Young Canadians launch court challenge to lower federal voting age from 18

·5 min read
Amelia Penney-Crocker is shown speaking at a climate action rally in Halifax on Oct. 22, 2021. (Amelia Penney-Crocker - image credit)
Amelia Penney-Crocker is shown speaking at a climate action rally in Halifax on Oct. 22, 2021. (Amelia Penney-Crocker - image credit)

A group of young Canadians has launched a court challenge to lower Canada's minimum age for voting in federal elections.

On Tuesday, 13 young people from across the country, ranging in age from 12 to 18, filed an application at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice arguing that the section of the Canada Elections Act which bars Canadians under 18 from voting in federal elections is unconstitutional.

The group is making the argument that the rule violates two sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Section 3, which states that "every citizen of Canada" has the right to vote in an election for members of the House of Commons or a legislative assembly; and Section 15, which states that "every individual is equal before and under the law."

Amelia Penney-Crocker, a 16-year-old from Nova Scotia, got involved in the challenge through Children First Canada, the youth charitable organization backing the effort.

Penney-Crocker told CBC News that with the planet at a "tipping point" because of climate change, young people must have the right to weigh in on what needs to be done to tackle the crisis.

'This is our future on the line'

"We have to act now. It's now or never and I think youth are really acutely aware of this much more than adults are," she said. "Because we know that this is our future on the line."

Penney-Crocker said children and youth are disenfranchised in a way that is not healthy for Canada's political system.

"It's not about whether I'm a taxpayer. It's about the fact that I live in this country and that I have a vested interest in what happens to our world as someone who's here experiencing it," she said.

And it's not just about giving young people a chance to choose their representatives, she said. "It's about candidates seeing that youth can vote for them and being more ready to represent youth issues and children's issues."

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Another litigant, 15-year-old Katie Yu from Iqaluit, is quoted in a media statement saying children and youth deserve to be heard on the matters that affect their lives, such as mental health and climate change.

"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," Yu said.

The challenge is being supported by lawyers from Justice for Children and Youth and the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights at the University of Toronto.

Justice for Children and Youth said in the release that "decision-makers tend to cite outdated factors when denying young people access to the polls" — sometimes the same factors that were used to deny other groups the vote in the past.

"We have seen a continued rise in young people's efforts to be heard — millions marching on issues that have a direct impact on their lives and the world in which they live, yet they still can't vote," the group said.

The lawyers also plan to cite the Supreme Court's ruling in 2019 that expats should not be denied the right to vote no matter how long they've lived outside Canada, saying the decision showed that any limits on voting rights "must be clearly justified."

They also have the support of other national youth organizations, including UNICEF Canada and the Students Commission of Canada.

Though the group has not suggested an appropriate minimum voting age, it noted that several other countries — such as Germany, Brazil and Austria — have lowered their voting ages to 16, while four major federal parties — the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats and Greens — already allow Canadians under 18 to vote in party leadership contests.

Senator proposes letting 16-year-olds vote

The legal challenge comes as a senator is reviving her efforts to change the federal voting age.

Last week, Independent Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran re-introduced a public bill to lower the voting age to 16.

McPhedran posted on social media that the proposed change was the "most effective option available to us currently to revitalize Canadian democracy, and ensure its long-lasting health and strength."

Veteran NDP MP Don Davies also has championed the issue in the past — most recently with a private member's bill in March of 2020.

Davies told the House of Commons at the time that the "history of the franchise in Canada" has been one of "constant expansion" since Confederation, when voting was strictly for male British subjects who were at least 21 and owned property.

"Young Canadians are engaged, well-informed and passionate advocates for a better future, for their future," he said. "Many young people work and pay taxes, but they have no say in how those tax dollars are spent. This disenfranchisement is unjustified and must change."

A bill by P.E.I. Green Party MLA Karla Bernard, which sought to lower the provincial voting age from 18 to 16, was defeated in April.

Bernard argued during debates that enfranchising 16-year-olds would serve "the best interests of the child" in accordance with the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child. Her party also cited research suggesting 16-year-olds have the necessary maturity to make such decisions.

The federal voting age was last changed in 1970, when it was lowered from 21 to 18.

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