12/09/2014 02:24 EST | Updated 02/08/2015 05:59 EST

Halifax wants to extend municipal voting rights to permanent residents

HALIFAX - The mayor of Halifax says he wants his city to become one of the first in Canada to grant permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections.

Mike Savage says the proposal, which requires provincial approval, is aimed at making the region more welcoming for immigrants.

"We need more immigrants because they come to our country and they create wealth, they create jobs for themselves and for others as well," says Savage, a former Liberal MP whose father John was premier of Nova Scotia between 1993 and 1997.

"From what we've heard from immigrants, it's indisputable that they would consider this something of value and part or being welcomed here."

Permanent residents are immigrants who are not Canadian citizens, but they have been given permission to stay and work in Canada for as long as they want. They have all of the rights of citizens and can take advantage of social programs, but they can't vote, seek public office, obtain a Canadian passport or hold jobs that require a security clearance.

A permanent resident must also live in Canada for two out of every five years and they have the option of applying for citizenship, though that process can take several years to complete.

Savage says the 14,000 permanent residents in the Halifax region should not be kept from voting while they're waiting for their citizenship to come through.

"At the municipal level, these folks are doing everything to build a community that Canadians who have been here for generations are doing," he says.

"These people are here for years and years and can't participate in the democratic process, yet they can serve in the armed forces and pay taxes."

Other Canadian cities, including Toronto, Saint John, N.B., and Kitchener, Ont., have expressed an interest in extending voting rights, and a study presented to Halifax's regional council says the practice is allowed in a number of places in New Zealand, Chile, Japan and the United States.

However, some municipal politicians have said they have reservations about a move that they say could devalue citizenship.

Stephen Adams was the only member of Halifax regional council to vote against Savage's proposal earlier this month.

He says some of his constituents have said it's only fair that they, as immigrants, had to wait for their citizenship before they could vote.

"I think citizenship is something not to be taken lightly," says Adams. "It's a privilege to live in this country. You have to go that extra step and become a citizen to illustrate your commitment."

As well, Adams says he doesn't buy Savage's suggestion that extending municipal voting rights will encourage immigrants to settle in Halifax.

"The fact that they could vote in a municipal election in Halifax once every four years will not make or break their decision to come here," he says. "That argument is weak at the very best."

Besides, permanent residents can always get involved in the decision-making process by attending council meetings and public hearings, Adams says.

Caroline Andrew, director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa, says banning permanent residents from voting in municipal elections is a bad idea.

"It makes people non-involved and therefore apathetic," she says.

More importantly, Andrews says permanent residents are doubly penalized because politicians tend to avoid areas where there is low voter turnout.

"So, you can express your opinions, but if nobody comes and hears your opinion, you are denied that possibility," she says. "What we're doing is making people passive for a certain period of time, when they could be involved."

Nova Scotia's municipal affairs minister, Mark Furey, says the government is keenly aware it must do something to increase immigration.

In February, the province received a report that concluded Nova Scotia is doomed to endure an extended period of decline unless it reverses downward population trends and eliminates suspicious attitudes towards businesses and immigrants.

"If this (Halifax) initiative was to enhance those opportunities I think ... the need to support this kind of initiative is important," Furey says.