Disenfranchised expat Canadians are questioning whether the Liberal government is deliberately allowing legislation aimed at restoring their voting rights to wither on the vine.
The concern comes as the country’s top court set a new date for hearing their constitutional battle against provisions that strip Canadians abroad for more than five years from voting in federal elections.
The Supreme Court of Canada agreed just ahead of a scheduled hearing in February to a government request for an adjournment given the introduction of Bill C−33 in late November.
Among other things, the bill would allow all Canadians abroad to vote — including as many as 1.4 million expats now excluded.
"This was a fantastic move on their part. They were upholding their campaign promises," said Gill Frank, one of two expats spearheading the constitutional battle. "Nothing has happened since."
In asking the Supreme Court for the adjournment, the government had said the extra time would allow Parliament to "debate and consider" the proposed legislation. However, since its introduction and with the clock ticking down on both the court hearing now set for March 2018 and a federal election slated for the following year, there has been little progress on the bill.
Frank’s lawyer, Shaun O’Brien, questioned government’s motives.
"The bill was introduced just in time to ensure that they could seek an adjournment of the hearing, and then they seem to have done nothing about it," O’Brien said. "We’re assuming now the bill is going to die."
A spokeswoman for Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, who took over the file in January, did not explain why the bill has not progressed beyond its introduction. However, Byrne Furlong did say Gould was committed to the legislation and its passage.
"Bill C−33 is a priority for our government and we are looking forward to debating the legislation in Parliament," Furlong said in an email on Wednesday.
New Democrat critic Nathan Cullen said Furlong’s words should raise red flags.
"If this is what they consider a priority, I hate to see what they think as non−priority," Cullen said. "There’s a large number of expat Canadians who have been given what I think are false assurances about the government’s determination to change this."
Cullen said he was puzzled by the government’s behaviour, noting the Commons is scrambling to pass legislation before the summer hiatus but that this bill has all but disappeared.
If the Liberals opt to formally end the legislative session over the summer, the legislation will die.
The government’s inaction on C−33 is part of a wider issue, Cullen said. Earlier this year, Trudeau broke a key campaign promise by abandoning electoral reform of the first−past−the−post voting system.
"If you start to look at the whole issue of voting and democratic rights, this government has had a huge problem," Cullen said.
In 2014, a Superior Court justice sided with Frank and fellow expat Jamie Duong, who both live in the U.S., that parts of the Canada Elections Act are unconstitutional. In a split decision, Ontario’s Court of Appeal reversed that ruling, paving the way for the Supreme Court showdown.
Frank said he hoped the government would still move on the bill, but said he wanted the top court to weigh in regardless.
"I really do hope that we get our hearing before the Supreme Court," Frank said. "This should be adjudicated and decided so that no future government can take away our rights."