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Canadian Prisoners Regain Voting Rights

On December 27, 1995, Canadian prisoners won another round in an on-going legal battle for their fundamental right to vote in Canadian federal elections. A Canadian federal court declared unconstitutional the latest federal ban on prisoner voting. The Canadian government plans to appeal the ruling.

This latest ruling follows on the heels of a string of victories for Canadian prisoners culminating in 1993 with the Supreme Court of Canada striking down a previous ban which prevented any prisoner from voting in a federal election with a law which denies voting for only those serving sentences of over two years. As a result of this most recent ruling, the new law is now also of no force and effect and subject to further court rulings or legislation. All Canadian prisoners who are citizens now have the right to vote in federal elections.

Two suits challenging the voting ban were heard together by the federal court. One suit was filed by a group of prisoners at Stony Mountain prison, including representatives of the Native Brotherhood, and the other by a former prisoner in Kingston.

Government lawyers argued that the ban was justified because it "morally educated" non-prisoners of their "civic responsibility" and was properly punitive to prisoners. They also argued that denying the right to vote to prisoners would act as a deterrent to those contemplating criminal behavior.

In order to make such dubious arguments, the government invested in a string of right-wing U.S. academics as expert witnesses. Among these "experts" were Ernest van den Haag, who has elsewhere argued that torture is justifiable in certain circumstances, and Seymour Lipset, who testified that the "communitarian" nature of Canadian society supported the violation of prisoners' rights.

The plaintiffs succeeded in arguing that the ban violated their right to vote but were unsuccessful in their claim that the voting ban violated their right to equality. The federal court confirmed an earlier ruling that prisoners as a group are not covered by the Canadian Charter's rights to equality.

Canadian prisoners have the right to vote in provincial elections in Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland. British Columbia recently passed legislation denying federal prisoners the right to vote in provincial elections. The B.C. legislation is of doubtful validity given the current state of the law.

[Editor's Note: The author is a Toronto lawyer. This article was excerpted from the Winter-96 edition of Prison News Service, a Canadian publication which nonetheless contains quite a lot of good U.S. prison-related news coverage. PNS is published four times a year. Subscriptions are free to prisoners (but have some class and send a donations.) $10/6-issues for non-prisoners and $25/yr for institutions. American subscriptions are payable in American dollars. Write to: Prison News Service, P.O. Box 5052, Stn A, Toronto, Ont., Canada M5W lW4.]

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