SPEECH - Bill S-201 (lowering voting age to 16)

Honourable senators, I rise today to lend my support to Bill S-201, which would lower the federal voting age in Canada from 18 to 16.

Colleagues, Bill S- 201 reflects a growing movement to include the voices of young people in our democracy, and I thank my colleague Senator McPhedran for her championship of this bill in the Senate.

In reflecting on Canada’s democracy and institutions, a foundational point has been that every citizen should have a voice. As such, one of the more powerful mechanisms that we can use to exercise this voice is through our ability to vote.

In Canada, voting is considered a right, not a privilege to be earned — a right that is not dependent on gender, race, religion, ethnicity or socio-economic background.

While there are reasonable limits placed on electoral rights, the question we must examine here is this: How does age, as one of the limits that we place on the right to vote, affect our young people in Canada today?

Throughout my work as a youth supporter, taking care of children both before and after joining the Senate, I have found that young people are ready, willing and able to engage in decision making and policy determination.

As Senator McPhedran has mentioned in several of her speeches on this topic, including today, 16- and 17-years-olds already have the capacity to gain employment, pay taxes, drive, join the military, give sexual consent, marry and have children. If we are already trusting young people with these responsibilities and rights, I would also argue that they are ready and able to assume the right to vote and that they are ready to assume the right to influence policy and to participate in a parliamentary process that directly impacts their lives.

Importantly, this movement to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote here in Canada is being led by young people across Canada, not by Senator McPhedran, me or by other colleagues here in the Senate; by other professional groups; or by youth advocates. It is being done by our youth themselves. Their voices are engaging in this discourse. They are clear; they are decisive.

Let me give you some examples. I will quote two young women who are litigants in the court challenge to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice case regarding the unconstitutionality of the voting age. First I will quote Amelia Penney-Crocker, a 16-year-old from Halifax who said:

Youth are the future. But as it stands, we can’t vote for who gets to shape that future – and particularly in this unprecedented climate crisis, lack of youth voting rights might mean that we don’t have a future at all.

Similarly, Katie Yu from Iqaluit says:

Our voices should not be ignored, as we know what actions are needed to address these issues and better the world for future generations, and we are already making change in many ways . . . .

Colleagues, our youth are eloquent, they are confident and they are firmly asking to be included in our democratic process. They are asking to be consulted, and they are taking the lead here. They want to be engaged on the subject of voting, and it is our responsibility as parliamentarians, I would propose, and as policy makers that we elevate their voices in this discourse.

Let us consider in more detail the constitutionality of the current voting age from the perspective of youth themselves, which is the basis of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice court challenge. This court challenge, led by a group of 12- to 18‑year‑olds, proposes that two sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, sections 3 and 15, are violated by the current voting age of 18 set out by the Canada Elections Act.

Section 3 of the Charter guarantees that all Canadian citizens have the right to vote in an election. It does not qualify age.

Section 15 highlights that all individuals are equal before and under the law, and guarantees every individual the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender, mental or physical disability or age.

Honourable senators, this is an important argument because it highlights the fact that the current voting age restriction is a direct result of the Canada Elections Act, and that this limitation has been subject to change in the past over the years — change that is based mostly on the progressive societal shifts in values that we have seen.

In truth, progressive enfranchisement — or the broadening of voting entitlement — has been a distinct part of the growth of our democracy as we have continually expanded our definition of the rights of the citizen. While we have reflected on those, we have also reflected upon who should remain excluded from this form of civic, political and social participation and, in this reflection, we continue to fail our youth.

I would argue that, as equal citizens of Canada, all youth deserve the right to vote, thereby including them in our move towards a democracy that is more inclusive, equitable and just.

Honourable senators, our youth, our young people under the age of 18, currently participate in other forms of political engagement in our democratic institutions and in our systems. For example, the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada, the Green Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party all allow entry of members as young as 14.

Our government has increasingly recognized the importance of elevating youth voices and consulting with young people on policy and programs. Even the Court Challenges Program — reinstated in 2017 and supports individuals and groups to bring cases that challenge perceived constitutional human rights violations before the courts — is accessible to Canadians, regardless of age.

Additionally, our government is actively consulting with youth, individually, in groups and in organizations to inform Canadian policy and decision making.

In February 2018, this government launched a national dialogue with youth to shape Canada’s Youth Policy — a mandate of the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth — yet another example of our growing recognition of young people as equal partners and leaders for tomorrow.

Now, more than ever, as we navigate a global pandemic — precarious financial and socio-political situations, and a recovery that will stretch likely years into the future — the right to participate in our democratic process is even more critical.

Young people have been handling this pandemic alongside us. They face the same challenges, including income insecurity, changing school conditions and precarious work. Young people have risen to the occasion on multiple fronts, working front-line jobs, keeping service industry businesses staffed, actively engaging and advancing our democracy.

We need to consider how we repay our youth for their commitment to family, country and Canada’s democracy. How are we engaging them to become the leaders of tomorrow?

The best way to do this, colleagues, is by respecting their rights to participate fully in our democracy and to encourage their active contribution to our parliamentary process, to the creation of our laws, policies and systems that will affect them and their future.

Lowering the voting age is one of many steps forward that we need to take to support our young people. As we have heard, it will empower 800,000 — yes, 2.9% — 16- to 19-year-olds. This may not be a significant number overall, but it is a significant number of youth who are affected.

As senators, we need to elevate the voices and needs of our Canadian youth because, in our democracy, they are equal partners. They are willing. They are engaged. They are ready to vote.

Thank you, meegwetch.

< Back to: Senate Business