Second reading of Bill S-201, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Regulation Adapting the Canada Elections Act for the Purposes of a Referendum (voting age)

By: The Hon. Pierre Dalphond

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Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond: I’m not planning on making a long speech. I’ll focus on three points to contribute to the debate and state my position on the record.

Senator McPhedran, I thank you for introducing that bill. This is not the first time; you have introduced it a few times before. The current bill before us is Bill S-201. It was introduced on November 24, 2021.

I agree that bills must come, at one point, to a vote. Today, I will speak to say why, when the time comes to vote, we should vote no to this bill.

I agree that bills coming from the House of Commons should also be voted on, especially because they went through three readings at the other place and they deserve to be considered by us, the non-elected, because they are coming from elected officials. That being said, as you may know, similar bills have been introduced in the other place nine times so far. None made it.

As a matter of fact, the latest version was Bill C-210. That was defeated in the House of Commons on September 28, 2022. The members of Parliament who voted in favour of the bill were 77; those that voted against the bill were 246. That’s not very close.

Senator Tannas, in a previous speech, referred to the question of whether it is a good use of parliamentary time to engage in this debate, to send it to committee, further to a third reading and then send it back to the House of Commons to consider something that they have refused to do. They have refused very clearly — 246 to 77.

This is a very good question that Senator Tannas has asked, but I want to go further because I share the answer he provided at the time that, no, it would not be a good use of our parliamentary time.

I will go to the most fundamental issues here: What is the age of wisdom? What is the age which is proper for voting?

It’s an important question. What age is the age of wisdom, of reason, of understanding and of rational thought? If we look at the Bible’s teachings, there are many variations.

Take the example of our health care systems. In Quebec, a 14-year-old can see a doctor and undergo surgery, because their consent is considered perfectly valid, since it was given by someone who understands their situation and who is capable of making decisions about treatments, including treatments that, if refused, could lead to death.

I don’t know what age is the age of reason, the appropriate age, but it’s a choice that societies must make. For health care purposes, we have decided that 14 is the age of capacity. To vote, it’s age 18. In the United States, a person has to be 21 to drink alcohol, but they can vote at age 14 and carry firearms at age 16.

Sometimes, the age of reason depends on the activity involved. I’m not sure that a 16-year-old would be allowed to operate heavy machinery on a construction site. In the end, a lot of questions could be asked and a lot of explanations could be given when it comes to setting an age limit.

That said, the question is at once philosophical, practical and, above all, political, which brings me to my third point. Is the Senate, an unelected chamber, the appropriate forum for such a political question? In my opinion, this is a fundamental question.

In Canada, people participate in the electoral system through political parties. It is political parties that get elected. There may be a few independent MPs, but basically our democratic system is based on the participation of voters who vote for political parties, which put forward policy options that voters can choose from.

It’s up to the electors to vote for those parties whom they believe carry the platform that they are comfortable with. All the parties in the other place — well, it’s at least 240, so that’s probably three parties — are of the view that lowering the voting age to 16 is not such a great idea, and they are not ready to offer it to Canadians. That’s an important consideration for us.

It’s not up to us to decide what the political parties should be doing. It should be up to the political parties to decide for themselves. Since they represent Canadians, it’s up to them to test with Canadians what they want. We are an unelected chamber, and I think it’s very delicate for unelected people to decide what is good for elected people and who should be the elected people.

In a democracy, it should be the reverse: It’s up to the elected people to decide who should be the unelected people and how to select these unelected people. For me, the issue belongs squarely and solely with the House of Commons. It’s up to them to initiate this type of important reform. I’m not saying this is bad reform. I’m just saying that we’re the wrong place. If you want to run for that issue, you are elected and you push it forward, or you work in a political party and you convince that party to move forward with that issue. But for us — the non-elected people, the wise people, the council of the elders — to decide what is good for democracy, I would prefer to leave it to those who are running and being elected.

For these reasons, colleagues, when it comes to voting on this bill, I invite you to vote it down. We should also not hesitate — not because we have no respect for the sponsor of the bill — where we say, “Let’s send it to committee; we will study it.” Then, if we let the committee look at it, they will say, “Maybe it’s not so good, but it’s a good person, so we’re going to do a report, and push it to third reading.” We should not do this. We come here to do an important duty. It’s to review bills and put forward things that are worth being pushed forward. For other things that don’t work, we should not push those forward. For me, and for a vote on this bill, I will say no. It doesn’t belong to us, and we should put an end to that story and move on with another bill. Thank you.

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