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Yellowknife city council expressed support for MLA Rylund Johnson’s mission to have more people become eligible to vote in municipal elections.

Johnson is aiming to increase civic participation in future municipal elections beginning in 2022 across the NWT with two proposed changes to territorial legislation. Johnson wants permanent residents, not just Canadian citizens, to be able to vote in local elections, and for towns, cities and hamlets to be able to use newer technology like phone and online voting.

Most of Monday’s government priorities committee meeting, however, focused on whether permanent residents – or those with three or more years of living in Canada but without full citizenship – should have the ability to vote in municipal elections.

Rylund Johnson, Yellowknife North MLA proposed an idea to city council to allow permanent residents – which would include recent newcomers to Yellowknife – the ability to vote in in municipal elections.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Currently only Canadian citizens can vote for political office anywhere in the country. In Johnson’s briefing package to committee, he notes that some cities across the country have passed motions supporting giving permanent residents the right to vote at the local level.

In the Northwest Territories, the Tlicho Agreement does allow permanent residents living in those communities “the right to vote in municipal elections, while permanent residents living elsewhere in the NWT will not.” This is dependent on “other eligibility conditions” in the agreement being met, according to Johnson’s briefing document.

Council agreed to support Johnson’s plan to present a private members bill in the June session of the legislative assembly to amend the Local Authorities Elections Act by passing a motion to that effect at a meeting March 9.

Johnson hopes to have the bill taken to the legislature’s Standing Committee on Government Operations where MLAs would seek input from NWT communities over a four-month period. It would then ideally be reintroduced for passing in the fall session.

Benefits for the city

Johnson said his proposed changes could lead to a number of benefits for the city and territory, including the expansion of the voting franchise and potential increase of involvement of newcomers in local governance.

It could even help the GNWT in its effort to boost a declining Northern population by creating an incentive to attract newcomers and – by extension – grow the territorial economy, he said.

“Part of my ulterior motive here is I am pro-immigration because our population is declining and when I look at our GNWT budget, every time we lose a person we lose $35,000,” he said. “When you look at the labour force projections, 80 per cent of jobs are high skilled.”

Johnson said he isn’t proposing – or personally in support of – applying the practice to elections in higher levels of government.

“This is not a discussion around federal elections,” he said. “I think the conversations around federal elections where we are dealing with issues of national security and the path of citizenship is much more connected to our federal government. I think that is a much different conversation.

“This is also not a conversation about territorial elections.”

Francois Afane, director of Conseil de développement économique des Territoires du Nord-Ouest (CDETNO) spoke in support of allowing permanent residents – people who have lived five years or more in Yellowknife – to vote in the city’s municipal elections.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

 Giving newcomers a voice

Part of Monday’s meeting also included a presentation by Linda Bussey, executive Réseau immigration francophone TNO, YIP Chair and Francois Afane, director of Conseil de développement économique des Territoires du Nord-Ouest (CDETNO) offered support for Johnson.

Afane’s presentation with 2016 labour force and he argued that recent immigrants should be supported in their right to vote in municipal elections because stats show that as they go through the immigration process, they become more involved in the labour force, earn more money to pay toward taxes and work toward ownership of property.

He noted that in 2016, a median recent immigrant family made $43,000 – below the $67,000 average across the NWT. There were 2,800 recent immigrants that year.

“So we are disenfranchising 15 per cent of the Yellowknife population,” he said, noting that recent immigrants represent nine per cent of the entire NWT population.

Council reaction

Except for Coun. Stacie Smith, most of council, including Mayor Rebecca Alty, supported the idea. Councillors Rommel Silverio, Cynthia Mufandaedza and Steve Payne were not present.

Julian Morse – Supports

“For me, the most important factor as to whether people should have a voice in this community is their residency in the community.

“Why should a permanent residents who has participated and contributed to the community for 10 years have any less of a right to vote than a citizen of this country who happens to have moved to live in Yellowknife for the last 12 months.”

Niels Konge – Supports

“If we can support a motion over at the legislature and that gives our members of our community buy-in, why wouldn’t we do that. That just makes more sense. If we can get more people to stay here and make it more attractive for people to be here, then as a city we can tell our MLAs that we do a lot to increase revenues that you say you don’t have enough of. So pony up and close that funding gap.”

Stacie Smith – Against

“I’m not against this by any means but we represent a population of the city. I know there are some in agreement and some that are not in agreement. I am going to be on the side of those who aren’t in agreement because I want their voices to be heard.”

Robin Williams  – Supports

“If this is a small way that we can communicate some of our support (for immigration to the city) then let’s do that.”

Shauna Morgan- Supports

“I do think because we are a transient town we want to make people stay longer. I think this would be a key way for newer immigrants to stay here and have more of a political voice.

Mayor Rebecca Alty – Supports 

From paying taxes to serving on  jury duty, permanent residents are performing the many civic functions that Canadians are also required to do. The difference is they don’t have the right to vote right now and participate in the democratic process.

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Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. He came from Prince Edward County, Ont., and obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University...

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