Engaging students in the history of voting rights

Published on October 5, 2021

Rachel Collishaw, Elections Canada

In my decades of teaching high school history and civics in Ontario classrooms, we examined voting rights as brief points on a timeline. The most commonly discussed was about how women achieved the federal right to vote in 1918.

However, in my role as Pedagogical Advisor at Elections Canada I contributed to the development of the classroom resource Voting Rights through Time, which taught me a great deal about the history of federal voting rights. Today, all Canadian citizens aged 18 years and older have the right to vote, but the story of how we got here is far more complex and varied than I ever imagined.

Voting Rights through Time includes hands-on materials: a timeline, and a context card and case study cards that describe the experiences of women, Japanese Canadians, youth, and First Nations peoples.

YouTube 5 October
How inclusive is our democracy? Students reflect on this inquiry question by working together to examine case studies related to the right of different groups to vote in federal elections. They create a “timeline with attitude” that shows how a particular group was included in or excluded from Canadian democracy over time.

Through discussion, students interpret the historical events together. They encounter surprises, and their misconceptions are revealed and examined through hands-on pedagogy that helps them work with the historical thinking concept of continuity and change.

Perrault 5 octobre
Chief Electoral Officer, Stéphane Perrault, participates in Voting Rights through Time with students in Toronto.

Inquiry pedagogy in history and social studies classrooms should provoke responses from learners and invite them to discover and interpret evidence. The Voting Rights through Time resource reveals some recurring misconceptions for students and teachers and then addresses them, either directly through the activity materials, or indirectly through the background information provided to teachers. Providing teachers with accurate information to address student questions is a key part of the design.  

Here are four common misconceptions that are addressed by the resource.

Misconception 1: All groups have the same story

The story of women and their right to vote is one of the few topics that is common to all provincial curricula across Canada. As a result, students and teachers often assume that voting rights are achieved through advocacy and that change occurs in one milestone moment. In fact, there are many journeys to voting rights.

For example, First Nations peoples and Inuit have distinct and painful histories of voting rights. Voting rights for First Nations peoples were tied to assimilation policies that, until 1960, granted the vote only to those individuals who gave up their treaty rights and status. Inuit were granted voting rights in 1950 as a result of many converging factors, including Canada’s growing federal presence in the Arctic, strategic considerations, and changing attitudes about human rights.

Students who participate in Voting Rights through Time encounter these unique stories as they work through the case studies together, deciding how inclusive or exclusive each event was. When they are done, they can walk around the classroom and clearly see the diversity of the stories and interpretations. Each timeline has a different shape, and two groups who examine the same case study may interpret the events differently.

Misconception 2: People in the past all thought alike

Students tend to think that people’s attitudes were less diverse in the past than they are now. We know that today, there are a multitude of opinions on any given issue, but students often don’t see that a variety of views also existed in the past.

Students encounter a variety of perspectives in the Japanese Canadian case study. In 1900, Tomekichi Homma took his legal fight to vote in British Columbia elections to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in his favour. Students are often surprised to see this powerful example of individual agency  so early in the 20th century. They can see that not all Canadians felt that voting rights should be restricted.   

Even though the decision was later overturned by the Privy Council, students can see that some parts of the Canadian justice system supported Homma’s case. This is just one of many events that students encounter through the resource that  help them to see a diversity of historical  perspectives at play

Misconception 3: Voting rights were only restricted on the basis of race 

Some groups in Canadian history were excluded from federal voting rights on the basis of race, specifically First Nations Peoples and Inuit, and Asian Canadians, but not all exclusions were racial, and not all racialized people were excluded. 

Teachers sometimes ask us why we don’t have a case study on Black Canadians. In fact, the reasons why voting rights were denied were not always based on race. Black Canadians were never excluded by law from voting in federal elections. Neither were Métis. 

As students explore the different case studies, they discover that many factors affected inclusion in or exclusion from voting rights. For example, in most of the case studies, students learn that Canadians who served in the World Wars gained voting rights regardless of their race, age or gender.

The teacher’s guide includes A Brief History of Federal Voting Rights in Canada, which provides more information on the history of changes in voting rights. Teachers can draw on this backgrounder to take classroom conversations further and introduce the fact that people could be excluded from voting rights because of their jobs or religious beliefs.

Misconception 4: The expansion of voting rights is “done” and happened a long time ago

Students are often surprised at how recently some groups were granted federal voting rights. They tend to assume that all of this happened long ago.

The story of youth voting brings us closer to the present. Although the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1970, students encounter an event from 2016 in the youth case study. That year, Prince Edward Island held a plebiscite on electoral reform and allowed youth aged 16 and 17 to vote, since they would be 18 by the time any new electoral system was in place.

This case study card opens the door to discuss potential future expansions of voting rights, including lowering the voting age further—a popular topic of debate in secondary schools.

To consolidate the lesson after students have completed their timelines, teachers share an infographic. Students are usually surprised to learn that only 11% of the population had the right to vote in 1867 and that at Confederation, voting was seen as a privilege rather than a fundamental right. They start to make connections between the case study that they explored and the wider historical forces at work. At the end of the activity, students can begin to unpack how the world views and ideas of people in the past influenced actions and policies then and now.

Voting Rights through Time is designed to support teachers in engaging their students in inquiry-based learning and hopefully act as a springboard to further inquiry. It provides structured provocations, supports teachers with background information, and invites students to ask relevant questions about our past, present, and future. Students explore what it really means to be included in federal voting rights, and then, ultimately, they reflect on the inquiry question: How inclusive is our democracy?

Author bio
Rachel Collishaw is the Pedagogical Advisor in Civic Education at Elections Canada. She has 20 years of experience as a secondary school History teacher, is the author of several inquiry-based textbooks and classroom resources and is the president of the Social Studies Educators Network of Canada.

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