Universal suffrage, the right for everyone to vote, developed in fits and starts in North Delta. Whether people could vote varied with age, gender, religious or ethnic background, property ownership, residency and Canadian citizenship. Because of these many restrictions, at one time a large proportion of North Deltans couldn’t vote.
After Confederation in 1867, the right to vote was determined by the provinces; even federal voting followed the rules set by the provinces.
Voting was limited to men over 21 and who swore, in their oath of citizenship, allegiance to the British Crown. This excluded Catholics, Jews and other religious groups that put allegiance to their religion over the state or monarch of Canada.
At this point in B.C.’s history, Chinese men could not vote but other Asian men were allowed if they had a paid place of residence. Men who lived in cannery houses, logging camps or at boat camps along the Fraser River were excluded.
By 1907, all people of Asian descent in B.C. had lost their franchise to vote in federal, provincial or municipal elections. At the time, North Delta had a large group of Japanese residents who could not vote.
Before the First World War, women were thought too pure to deal with the corrupt world of party politics. It was also thought that they would neglect their families and husbands if they were thinking about politics. Recognizing that women were made of sterner stuff came with their contribution to the homefront during wartime. Male voters in B.C. supported female suffrage with a 70 per cent vote in the 1916 election referendum, so women were first able to vote, in B.C., in the 1917 provincial election.
With the Wartime Elections Act of 1917, Prime Minister Robert Borden gave the federal vote to the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of Canadian soldiers to support his referendum for conscription. The act also took the vote from German or Austrian-speaking people, some of whom lived in North Delta.
After the war, women were given the federal vote, although Indigenous women and women of Asian descent were excluded. German speakers again could vote, until the Enemy Aliens Act came into force during the Second World War and again limited their voting rights.
Different legislation meant that Asians were intermittently excluded from voting until 1947, Japanese-Canadians until 1949, and those with Indigenous heritage did not achieve unrestricted voting rights until 1960.
North Delta has always been the home of new immigrants. There were many landed immigrants, today known as permanent residents, who met the criteria for citizenship but didn’t take that last step of taking the oath of citizenship. Landed immigrants had all the same rights as citizens, with the exception of voting.
Maybe it was fear of the bureaucracy involved with this final stage, or maybe it was giving that final oath to their new country, shutting the door on their old ones, that stopped hundreds from becoming full citizens. In North Delta this missing last step was a significant limitation to the number of eligible voters.
Today, North Delta is home to the majority of eligible voters in Delta, with representatives in both the Canadian Parliament and the B.C. Legislature, yet our voter turnout is one of the lowest in the Lower Mainland.
We now have an enfranchised population that can have an impact on issues in our city, our province and nation, yet too many don’t bother to execute this right.
Nancy Demwell is a board member with the Delta Museum and Archives Society.