As Canada gears up for this fall’s federal election, thousands of Canadians in Israel have once again lost the right to cast a ballot.
In May 2014, Ontario’s Superior Court ruled unconstitutional a law barring Canadians from voting if they have lived abroad for more than five years. In that decision, the court noted that, “under the current legislation, mass murderers… are entitled to vote, but… others who care deeply about Canada are not.”
But in a July 20 decision, Ontario’s Court of Appeal has reinstated the five-year rule, saying, “Permitting all non-resident citizens to vote would allow them to participate in making laws that affect Canadian residents on a daily basis, but have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives.”
The five-year rule was enacted in 1993. Initially, even a brief visit was enough to establish residency. In 2007, the law was tightened to require formal residency, leading two Canadians in the United States to challenge the law in 2012.
Lauren Blatt, who made aliyah in 2010, spends part of each year in Canada, but nonetheless supports the latest decision. “If you are not directly affected by government policy, you shouldn’t be making decisions that affect Canadian residents.”
Many olim disagree, however, saying Canadian law still affects them.
Ruth Zimberg, who made aliyah 14 years ago, still has ties to Canada and worries that her voice won’t be heard in Parliament.
“My ability to freely come and go… can be affected by visa and passport regulations. I will be entitled to pension benefits in Canada, having worked there for many years. I still have RRSP investments… which may be affected by changes in regulations.”
Gillian Frank, one of the two U.S.-based Canadians who are challenging the law, wrote in a statement that the new decision “has disenfranchised us, denied us our constitutional rights and reduced us to second-class citizens. The decision also clears the way for the government to discriminate against us based on our residence.”
Shaun O’Brien, Frank’s lawyer, said Canadians leave for many valid reasons, and shouldn’t be penalized or “required to sacrifice fulfilment of their career” to retain their rights here. Expatriates pay an estimated $6 billion in income taxes, while using fewer resources, such as public education.
One study indicates that 69 per cent of Canadians abroad are planning to return soon. “They have a stake in Canada’s future,” O’Brien said. “They need to be supported and welcomed.”
More than 20,000 Canadian citizens currently live in Israel. However, many have never lived in Canada.
Opponents of allowing them to vote worry that Canadians with dual citizenship living abroad would support foreign interests over Canadian ones.
But some, like Zimberg, believe there’s no inherent conflict or disloyalty.
“Foreign policy decisions, regarding BDS, voting in the UN, trade agreements, and more, are critical to our lives in Israel,” she said. “I am proud to be Canadian, and to be Israeli.”
Danny Hershtal, who voted by absentee ballot in the 2006 Canadian federal election, agreed that voting for personal interests is a cornerstone of representative democracy.
“It’s a big knock against citizenship to say, ‘You are a citizen, but your views can’t be represented in Parliament,’” he told The CJN.
“I’m a Canadian citizen and proud of that. I carry a Canadian passport. If I’m not allowed to vote, then a major – if not the major – right of democratic citizenship, choice of representative leadership, is taken away and leaves the concept quite hollow.”
Hershtal believes it’s easier than ever to keep up with election issues and candidates, even from Israel. “Someone apathetic can always avoid election ads or news, even in downtown Ottawa… [while today,] someone who cares has limitless resources to be informed.”
Bracha Goldman made aliyah from Toronto in 1975, and has not voted in a Canadian election since. “I’ve been looking forward to the change, and both my husband and I registered. This [current decision] is a step backwards.”
Israel itself does not permit most citizens living abroad to vote. However, some other countries, including the United States, do allow non-residents to vote. England overturned its 15-year rule in May of this year, so even long-term expatriates can now vote in British and European Union elections.
So far, the Canadian government has spent more than $1.3 million defending the five-year cutoff.
Though the Court of Appeal decision technically only applies to Ontario, O’Brien said Elections Canada will likely implement the new decision nationwide, as it did with the Superior Court decision in 2014. “It would be treated as precedent across the country.”
According to O’Brien, approximately 2.8 million Canadians live outside Canada. With the five-year ban back in place, “one million or more will not be able to vote in [this year’s] election.”
Her clients are hoping to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.