Photo Chronicle A spotlight on 1920-1997
Militants promote a "yes" vote in the plebiscite on military conscription during World War II. Wars have had a major impact on the electoral system.

The modern franchise, 1920-1997
The Dominion Elections Act
The Second World War and its aftermath

        Racial exclusions         Religious exclusions

        Discrimination ends

Aboriginal people and the franchise
The Charter: A watershed
Summary: The vote through the decades

Table of contents

The Second World War and its aftermath

The next stage in the evolution of the franchise saw the lifting of racial and religious restrictions on voting, some of which had been in effect for many years. It was also a period of innovation in the accessibility of the vote, with legislative and administrative changes to facilitate voting and make it more convenient.

The interval between the world wars saw the spread of antagonism toward minority groups in Canada. A degree of mistrust or suspicion of ‘aliens’ had persisted since the First World War. As is common in periods of economic distress, this blossomed as hostility toward minorities during the Great Depression of the 1930s, exacerbating the social conflicts arising from competition for scarce jobs and societal resources. Finally, the crisis of the Second World War provoked further racial animosity, particularly toward Canadians of Japanese origin.

One result of these powerful social currents was the continued disqualification of particular groups on racial or religious grounds. Many ordinary Canadians seemed to accept these developments as a fact of life. To their credit, some MPs from all parties opposed racism and social injustice in impassioned speeches in the Commons. But in the pervasive climate of intolerance, especially in the 1930s, their voices did not prevail.

When the Second World War was over, Canadians seemed to realize that they had mistreated minority groups, and disenfranchisements of earlier years began to be reversed. By 1960, disqualifications on racial and religious grounds had been eliminated. At the same time, legislative and administrative change was making it possible for more and more eligible Canadians to exercise their right to vote in various ways.

Racial exclusions     Top of page

One of the significant exceptions to universal adult suffrage in the Dominion Elections Act of 1920 was a clause stating that people disenfranchised by a province "for reasons of race" would also be excluded from the federal franchise. In 1920, only one province – British Columbia – discriminated against large numbers of potential voters on the basis of race. British Columbia excluded people of Japanese and Chinese origin, as well as "Hindus" – a description applied to anyone from the Indian subcontinent who was not of Anglo-Saxon origin, regardless of whether their religious affiliation was Hindu, Muslim, or any other. Saskatchewan also disenfranchised people of Chinese origin (although the number of individuals affected by the exclusion was much smaller than in British Columbia).

British Columbia had a long history of such discrimination: when it entered Confederation, 61.7 per cent of the province’s population was of Aboriginal or Chinese origin, while people of British origin accounted for 29.6 per cent of residents. Measures excluding Aboriginal people and people of Oriental origin from the franchise were extended as immigration increased toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Citizens of Japanese origin were excluded from voting from the time British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, until 1948.

Legal discrimination     Top of page

The exclusion was challenged in the Homma case of 1900, but in 1903 the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council (at that time the ultimate court of appeal for Canada) upheld the prerogative of the B.C. legislature to decide who could vote in provincial elections.

Denial of the franchise had far-reaching implications, because provincial law also required that pharmacists, lawyers, and provincial and municipal civil servants be registered on the voters list. As a result, Canadians of Japanese and Chinese origin were barred from these professions and from contracting with local governments, which had the same requirement.

Limited universality     Top of page

Even military service was not enough to qualify them for the vote. After the First World War, the B.C. legislature decided, after much debate, not to give the vote to returning veterans of Japanese origin, much less to other Japanese Canadians. Some had voted in the 1917 federal election, under the terms of the Military Voters Act. Provincial disqualification did not deprive them of the federal vote. In the debate on the 1920 elections act, however, Hugh Guthrie, the solicitor general of the day, made clear his objection to enfranchisement:

So far as I know, citizenship in no country carries with it the right to vote. The right to vote is a conferred right in every case... This Parliament says upon what terms men shall vote... No Oriental, whether he be Hindu, Japanese or Chinese, acquires the right to vote simply by the fact of citizenship...

Debates, 29 April 1920, 1862

Guthrie maintained that his government was not discriminating but merely recognizing "the provincial disqualification imposed by the law of any province by reason of race."

In 1936, a delegation of Japanese Canadians asked the House of Commons to extend the franchise to them. Prime Minister Mackenzie King said that he had been unaware that they wanted the franchise. A.W. Neill, MP for Comox-Alberni, an area with a significant Japanese Canadian population, said the request for the franchise was "sob stuff" and "claptrap". Another B.C. member, Thomas Reid, suggested that the whole affair was a plot to enable the Japanese government to plant spies in British Columbia. Needless to say, given such views, the franchise was not extended.

More on racial exclusions     Top of page

The war years and the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought expulsions and internment for Canadians of Japanese origin. In 1944, the federal government amended the Dominion Elections Act to deny the vote to the Japanese Canadians forced to leave British Columbia and relocate in provinces where they had not previously been disqualified from voting. Extending British Columbia’s racially based disenfranchisement laws to the rest of Canada provoked considerable reaction from MPs representing other provinces.

