Archive for March, 2014

Why Denying Montréal Students the Right to Vote Has No Basis in Law
March 25, 2014

I moved to Quebec in March 2012, six months before the last provincial election. Falling right within the 6-month residency requirement, I registered and voted without any problem. Last election I lived and voted in the district of Sainte-Marie Saint-Jacques, I now live in Westmount St-Louis.

Amid massive media hysteria around out-of-province voters, I went to the Quebec electoral offices this morning to change my address and riding. Arriving at the offices, everyone was friendly and kind. As soon as I sat down, I was asked to provide a Quebec driver’s licence or health card. I have neither. I have Hydro-Quebec bills, T4s, letters from Revenue Quebec (I pay Quebec taxes) and a Montreal lease. I am currently trying to find an articling position in Montreal so that I can join the Quebec bar in 2016.

I was not asked to provide any of that evidence or asked if I intended to remain a Quebec resident. The woman interviewing me declared that as a student paying out-of-province tuition I was not domiciled in Quebec. The end. When I insisted that I had voted in the last election she retroactively declared that I was not eligible back then either and that I’m lucky I haven’t been charged with voter fraud. It’s hard to argue with someone over an administrative decision when you’re being accused of a serious criminal offence. Upset, I left the office.

I walked around for 15 minutes thinking about the logic. A year and a half ago, I was “domiciled” enough in Quebec to register and vote without any trouble. Having now spent much longer in Quebec and paid more Quebec taxes, I’m no longer domiciled here. I went back and insisted the office manager explain this decision. When he came out I shook his hand and introduced myself. He responded by asking me if I was recording our conversation. I promised I wasn’t and then I pointed out that I had voted last election. I was immediately told that it was no problem to simply change my address and this was done by looking at my passport and a Hydro-Quebec bill. But no one ever pointed out to the woman who had previously denied me that she had made the wrong decision, even though she was sitting right next to me while my address was being changed. She was helping a nice young man from Alberta register (he had a health card and driver’s licence) while telling him that the fact that she let him register despite the fact that he is an anglophone proved that there was indeed no discrimination going on.

I disagree. There is clearly systemic discrimination of students, anglophones and allophones. Unquestionably, the people who work at the registration office have discretion to apply Quebec Election law. However, decisions must still be a reasonable interpretation of the law to be legitimate. Even with discretionary power you can’t deny someone the right to vote because you don’t like their hair, but you can if they’ve only lived in Quebec for 5 months.  This is what we call the rule of law, where decisions must follow statutes, rather than the rule of man, where people in power can decide things however they like. So what does the law say?

Elections Act:  Every person who  (1) has attained 18 years of age,  (2) is a Canadian citizen,  (3) has been domiciled in Québec for six months, […] is a qualified elector. The domicile of a person is the domicile established under the Civil Code.

The Civil Code states that: 75. The domicile of a person, for the exercise of his civil rights, is at the place of his principal establishment. 76. Change of domicile is effected by actual residence in another place coupled with the intention of the person to make it the seat of his principal establishment. The proof of such intention results from the declarations of the person and from the circumstances of the case. 77. The residence of a person is the place where he ordinarily resides.

In making the decision as to whether I could vote or not, the electoral officer only considered one factor: the type of tuition I pay. However, this factor is not mentioned anywhere in the law and is based on different time limits. One must live in Quebec as a non-student for a year to qualify for Quebec tuition. Yet the Election Act says you need only be a resident for 6 months. By insisting that I need to pay Quebec tuition to qualify to vote, the electoral officer was essentially rewriting section 1 of the Electoral Act to read “12 months” rather than 6 months. Had the legislature wanted to make the requirements for qualification the same for both they could have written “1 year” in the Election Act, but the legislature didn’t.

If having a Quebec driver’s licence of health card were the only way to prove “intention to be domiciled” under the Civil Code, the Quebec legislature could have written that requirement into the legislation. But it didn’t. Instead article 76 speaks only of “intention” and “circumstances of the case.” I was never asked about my intention to be domiciled in Quebec while attempting to register (though I did try to argue that I would be joining the Quebec bar, the electoral officer wasn’t interested). I was never asked where I ordinarily resided (the electoral officer was more interested in asking me about where my parents live). Now were the circumstances of my case examined in any way. Instead, my tuition status and lack of Quebec identification were the only criteria used to declare my ineligibility.

It’s always extremely problematic when an administrative decision maker fails to consider the law when making a judgment, because it leaves open the possibility that they will be motivated by personal bias or irrelevant criteria. This is especially true with voter rights, which are protected by the Canadian Charter. This morning I witnessed an electoral officer operate with impunity as she repeatedly made decisions that adversely affected constitutionally protected electoral rights (she denied three students in the 30 minutes I was there).

The last student she denied got upset and so he was escorted out of the building by security. I took some pictures so that students in Quebec can know how they will be treated when they attempt to exercise their civil rights. As a result of taking pictures, I too was escorted out of the building and banned for life from returning.  So I guess I’ll have to wear a disguise next week when I return to elect a government that respects students, the constitution and the rule of law.

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