The Long Road to Civic Engagement

The Long Road to Civic Engagement: Perspectives from the frontlines, working the Toronto Municipal Election

By Miranda Saroli, Knowledge Mobilization and Social Action Coordinator, Access Alliance

'Vote here' Toronto municipal election polling station sign

Colourful fall leaves, shorter days, and the smell of the democratic process in the air … a few months after the provincial election, Ontario’s municipal elections were fast approaching. Aiming to spark interest in the democratic process among immigrant and newcomer clients, Access Alliance organized an Election Job Hiring workshop in partnership with Elections Toronto. Participants would get hands-on support to apply for a job with Elections Toronto. After the elections, we got a chance to speak with our clients who worked the polls and to hear their reflections on the state of civic engagement in Toronto.

Flash back to late September, when participants gathered at the AccessPoint on Jane community space (west Toronto) to learn what it would look like to work the polls on election day. Using iPads or their own personal devices, they created a profile in the city’s online portal, followed the steps to submit their application, and even scheduled interviews.

Tamara, an immigrant who moved to Canada in 2007, was one of the successful applicants. She got a job working at the polling station in Ward 1, Etobicoke North.  Unable to work fulltime, she looked forward to this opportunity to interact with people during Election Day. Although Tamara had previous experience back in her home country of Jamaica, this was her first time working the polls in Canada. She wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the turnout. “I thought there would be more people, but it wasn’t a lot. It was mostly older people.”

Tamara, a resident of the Keele and Rogers neighbourhood, worked the Etobicoke North polling station on Election Day, October 24, 2022 (shown here at AccessPoint on Jane).

Barbara was another successful election job applicant. Unlike Tamara, she did have prior experience working the polls in Canada, and she was shocked to see the poor turnout at the North York polling station. “Would you believe I had 570 people on my poll chart, and only 86 – not even 100 – (came out).”

Barbara is an immigrant senior, also from Jamaica and has lived in Canada since 1972. As someone who is less comfortable working with electronic devices, Barbara credits the workshop and Access Alliance staff for walking her through the City’s new online application process.  

Indeed, Tamara and Barbara’s observations are consistent with the City’s overall voter turnout. This municipal election saw a record low – the Toronto Star reported that an estimated 29% of eligible voters actually voted.

Much speculation has ensued about why numbers were so low, including voter fatigue from recent provincial and federal elections. Barbara has another term for it, speculating that some people were ‘voter annoyed.’ “We just come to one; then you come to another one. Between the federal one and the provincial, we are just fed up.”

Barbara, a resident of Rockcliffe Smythe neighbourhood, worked a polling station in North York on election day (shown here in front of the Municipal Election information board at AccessPoint on Jane)

Tamara and Barbara live in or near the Rockcliffe-Smythe neighbourhood – considered one of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods by the Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy. Priority neighbourhoods are typically low-income, racialized immigrant communities, which are more likely to be under-resourced and under-served. According to Tamara, this is a major contributing factor to low voter turnout in these communities.

“We see crime rates going up; we see so much homelessness. And for me in particular, I would have to say it’s a lack of housing – that’s my main concern…There’s so many issues where I think people are just like done with it. They don’t see changes, their voices are not heard, so why vote?” Among the people Tamara knows personally, only about 40-50% vote in elections.

Another issue is the underrepresentation of racialized immigrants among the candidates. Barbara and Tamara both speak about how they did not really get a chance to get to know the candidates. Barbara even describes how voters at the polling station were asking her for more information about who was who, and were daunted by a list of over 30 mayoral candidates. “Some couldn’t even remember who their own mayor was and all that. Some people just voted by name recognition.”

Diwali, a religious Hindu festival also known as the Festival of Lights, was mentioned as another reason why some people didn’t come out to vote. Silvea, a Health Promoter who organized the Access Alliance Election Jobs Workshop, noted that people may have had to choose between celebrating with family and friends and going out to vote. She says, “The timing was unfortunate, we understand people choosing to attend these celebrations of culture.”

Although voter turnout in Toronto municipal elections is generally low across the board, a 2014 study from Maytree found a strong correlation between an area’s proportion of immigrants and poor voter turnout.

A quick look at the population demographics of the City of Toronto underscores how important it is for racialized immigrants to vote. Of a population of nearly 2.8 million (2021), just under half of all Torontonians are immigrants, and over half are racialized.   As the emerging majority in the city, these voices need to be heard.

Vote pop-ups and all-candidate debates are some of the ways to help get key information to voters. Access Alliance hosted a vote pop-up at each of our east and west end sites to help new voters get familiar with how to cast a ballot, and raise awareness and interest among non-eligible voters. However, there is a recognized need to invest in building civic engagement in the long term rather than sporadically around election times only.

The Journeys to Active Citizenship project is one such initiative, and is a collaboration between the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), North York Community House, and Toronto Metropolitan University’s Democratic Engagement Exchange. It aims to support settlement and community organizations to foster civic engagement among their immigrant and refugee clients so they can play a strong, active, and influential role in civic life. Access Alliance also runs civic engagement workshops targeting newcomers, acknowledging that although many are not eligible to vote, they can still have a voice in their community.

That said, Barbara speaks from the immigrant perspective and reinforces why people who are eligible should go out and vote:

“In this land, we have the opportunity to speak our mind. If you don’t make a decision and put who you want, you can’t complain. You got to be involved in your community, in your country. You’re living here, so you might as well get involved in what is happening, and maybe your vote is the one to swing the election. Your vote is the one is the one to put in the person you want, who you hope is the best one for the job. It might not be, but you got to do something, try.”

Tamara still considers her experience with Elections Toronto a valuable experience, one that perhaps represents a small step towards being more civically engaged, in particular when it comes to her own challenges in accessing affordable housing:

“I don’t think one voice is going to change, but this discussion will probably allow more conversations to be had like this. Each person tell one person, and see how best we can spread the concerns we have, and get the answers to the questions we need to know.”


For more information about Access Alliance’s recent civic engagement activities, check out a Case Study on Civic Engagement for Newcomers (video) and a Civic Engagement workshop session that was held virtually (video).