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Democracy, Quebec Style

In a last-ditch attempt to drum up support amongst their base, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) has begun targeting Anglophone students from outside of Quebec and accusing them of “stealing” the upcoming provincial election. This is nothing more than an attempt to distract from real issues like the economy, which the PQ has failed to deliver on. Though the independent ‘Director General of Elections’ carries out voter registration, stories of voter suppression have been rife in English language media for the past several weeks.

What is most worrisome about this affair is not the PQ’s denunciation of out-of-province students. In fact, there is nothing even surprising about the PQ utilizing fear mongering and xenophobia as political tools – look no further than the “Charter of Values” they repeatedly bring up. No, what is scary about the PQ government’s actions is that they are trying to encroach on the territory of who is allowed to vote. Numerous PQ candidates have mentioned this influx in student votes, and the party presented a “list of demands” to the Chief Electoral Officer. If it were up to the PQ very few residents originally from other provinces would be allowed to vote as they are not “Quebec enough”, but democracy does not work this way. The right to vote is something of such paramount importance to democracies that it should not be left to the tools of political parties, who will do what they can to stay in power.

Instead of condemning the leading Parti Quebecois, perhaps I should reiterate that elections are officially carried out by Le Directeur Général des Élections; yet despite their independence as a government agency, many who should be eligible to vote have been rejected. This is because the Civil Code of Quebec is intentionally vaguely worded, and as the Chief Electoral Officer has stated that each registration officer has “full jurisdiction and competency to enter new electors on the lists of electors…or strike names from the lists”. The government asserts that such vague measures are meant to allow a case-by-case evaluation of whether someone is truly eligible to vote. In practice, however, this system has granted registration officers the power to deny anyone they wish from voting.

Quebec law states one must be “domiciled” in the province for at least 6 months prior to the election, as well as having proof of residence and citizenship. Stéphane Beaulac, a law professor at the Université de Montréal, has stated that to be “domiciled” you need not only be a resident, but also “have the intention of making it [Quebec] the center of your life”. This supposed clarification really does not shine any more light on the vague law, as it suggests a future in Quebec is necessary to be eligible to vote. I was unaware that being able to see into the vast unknown of the future was necessary in order to exercise the most basic of democratic rights.

I have experienced first hand the subjectivity and bias of registration officers. I visited the voting office for the Westmount–St. Louis riding with a friend of mine, both of us with a folder of documentation and the assumption we were more than eligible to vote. Upon hearing us converse in English, an election officer came over to us and asked whether we were McGill students and from Ontario. As I begun to explain that my situation was a little more complicated, he informed us that we were not allowed to register to vote in Quebec – without even looking at our documents or hearing our case. The way the law gives discretion to individual registration officers also allows them to reject people due to their own bias, instead we should have in place a system by which specific documentation is needed, and if it is presented then the candidate may register. A beneficial addition may be a method of appeals, such that those denied to vote who believe they should be able to may have their cases heard on an individual basis.

I myself successfully registered to vote after arguing my case to three registration officers who had little interest in what I had to say. My friend, despite having lived in Canada his whole life and in Quebec longer than me, was not so lucky. Like so many other students born or raised outside of Quebec he was rejected simply due to the fact that his parents lived in another province. Reports of many similar cases have come up in which young adults who have lived independently in Quebec for several years, paid rent here, and in many cases had jobs and paid taxes here, have been denied the right to vote. One student even recorded their conversation with the registration officers.  This individual spoke on the phone in French and was told he were more than eligible to vote, but upon speaking English in person to the officers, he was  told that (despite being born in Quebec) he was not domiciled here.

The legal barrier preventing one from voting in two provinces at once is a fine rule, and should remain law. However, the provincial regulations that are being used to subjectively determine whether out-of-province students are allowed to vote is ridiculous and is fundamentally undemocratic. Additionally, how are recent migrants to Quebec ever supposed to make this their “domicile” (read: their home) if they are repeatedly turned down when registering to vote for not being Quebecois enough?

As a Canadian citizen and a proud resident of Montreal, I find the voter suppression of this province to be appalling. People who fulfill the documentation requirements should be allowed to exercise the right to vote, and what is worse is that the current laws allow registration officers to tell people where they come from and why they are not “really” from here. Xenophobia is never pretty, and in a democratic and free country and province such as this one we should not forbid those who want to vote, but should welcome new citizens with open arms.

 

Michael Swistara 

 

Image:Attribution Some rights reserved by FutUndBeidl

About Michael Swistara

Michael graduated from McGill University in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics, and currently attends Columbia University where he is pursuing a master's degree. As former Editor-in-Chief of the Political Bouillon, Michael continues to occasionally contribute articles on his favorite topics, including American politics, economic policy, and foreign affairs.

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