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Voter Rights Timeline: Systemic Barriers Towards Voting Experienced by Historically Excluded Groups

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

Author: Meagan Parmassar (She/Her); Contributor/Editor: Aarisha Elvi Haider (She/Her);

Voting Rights Timeline Creator: Anna Huschka (She/Her)

It is irresponsible to deny the systemic racism ingrained in what is currently Canada, and namely, in our settler/colonizer-based governmental structure. Racialized communities continue to face barriers in participation and representation in the current political system designed by, and for, white individuals.

Historically, non-white communities have had to advocate to be granted the right to vote and to be involved in any capacity in the democratic process within the settler/colonial government. Below is a timeline that provides a brief overview of when different groups in Canada were granted the right to vote in a federal election.

*Members of Métis communities and People of Colour (excluding Asian Canadians) were never officially excluded from voting, and were able to vote so long as they met gender, age and property requirements at the time, but these communities faced other barriers that made voting difficult and inaccessible (1).*

Voting Timeline Resources:

  1. Elections Canada. A Brief History of Federal Voting Rights in Canada [Internet]. What is currently Canada: Elections Canada; [cited 2021, July 19]. Available from:

  2. Elections Canada. Voting Timeline [Internet}. What is currently Canada: Elections Canada; [cited 2021, July 25]. Available from:

This piece will take a more in-depth look at the barriers faced by the communities mentioned above. Be sure to keep reading to learn more about barriers faced by these communities in their fight to live and vote in what is currently Canada.


Black communities secured freedom and rights during the gradual abolishment of slavery between 1793 and 1834 (1). As they became to be considered British subjects, they were technically allowed the same rights and privileges that the status carried, and that did in theory include the right to vote (1). As such, Black men were able to vote, but only under conditions that recognized them as naturalized subjects who owned taxable property (1). Further, Black women received the right to vote at the same time as white women in Canada, as long as they were eligible to own a taxable property and had their citizenship (1). This is not unique to the Black community, as until 1920, most colonies or provinces required eligible voters to have a taxable net worth or own property (1). This practice, however, functioned to systematically exclude the working class and other historically oppressed communities, namely Black individuals, Indigenous individuals and People of Colour (BIPOC) (1). While their official status in the eyes of the law had changed, the mistreatment of Black communities continued to persist through overt and invisible forms of discrimination. Although they were not prohibited by law to exercise the right to vote, hostile public sentiment against Black Canadians to exercise this autonomy did exist; and this discrimination affected their decisions to visit polling stations, impacting turnout (1). Interestingly enough, former Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier (1896-1911) signed an order-in-council to ban Black immigration in Canada. Although the order never became a law, it clearly exhibits what researcher R. Bruce Shephard calls Canada’s “campaign of diplomatic racism” (2, 3).

Indigenous peoples, recognized by the government then as “status Indians” only gained the right to vote in 1960 without being enfranchised - meaning without giving up their Indian Status and without having to assimilate into the white, Western Society (3). Inuit communities were earlier, in 1950, however ballot boxes were not provided on all reserves until 1962 - in other words, without the presence of ballot boxes, members of these communities could not cast their votes (3). This inability to participate in the democratic process made it difficult for them to exercise their basic rights in choosing the leaders of the Canadian state’s settler/colonial government, imposed upon this land as the majority governing body, following the colonization of this land by Europeans in the early 1800s by means of violence and force (4). This violence has intergenerational ramifications, but includes theft of land, forced removal of Indigenous communities and exhaustion of natural resources (4). They were further marginalized from society through The Indian Act of 1876, which led to the Federal government controlling all aspects of their lives. This includes reserve services and infrastructure, education (residential schools), tribal membership, governance and culture (5, 6). While many amendments have been made over the years, for example, the amendment in 1951 which removed the ban on cultural dances and ceremonies and leaving reserves without a pass, the Indian Act is still active in Canada today (7). This speaks volumes towards the presence of white supremacy and systemic oppression that persists within this country to this day.