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) member for Cape Breton South, Clarence Gillis, said,

While we know that the war with Japan is a serious matter and that many atrocities have been committed by the people of that country, there is no reason why we should try to duplicate the performances of that country.

Arthur Roebuck, the Liberal MP for Toronto-Trinity, said that he

could not face the minority groups in my own city – the Ukrainians, the Poles, yes the Italians, and many others – if I allowed this occasion to pass without making myself absolutely clear before this house and the country that, when it comes to racial discrimination against anybody, count me out.

Not all members were of like mind, however. A.W. Neill supported the disenfranchisement, stating that the evacuees were "being spread all over Canada like the smallpox disease. ...This is a white man’s country, and we want it left a white man’s country."

The elimination of racial restrictions     Top of page

Prime Minister King denied that the policy was racist: a Japanese Canadian who had lived in Alberta before 1938 would not lose his vote, he argued, only a Japanese Canadian who moved there from B.C. after 1938. The evacuees were "still citizens of British Columbia", he said, and subject to its laws even though they no longer lived in the province. (Debates, 17 July 1944, 4912-4937)

After the Second World War, the most virulently anti-Japanese MPs lost their seats to more moderate members, and public opinion began to shift as well. Travel and other restrictions on Japanese Canadians continued until 1948, when Parliament deleted the reference to discrimination in the franchise on the basis of race. The discussion was brief, occupying just one column in the House of Commons debates for 15 June 1948. Although some Aboriginal people would not be enfranchised for at least another decade, this particular form of racism in Canadian electoral law now belonged to history.

In 1944, Prime Minister Mackenzie King still denied that it was racist to exclude Japanese Canadians from voting. Four years later, attitudes had changed, and this provision was amended after a short debate in the House of Commons.

Religious exclusions     Top of page

Several religious groups were disenfranchised by the War-time Elections Act of 1917, mainly because they opposed military service. Most prominent among them were the Mennonites and the Doukhobors. This disenfranchisement ended with the end of the First World War, but the treatment later accorded the two groups in the development of the franchise varied enormously.

Mennonites migrating to Canada in the 1870s had been given an exemption from military service by an order in council dated 3 March 1873, but they lost the franchise during the First World War because they spoke an "enemy language" (German). They regained the vote when the Dominion Elections Act of 1920 superseded the War-time Elections Act.

The Mennonites attracted relatively little anti-alien hostility, as their way of life allowed them to blend into the farming communities of the prairies. By contrast, the Hutterites and the Doukhobors aroused more animosity, not so much because of their pacifist beliefs, but because they practised communal farming. The Hutterites had migrated to Canada from the United States in 1918, to avoid conscription. Although they sparked some opposition locally where they settled, generally they attracted little notice, and they rarely voted.

The Doukhobors were another matter. In 1917, and again from 1934 to 1955 (when the ban on voting by conscientious objectors was lifted), Doukhobors lost the federal franchise, ostensibly because their faith forbade them from bearing arms. The debates in the House of Commons showed clearly, however, that the MPs who opposed giving Doukhobors the vote were less concerned about military service than about the Doukhobors’ social views and behaviour.

The Doukhobors     Top of page

Debate on the 1934 Dominion Elections Act in particular revealed the fear and narrowmindedness of some British Columbia MPs, by contrast with more widespread support for freedom of religion from MPs of other provinces.

W.J. Esling, the Conservative member for Kootenay-West, stated that if MPs from other provinces had been in his constituency, they "would all have been quite willing to disenfranchise this religious sect."

Another Conservative MP, Grote Stirling, soon to be minister of national defence, said the Doukhobors behaved "with disgusting indecency". In particular he resented the fact that they "voted Liberal en bloc", on the orders of their leader.

A.W. Neill, the Independent MP for Comox-Alberni, said that only "sickly sentimental" MPs wanted Doukhobors to have the franchise.

One of the MPs who did support the Doukhobors was J.S. Woodsworth, leader of the CCF. He praised the Doukhobors for their industriousness and protested against "religious tenets being made the basis for disfranchisement." Woodsworth and a number of Liberal MPs participating in the debate pointed out that the Doukhobors could hardly become good citizens if they and their descendants were disenfranchised.

Debating further revisions to the elections act in 1938, Esling, Stirling and Neill again opposed giving Doukhobors the vote. T.C. Love, provincial member for the B.C. region where the most Doukhobors had settled, claimed that giving them the vote would be the "end of true democracy in the West Kootenays". (Vancouver Province, 7 April 1938) The Doukhobors remained disenfranchised.

Discrimination ends     Top of page

After the Second World War, as part of the general easing of racial and religious discrimination, racial disqualifications from the franchise were gradually dropped. In 1955, in yet another revision of the Canada Elections Act, the following appeared:

4. (1) Subsection (2) of section 14 of the said Act is amended by adding the word "and" at the end of paragraph (g) thereof, by repealing paragraph (h) thereof, and by relettering paragraph (i) thereof as paragraph (h).

An MP who looked up "paragraph h" would find that it referred to Doukhobors (though not by name). There was no debate on this clause, which removed the last vestige of discrimination against a religious group in Canadian electoral law.

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