If someone had asked me, “Was your great-grandfather able to vote?” I would have said, “Yes.” As a Canadian citizen in the 1800s, there was no reason he’d be disqualified. He was a white male, and I assumed all white Canadian males—unless they were in prison—could vote. I was wrong.
It turns out my ancestors first had to own land or possess assets of a certain value to vote in municipal and provincial elections. If they didn’t, they could pay a poll tax and vote, but if they were too poor to own land, then they might not have been able to afford this tax.
My ancestors were more likely to have voted if they were Protestant. If they were Catholic or Jacobite, they couldn’t vote until 1829, and then they had to swear an allegiance to the King and his Protestant heirs. If they refused, they gave up their right to vote.
The women in my family tree were prohibited to vote between 1849 and 1918. Before 1849, women were not specifically excluded; it was assumed they wouldn’t vote. Yet women who met the basic requirements—age, landownership and residency—did exercise their right to vote in Lower Canada in the early 1800s. The 1849 amendment to the Election Act took away the right to vote until women fought for and regained it in 1918 (1925 in NL).
There were exceptions. Single women who owned property in New Brunswick were permitted to vote in municipal elections starting in 1886. In 1921 municipal elections were open to all residents who owned property regardless of marital status and sex. The rules changed again in 1967 to include all Canadians of legal age regardless if they owned property or not . This permitted housewives, whose names were not on property deeds, to vote.
As long as a native Indian was of age and owned property not located on a reserve, he could also vote. In 1963, this changed to include those living on reserves.
In 1832, the people of Newfoundland won the right to vote, giving them a say in who governed their colony. Prior to this, officials were appointed by the British crown. Men over twenty-one who were tenants or property owners on the island for a year before an election could vote. This changed to two years in 1842.
The rules for who could and could not vote changed constantly. People who were permitted to vote in one election were banned from the next, only to learn a few years later, they had the right to vote again. The requirements between provinces also fluctuated. Religion, race, social and financial status and landownership all played a role.
The Elections Canada website contains additional information on voter and election history. This data includes Newfoundland and Labrador after 1949, the year they joined confederation.
The top menu provides quick access to material. The Current & Past Elections section contains data on Past Elections, Voter Turnouts and Historical Election Results in Federal Electoral Ridings. The Voter Turnouts table reveals that in 1867—the first Canadian election— 268,387 citizens cast ballots out of 361,028 possible voters. That’s a 73.1% turnout. The highest turnout in history was 79.4%, which occurred in the 1958 election.
A vast amount of information on the history of voting in Canada is located in the Resource Centre. It begins in 1758 and continues to present day.