What Hong Kong Canadians think about being denied a vote

Recent court ruling on federal elections creates impression long-term expats are 'not real Canadians', says one of those affected; another still paying Canadian taxes asks why prisoners get vote, but not him

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 8:09pm

Andrew Work may have moved to Hong Kong from Canada 19 years ago. But to him, his heart still bleeds red and white.

Having settled in the city, after travelling back and forth between British Columbia and Hong Kong, to be with his wife, who was born in Zhongshan, China, Work got involved with the Canadian expat community to stay attached to his roots.

He is president of the Canadian Club and sits on the executive board of the University of Victoria’s alumni group in Hong Kong. He ran the Canadian Chamber of Commerce as its executive director for five years. 

But Work’s continued involvement with, and ties to, Canada aren't enough to permit him a vote in the country's national election on October 19. He's one of some 190,000 Canadians in Hong Kong disenfranchised under an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling because they have lived outside Canada for more than five years. A further 110,000 Canadians in Hong Kong can still cast their ballots in the federal poll.  

“Permitting 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,” Justice George Strathy said in the July 20 ruling.

190,000 Canadians in Hong Kong just lost voting rights

Work understands that many Canadians abroad might not go out of their way to cast a ballot if given the chance, nor might their votes make a big difference to the end result. But to not have the option, he says, gives the impression that those living abroad are “not real Canadians”.

“The federal election’s result is not going to hinge on our votes. But why would you want to alienate the people that are doing loads for you abroad?” he says, noting that a number of Canadians in Hong Kong strengthen the country’s international ties through their work as teachers or representatives of Canadian companies such as Sun Life Financial.

“The impact is that the most dedicated promoters, boosters and volunteers here are sent the message from the people back in Ottawa that we are second-class citizens,” Work says.

July's ruling reinstated a ban that had been in place since 1993, and overturned a lower court's decision in 2014 to rescind the measure on the grounds it was unconstitutional. Superior Court Justice Michael Penny said he rescinded the ban because many long-term expats still care about Canada and could be subject to Canadian taxes and laws. 

Prior to  2007, even a short visit to Canada was sufficient to regain the right to vote; however, in that year Elections Canada ruled that Canadians abroad must “resume residency” in order to regain the right to vote. Exceptions to the current voting ban for long-term expats are given to members of the Canadian armed forces and diplomats. 

Two Canadian expats, Montreal-born Jamie Duong and Toronto-born Gillian Frank, living in the United States have filed an appeal against July's ruling. 

While many Canadians abroad may have strong feelings about not being able to vote, Bill Majcher sees both sides of the argument.

Majcher, who moved to Hong Kong in 2007 from Vancouver, says he thinks the ruling is legitimate. 

“The fact that I’m not in Canada, I’m not engaged today in Canada, makes me believe that those who live [there and] are providing a benefit to other Canadians are the ones who should have a say in what’s going on,” he says. 

Majcher, however, is among the Canadians abroad who still pay Canadian taxes. Before moving to Hong Kong, he was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Since 2007, he says he’s paid over C$100,000 in taxes.

The only reason he cares about the ban, he says, is that he thinks he has more of a right to vote than prisoners.  In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that banning prisoners from voting was unconstitutional.

“It seems strange to me that there are thousands of Canadians in our prisons who can vote and have never done anything. And yet I continue to give and I’m not entitled to vote. It’s a bit of a paradox to me,” Majcher says.

He suggests Canadian citizens born in Hong Kong, but whose families emigrated to Canada in the 1990s when they were children, may lack a strong attachment to the country. A 2011 study by the Asia Pacific Foundation found 67 per cent of Hong Kong-born Canadians had returned to the city from Canada.

But one Hong Kong-born Canadian, Maggie Chu, a primary-school teacher in the city, disagrees with Majcher. 

Chu, who’s been back in Hong Kong for eight years after emigrating to Toronto with her family when she was five, says she feels more like a Canadian than a Hongkonger because she spent 22 years of her life immersed in the country's culture and values. She thinks Canadian expats should have a right to vote in the upcoming federal election. 

"It’s not fair because I am just as much Canadian as anyone else. Just because I wasn’t born there doesn’t mean I’m not Canadian. We probably worked harder just to become Canadian and defend our [citizenship] more than anyone else who was actually born in Canada," Chu, 36, says. 

“We had to go through all the processes of immigration, prove that we are going to be a positive influence for the country and go through all the stereotypes and the bullying back in the '80s because we were new.” 

Canada is not the only country to remove the franchise from long-term expats. New Zealand expats are excluded from the democratic process if they have not returned to the country for three years. British citizens living abroad cannot vote in British elections if they’ve lived away from the UK for more than 15 years.

However, Sonny Shiu-hing Lo, a professor at The Hong Kong Institute of Education who specialises in political development and citizenship, says restricting expats' voting rights may affect their political identity.

“This measure appears to deprive the Canadians who live abroad [of the] right to vote in Canadian national elections,” he said of the Ontario appeal court's decision. “The impact on Canadian attitudes towards their government and towards [the country] may be significant because the Canadians who live outside Canada may see Canadian democracy as relatively less tolerant.”

Canadian expats who haven’t lived abroad for over five years can still cast ballots in October's election. Sarah Difederico, a kindergarten teacher in Hong Kong, has registered to vote overseas, and wants her vote to benefit her family in Canada.

Difederico, who moved to Asia from Tecumseh, Ontario three years ago, says it isn’t difficult for expats to register and encourages fellow Canadians to vote too.

“They should definitely vote while they have the chance because that could change in the future,” she says. “I feel like so many people are angry about certain situations in Canada right now, but a lot of people don’t do anything about it. I think it’s important for people to vote. Expats included.”