Explaining Voting System Reform in Canada, 1874 to 1960

By Pilon, Dennis | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Explaining Voting System Reform in Canada, 1874 to 1960


Pilon, Dennis, Journal of Canadian Studies


This essay explores the efforts to change Canada's traditional plurality voting system to either majority or proportional voting systems at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels between 1874 and 1960. Specifically, it will provide evidence showing that appeals to populist culture, regional disaffection, and the efforts of individual and party reformers are not sufficient in explaining why, when, and where reforms have occurred. Instead, this essay will demonstrate that serious interest in, and the successful adoption of, majority and proportional voting system reforms in Canada was primarily driven by class factors, specifically the class interests of Canadian farmers and the perceived threat that various labour and socialist parties posed to Canada's major political parties (and by extension their economic supporters) at different points in Canadian history. By surveying three broad periods of reform efforts, the essay demonstrates that while many different factors-reformer sentiment, party needs, ethnic tensions-may have fueled interest in voting system reforms in Canada, only organized political threats based on class issues motivated any serious or long-standing reform.

Cet article examine les efforts faits pour changer le système électoral majoritaire traditionnel au Canada en un système majoritaire ou proportionnel à l'échelle municipale, provinciale et fédérale entre 1874 et 1960. Plus précisément, l'article montre que la culture populiste, la désaffection régionale et les efforts de réformateurs individuels et du parti n'expliquent pas suffisamment pourquoi, quand et où les réformes se sont produites. L'article démontre plutôt qu'un vif intérêt dans les réformes de systèmes électoraux majoritaire et proportionnel au Canada et leur adoption subséquente furent surtout dues à des facteurs de classe, spécialement les intérêts des agriculteurs canadiens et la menace possible que les divers partis travaillistes et socialistes posaient aux principaux partis politiques canadiens (et par extension à leurs partisans économiques) à différents moments de l'histoire canadienne. En examinant trois vastes périodes d'efforts de réforme, l'article avance que bien que différents facteurs (sentiment réformiste, besoins de partis, tensions ethniques) peuvent avoir encourager l'intérêt dans les réformes du système électoral au Canada, seules des menaces politiques organisées basées sur des problèmes de classe ont motivé toute réforme sérieuse ou durable.

In their 1926 volume Proportional Representation, then the most exhaustive account of worldwide voting system reforms available in English, American reformers Clarence Hoag and George Hallett cast an envious eye on the state of reform initiatives in Canada. In light of comparable events between the two countries, their envy was understandable. In the same period that US reformers struggled to gain (and hold) a few municipal conversions to proportional representation (PR), and utterly failed to make headway at the state or federal levels, Canadian promoters had secured its adoption by 17 municipalities and two provincial governments, with federal political party support fuelling a lively debate in Ottawa as well. Although proportional representation had been repealed in some Canadian municipalities, particularly the smaller ones, by this point, the authors felt the balance was firmly positive: "RR. continues ... in Canada to be a leading question of the day," they noted, "occupying a place in the public eye that still seems remote in this country" (Hoag and Hallett 1926, 191). The longevity of Canada's national plurality voting system-its use has been uninterrupted since 1867-and the fact that all the provincial and municipal reforms were essentially repealed more than four decades ago have tended to obscure both the depth and frequency of these challenges to Canada's voting systems and the key factors driving the process of reform. When they notice it at all, commentators typically explain this early period of voting system reform as the product of an episodic and primarily western "populist political culture" (Howe, Johnston, and Biais 2005, 7); but there is more to the story than this. …

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