canada’s current voting age of 18 is possibly the worst time to expect young people to vote for the very first time in a federal election.

As many in this place know, the age of 18 is a time of great transition. It is a time when young people are moving away from their home community. It is a time when they are embarking on full-time employment and full-time studies, often in a place away from where they grew up. Among all the competing experiences and responsibilities at that age, voting in a federal election rarely ranks and, as a result, the 18-24 age cohort votes in the lowest numbers of any age group in our country.

If we lower the voting age to 16, we will see a different result. Most young adults at that age are still living at home, in the riding they grew up in. They have deep-rooted connections to their place. These conditions mean that there is a high likelihood that they will come out and vote in their first election. When they vote in the first election, there is a high likelihood that they will vote in the second election, and there is also a likelihood that they will form voting habits that stick with them for their entire life. That is not conjecture. That is what other countries, like Austria, Germany and Scotland, have found to be the case. It is what the data shows.

That is why the chief electoral officer of our country has said in the past that lowering the voting age is “worth considering” because “there's a real benefit to making sure that Canadians vote early, and voting when you're 16, there's an opportunity to reach out to them.”

I want to take a moment to acknowledge Dr. Jan Eichhorn from the University of Edinburgh, who is here in Ottawa with us this week sharing some of the findings from his research on this topic. Not only does Dr. Eichhorn’s research indicate that 16- and 17-year-olds vote in greater numbers than their 18- to 24-year-old peers, but he has also found that they are more open-minded when deciding which party to vote for. He shared with us that when Scottish citizens saw the results of lowering the voting age, in the independence referendum, support for the idea of lowering the voting age went from 30% to 60%.

Of course, there are some detractors. I want to be honest. I have been a bit dismayed that many of the arguments against lowering the voting age are rooted in stereotypes of young people that are at best inaccurate, and at worst discriminatory and ageist.

“Let kids be kids,” they say, ignoring the fact that at 16 and 17, we give young adults all kinds of responsibility in our country. In most provinces, they can operate a motor vehicle at age 16. They can leave school and live on their own. They can join the Canadian Armed Forces, as the sons of the member for Longueuil—Charles-LeMoyne did. They can write their own will and testament. They can be held criminally responsible for their actions. Many 16- and 17-year-olds work and pay taxes, yet they cannot vote for the government that sets those taxes. In today's Canadian society, these are not kids. They are young adults with rights and responsibilities.

We are talking about voting rights specifically. While researching the issue of voting age in Canada, one particular inconsistency stood out to me. While the current law limits voting in federal elections to age 18, the age limit set by political parties for voting in leadership elections is, wait for it, 14. A leadership race, like the Conservative leadership race that is taking place right now, is an election to decide which candidate will have a chance to become Canada's next Prime Minister. That is a serious election, and it is one that we already trust young people to take part in.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says nothing about age limits on voting. It only says that every Canadian citizen holds that right, and it is up to Parliament to establish the reasonable limit to that right. Three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that it was demonstrably unreasonable to limit Canadians who live abroad from voting, and this is under section 3 of the charter. Given the evidence, can we truly argue that there are reasonable grounds to withhold voting rights from 16- and 17-year-olds? I do not think there are.

I sense there may be some in this place who find this initiative trivial, perhaps, or unimportant, or maybe they are worried that enfranchised young people will not vote for them. For me, it comes down to a matter of justice. If there are those in our society who the evidence shows are competent, then excluding them is unjust. It was unjust for women, it was unjust for indigenous people, it was unjust for Asian Canadians, and it is unjust today for 16- and 17-year-olds. I can think of no more serious work, no more important work than correcting this injustice and enfranchising young adults, who have been excluded from our democratic process here in Canada for far too long.

I will end with the words of Mégane Jacques, a 17-year-old from Quebec, who just yesterday addressed a group of MPs from all parties. Ms. Jacques said, “You have the capacity to make Bill C-210 a reality, to make our lives as Canadians better, now and for future generations. That is your job, isn't it, to make Canada a better place for all of us? What an honour and a privilege that is, to be able to serve your country as you do. If you have the capacity to make Bill C-210 a reality, please pave the way for us. The question is not only about denying our rights, but about acknowledging our value in today's world.”