In B.C., Indo Canadians were denied the right to vote until 1947 (3). The first immigrants of Indian descent arrived in Vancouver in 1903, and up until 1907, were relatively unnoticed by the government (8). European settlers grew hostile because employers favoured them working for a lower rate of pay, and the government implemented various racist policies (8). This includes revoking their right to vote and requiring that they come to Canada with $200 cash in their name, while European settlers only needed $20 (8). Therefore, immigration for those of Indian descent was almost impossible. Despite this, they persevered. By 1923, many owned successful businesses and worked extensively in a number of sectors, participated in the armed forces, and contributed significantly to B.C.’s robust forest industry, which collectively aided in building of this nation (8, 9). Yet without the right to vote, they were still seen as second-class citizens, regardless of the fact that they were British subjects and held British passports (as Britain had colonized India at the time, and India only gained independence in 1947) (8).

Caption: Sawmill crew working on mill cut at Sewall Mill - circa 1940 (13)

The Japanese arrived in Vancouver in the late 1800s in tens of thousands, and did not get their right to vote until 1949 even though they had fought for Canada in the First World War (1914-1918) (3). They contributed greatly to the fishing industry in B.C. but in spite of this, there was social unrest and opposition to Japanese immigration by European settlers, and so their immigration was restricted by the B.C. government (10). After that, Japanese immigration dwindled substantially, and continued to make up a small percentage of Canadian immigration (10). Further, European settlers also grew uncomfortable with their large representation and success in the fishing industry, and so the amount of licenses issued to Japanese immigrants were also limited by the Federal government (10). After Pearl Harbour was bombed in 1941, the government began impounding boats and revoking the licenses of Japanese fishermen, devastating the community and the industry, despite many of those workers having been in the country for decades (11).

Caption: Fisherman’s Reserve gathering and impounding Japanese fishing boats. December 10, 1941 (15).

Chinese Canadians first arrived in B.C. during the gold rush of 1858. They helped with mining gold, and later helped to build the Canadian Pacific Railway (12) but were not granted the right to vote until 1947 (3). By 1900, canned salmon was one of B.C.’s most valuable exports, and the industry was largely built with the help of Chinese Canadian labourers (12). Despite their contribution to the building of the nation, in 1885 the Chinese Immigration Act required that Chinese looking to immigrate to Canada must pay a $50 head tax per person, which was raised to $500 in 1903 (13). This is more than a year’s wage for a labour worker at the time. Another Chinese Immigration Act was passed in 1923, greatly restricting Chinese immigration once again (12). Most of these laws were enacted due to public anti-Chinese attitudes, particularly when the economy would downturn which highlights how heavily white supremacy influenced political decisions (12, 13).

Policies that are inherently racist continued to be passed in recent years. In 2014, Stephen Harper passed Bill C-24: Strengthening Canadian Citizens Act (14). This act essentially created second-class citizenship, in which one was subject to be stripped of their Canadian citizenship if they were landed immigrants, held dual citizenship, or were eligible for citizenship in another country (14). This has been criticized as part of an underlying agenda to portray immigrants as untrustworthy and suspicious, treating dual and naturalized citizens (often visible minorities) as less than single-nationality citizens (majority White) before the law (15), which highlights white supremacy and white nationalism on a systemic level. Further, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, passed in June 2015 by the Harper government, is also inherently racist. The goal was to abolish polygamy, child marriages and ‘honour killings’ among minority communities in Canada (14). However, polygamy has been illegal in Canada for over a century; and in terms of child marriage, this law only restricted marriage for those 16 and under while according to the United Nations, child marriage applies to anyone under the age of 18 (14, 15). Therefore, this act does not adequately address the issue of child marriage at large (17). The use of the word ‘barbaric’ in relation to ‘culture’ in the title of this bill is both inflammatory and insulting towards certain cultural groups, and was predominantly directed towards Muslims. (14, 18).

Systemic racism in Canada goes beyond just policy - racist individuals continue to persist in Canadian political parties as well. Leading up to the 2019 Federal election, B.C. candidate Brian Misera for the PPC (Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam) asked leader Maxime Bernier to denounce racism and white supremacy, and to dissociate from far-right white supremist organizations showing support for him and his party (19). Shortly after this, he was taken out of the running for the party, and Bernier has yet to condemn white supremacy (19). In 2019, the Canadian Nationalist Party registered itself with Elections Canada, with one of their priorities stated to maintain, “the demographic status of the current European-descended majority” (20).

Today, BIPOC are largely underrepresented in Canadian public service positions, as well as executive positions at all levels of government (21). In order to dismantle white supremacy, it’s important to fight for representation in political parties, educate ourselves on the history of racism in Canada, as well as promote anti-racism and healthy allyship in our daily lives.

