Electoral Reboot: Diversity and the Ballot

Electoral Reboot: Diversity and the Ballot

October 7, 2016 10:15amET

“Changes to the system must ensure the kind of inclusive politics that Canadians want. […] This means… strengthening representation by encouraging greater diversity in both the House of Commons and in politics more broadly.”

-Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef (April 14, 2016)

The government has listed encouraging diversity – of both the voters themselves and within Parliament – as a priority in their electoral reform efforts.

But how does that priority translate into changes to our voting system?

Here’s what some academic experts told the Special Committee on Electoral Reform

One hundred years ago, Canadian women made their first strides in the uphill battle for a voice in politics. They fought for — and won — the right to vote.

Women cast their first federal ballots in 1917 under the Wartime Elections Act. This didn’t extend the right to vote to all women – only wives, mothers and sisters of soldiers were enfranchised. The Act also took voting rights away from “enemy aliens,” or recent immigrants from enemy countries.


Voting at Westcott, Alberta in 1917, 90 kilometres north of Calgary. (Glenbow Archive)

Just a few years later, the 1921 election became the first election where some women could run to be MPs themselves. That year, four women ran for office and Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons.

Later that decade, the “Famous Five” won the Persons Case (1929) which recognized women as persons under the British North America Act. It also made women eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada.
First Nations persons weren’t extended the same voting rights until 1960. Before that they had to give up their Indian status and their treaty rights in order to receive the franchise.

The Inuit received the federal vote on paper in 1950. Despite having the right to vote, they had no way to exercise it. It wasn’t until the 1962 election that the Inuit finally had ballot boxes placed in their communities.

Federal by-election voting at Rice Lake, Ont. after First Nations earned the full franchise in 1960. (Library and Archives Canada)

The same 1920 legislation that helped women’s voting rights was also exclusionary towards minorities. The Dominion Elections Act had a clause that kept in place any provincial disenfranchisement “for reasons of race.”

In British Columbia, this clause applied to Japanese- and Chinese-Canadians, plus anyone from the Indian subcontinent not of Anglo-Saxon origin. This discrimination remained in place until 1948.
Women, minorities and indigenous people are still underrepresented in the House of Commons when compared to their share of the overall population.

Canada’s 42nd Parliament currently has (a record) 88 female MPs out of 338. That means women hold 26 per cent of seats in the House of Commons, despite making up 50.4 per cent of the Canadian population.

There are 11 indigenous MPs, about three per cent of the House of Commons. Canada’s overall population is roughly 4.3 per cent indigenous.

Visible minorities hold 47 seats (about 14 per cent) in the House of Commons. Overall,19.1 per cent Canada’s population define themselves as a visible minority.

As of August 2016, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Canada 64th in the world for the percentage of women in the lower chamber (including countries with only one national chamber). The Senate, meanwhile, is 39-per-cent female.


The 2015 election saw females elected to one-quarter of seats in the House of Commons.


Representation is also a regional issue. In Saskatchewan for example, about one in five residents is indigenous — and half of that population is urban. Despite this, only two indigenous candidates have won in the past two federal elections. Both were from the same northern, non-urban riding: Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River.
Can legislation change the representation gap?

The most recent example comes from NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, who put forward Bill C-237 in February 2016.

His bill would amend the Canada Elections Act to include financial penalties for parties that fail to put forward a gender-balanced candidate list.

Federal political parties are reimbursed for a percentage of their electoral expenses. This bill would tie that reimbursement to parity in candidate lists. For example, if a party’s candidates are 25 per cent female and 75 per cent male, their reimbursement would face a 10-per-cent deduction.

Debate so far has focused on the bill’s scope and whether it is democratic.
The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples called for a reworking of Parliament that would have a major impact on Canadian politics.

They suggested a “House of First Peoples” as a new element of Canada’s Parliament, alongside the House of Commons, Senate and Crown.

The new chamber would serve as a representative body for indigenous peoples in Parliament. It would advise Parliament on issues relating to Indigenous peoples.

The idea isn’t new.

Maine’s House of Representatives sets aside three non-voting seats for the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

New Brunswick, Quebec and Nova Scotia considered separate provincial ridings for indigenous voters, but none were introduced.

The New Zealand Parliament has had seats for the Māori since 1867. Voters can choose to vote for a Māori MP as opposed to a general constituency MP, and the number of Māori seats fluctuates based on the outcome of that vote. Right now, Māori MPs hold seven seats.
Is changing the electoral system the best way to increase diversity in the House?

After years of study and multiple referenda, New Zealand adopted a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in 1993. Three years later, the country held its first general election using MMP.

The last New Zealand Parliament under First Past the Post (FPTP) was 21-per-cent female, seven-per-cent Māori, one-per-cent Pacific Island, and zero-per-cent Asian.

All of the above groups saw their percentage of seats slowly rise in the House of Representatives under MMP.

Nine years and three MMP parliaments later, there had been an eight-per-cent rise in female MPs, nine-per-cent rise in Māori MPs, three-per-cent rise in Pacific Island MPs, and a two-per-cent rise in Asian MPs.

CPAC visited New Zealand in 2005 to examine the MMP system and its potential for Canada:

While the numbers have increased, not everyone believes that examples like New Zealand offer definite proof about the link between proportional representation and diversity.

Critics point out that despite a correlation in the House of Representatives, there isn’t necessarily any cause and effect.

-Rachel Gilmore