190,000 Canadians in Hong Kong just lost voting rights – if treated as second-class citizens, will they act like them?

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What social contract exists between Canadians living in Hong Kong, and the faraway nation which provides them a passport? Is geographical proximity an essential component of that contract, if the passport holder wants to enjoy the full privileges of Canadian citizenship – say, by voting in the upcoming federal election?

It’s no abstract debate. Last month, the Ontario Court of Appeal issued a ruling that eliminates federal voting rights for long-term expats, including an estimated 190,000 of the almost 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong. The basis of the ruling, which upholds a voting ban on those who have lived outside Canada for more than five years,  was  summarised by Chief Justice George Strathy, who described Canada’s political system as based on “geographically defined districts”.

Allowing all non-resident citizens to vote “would allow them to participate in making laws that affect Canadian residents on a daily basis, but have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives”, Strathy said in the July 20 ruling. “This would erode the social contract and undermine the legitimacy of the laws. The legislation [prohibiting voting by five-year non-residents] is aimed at strengthening Canada’s system of government and is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

That political rights should hinge on geographical presence grates with Yuen Pau Woo, the former president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation, now a distinguished East Asia fellow with the think tank.

“The ruling is anachronistic,” Vancouver-based Woo said this week. “It doesn’t keep up with the times or reflect the reality of global human capital movements or the fact that connectivity now allows Canadians abroad to keep in touch with what’s going on in their home country, much more easily than before.

Woo said that “not all have that [strong attachment to Canada] of course, but sufficient numbers do that they should not be denied the right to vote”.

He said roughly 1.4 million Canadians worldwide have lost their voting rights as a result of the ruling, which overturned a 2014 verdict that the five-year rule was unlawful (the ban had been in place since 1993, so last-year’s restoration of federal voting rights was never put into practise at the ballot box).

That’s out of a total 2.8 million Canadians living abroad, according to the APF; not all of the remaining 1.4 million or so would be eligible to vote (children, for instance), but somewhere north of 1 million probably are, and were so at the last federal election in 2011.

Turning to Hong Kong, among the estimated 295,000 Canadian citizens in the SAR in 2011, 81 per cent had left Canada more than five years earlier, according to a study backed by the APF. If we assume that 21 per cent of those were under 18 (in line with Canadian estimates), we are still left with about 190,000 Canadians in HK who have likely had their right to vote in October’s election snatched away from them.

So why no hue and cry in the SAR?

A clue is found in the turnout four years ago, when just 6,000 non-resident votes were lodged globally, according to Elections Canada. Even if we conservatively estimate that 1 million were eligible to vote, that’s a rather miserable turnout. In other words, more than 99 per cent of those overseas who had the right to vote failed to do so.

I asked the Canadian consulate general if it knew how many votes were cast in Hong Kong in 2011; after a week, a spokesman said the mission was “unable to provide the number”.

But regardless of how many Hong Kong-based Canadians ever exercise suffrage, denying them that right sends a message that they are “second-class citizens; that Canada does not value its overseas population and that connectedness to Canada is defined, almost exclusively, by physical presence”, Woo said.

He said that justifying downgrading the citizenship rights of overseas Canadians, on the grounds that they exhibit little tendency to vote anyway, risked a self-fulfilling prophecy. “When you put more obstacles in the way of Canadians abroad to prevent them staying attached to Canada, the less likely it is that they will want to stay attached,” he said.

(The existing strength of that attachment varies according to how you measure it. In the APF’s 2011 study, a narrow majority of Canadians in Hong Kong, 52 per cent, said they never or almost never consider Canada their home. Yet 62 per cent said they consider returning to live there. Some 70 per cent had relatives in Canada, but only 19 per cent paid Canadian taxes. Meanwhile, 25 per cent even claimed to vote at least sometimes in Canadian elections – this is very unlikely, considering that it vastly exceeds the global overseas vote in 2011)

Woo said that by the APF’s estimate, 9 per cent of all Canadians were expatriates, representing  a much higher proportion of the population than, say, China (2.6 per cent), the US (1.7 per cent),or Australia (4.3 per cent).

Yet Canada was “trapped, in a sense, by our national mythology about this country being an immigrant country. We are so enraptured by that idea that we have also overlooked that we are also an emigrant country.”

If Canadians abroad are treated as “citizens of convenience”, Woo said, “the outcome is predictable – they will behave as citizens of convenience. You get what you wish for.”

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