For resources on how to be anti-racist, and to continue learning about how to be a better ally, check out our free resource compilations on the Active Learning Club (ALC) page.

Hello! My name is Meagan (she/her) living on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki peoples. I acknowledge that this land is covered by Treaty 19, also known as the Ajetance Purchase (named for the Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit), signed in 1818. I would like to acknowledge my positionality as a cis-gendered, Indo-Caribbean immigrant woman. My intention is not to speak on behalf of communities of which I am not a part of, particularly Black and Indigenous communities, rather to bring awareness to environmental injustices and other social disparities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities through my writing. My goal is to use this opportunity to help these communities and the cause in the best way that I know how, which is through education, raising awareness and challenging the system of ideas and beliefs that led to these problems in hopes of influencing a political and social shift. As a second generation immigrant, I realize that my views and interpretations of certain topics may be different than those of members of the Indigenous or Black communities. Today, I will be sharing my research and interpretations of white supremacy in Canadian politics, while understanding and recognizing the difference my positionality may make in my understanding of it.

Hi my name is Anna (she/her) and I just wanted to give you some voting rights context. As a white settler, I acknowledge that the right to vote was obtained through years of advocating, with not all communities gaining the right to vote at the same time. I am not speaking on behalf of any of the groups mentioned. I created this chart to remind us of what a privilege being able to vote is and to encourage youth to engage politically, especially through voting.

My name is Aarisha Elvi Haider and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I am happy to share my positionality as I see this as an opportunity not only to reflect on my roots but also to ground myself before I begin any work that is of profound spiritual significance to me. I am lucky to wake up everyday to live, play and work on the unceded territories of Kwantlen, sc̓əwaθenaɁɬ təməxʷ (Tsawwassen), S’ólh Téméxw (Stó:lō), Stz'uminus, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples. Born and raised in Bangladesh up until the year of 2010, my family and I were humbly invited to be a guest in what is known as so-called Canada. It has been exactly 10 years enjoying these beautiful lands and each time I reflect my presence and the space I hold as a first generation immigrant, I cannot help but feel an insurmountable amount of gratitude for how these wonderful lands and communities have treated me. This pushes me to explore in becoming a better ally, better ancestor and a community member. As an immigrant on unceded territories, I have come to notice how our society is deeply fragmented regardless of its multicultural presence and with that, I find myself feeling a deep urgency to bridge this distance amongst us and stand in strong solidarity with our Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities (BIPOC). My sense of drive in community mobilization is primarily due to the shift in privilege that I have experienced the moment I stepped foot in these territories. As a Bangladeshi Muslim woman and with respect to safety, I could not dream of exercising my autonomy in public spaces and therefore, was very limited to the confines of my settlement. However, my first bus ride in Canada gave me a sense of freedom that later materialized into a realization of how gendered and hierarchized power relations are manifested in regards to spatial forms in Bangladesh. Not only that, but my accessibility to clean water, air and food is also highly incontrovertible. From boiling water everyday to enjoying fresh tap water is a gift, and I give thanks to Nature for enjoying such a luxury. Yet I notice Indigenous communities that are void of the same resource. This is an example of the essence of colonialism that still thrives deeply in the form of systemic oppression in “Canada”. With that, I am cognizant of the privilege I experience is because of my parent’s hardship to provide their children with the best quality of life they can afford; I recognize that my privilege to a clean and healthy environment is due to the hardships of many BIPOC communities who work and strive for sustaining good life for our communities at the expense of theirs and lastly, I solemnly recognize that social, economic and racial injustices still continues to exist within our BIPOC neighbours. My main intention as a Researcher is to make information accessible, to raise awareness that challenge and inspire readers towards mobilizing and more importantly, to recognize that allyship and participation needs attention, continuous education and strong solidarity. My shift in privilege only grants me this perspective as a Bangladeshi-Canadian woman which is relational to my experiences only, and naturally the content I create by no means are intended to speak on behalf of Black, Indigenous nor communities of color. The purpose of this work is to bring additional grounding, expanding our consciousness and moving forward as a collective. The hope is rooted within strong connections, kindness, story-telling and intercultural dialogue--all of which shakes the establishment.


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