Election Resources on the Internet:
Federal Elections in Canada - Elections to the House of Commons
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera

Canada held an early 41st general election on Monday, May 2, 2011, following the defeat of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government in a parliamentary vote of confidence on Friday, March 25, 2011. A description of the United Kingdom-style system used to elect members of the House of Commons - the lower house of Canada's Parliament - as well as a review of the Law Commission of Canada's report on electoral reform are presented here.

Federal- and provincial-level results are available here (and also in CSV format) for the following House of Commons elections:

      May 2, 2011       Results       Election Map      
      October 14, 2008       Results       Election Map      
      January 23, 2006       Results       Election Map      
      June 28, 2004       Results       Election Map      
      November 27, 2000       Results       Election Map      
      June 2, 1997       Results       Election Map      
      October 25, 1993       Results       Election Map      

The election statistics presented in this space come from official reports and data files issued by Elections Canada.

The distribution of House of Commons seats in the 2011 general election was as follows:

   Province/Territory       Seats   
        
  
         Con.       NDP       Lib.       B.Q.       Grn.       Total   
   Newfoundland and Labrador       1       2       4                       7   
   Prince Edward Island       1               3                       4   
   Nova Scotia       4       3       4                       11   
   New Brunswick       8       1       1                       10   
   Quebec       5       59       7       4               75   
   Ontario       73       22       11                       106   
   Manitoba       11       2       1                       14   
   Saskatchewan       13               1                       14   
   Alberta       27       1                               28   
   British Columbia       21       12       2               1       36   
   Yukon       1                                       1   
   Northwest Territories               1                               1   
   Nunavut       1                                       1   
   Total       166       103       34       4       1       308   


Historical Background

The British North America Act passed by the United Kingdom Parliament in 1867 joined the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as the Dominion of Canada. The Act - known since 1982 as the Constitution Act, 1867 - established a parliamentary form of government along the lines of the Westminster model, composed of a directly elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate.

In addition, the Act divided Canada into four provinces - Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick - and established a federal government structure similar to that of the United States, under which legislative and executive authority is divided between Canada and its provinces. However, under the U.S. Constitution the powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states, whereas in Canada the federal government has law-making powers over matters not assigned exclusively to the provinces.

In 1870, the province of Manitoba, created from the acquisition of Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territories from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869, was admitted to the Confederation. The colonies of British Columbia and Prince Edward Island were admitted as provinces in 1871 and 1873, respectively. In 1905, the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, created from what remained of the Northwest Territories, were admitted to the Confederation. In 1912 the provinces of Ontario and Quebec were enlarged by the addition of areas from the Northwest Territories. Finally, in 1949 Newfoundland and Labrador, which had briefly attained Dominion status on its own right, joined the Confederation following two closely fought, popular referendums held the preceding year. Yukon Territory and Nunavut were separated from the Northwest Territories in 1898 and 1999, respectively.

Originally a self-governing British colony, Canada became a sovereign nation under the Statute of Westminster passed by the United Kingdom Parliament in 1931. However, amendments to the British North America Act, 1867 - the core of Canada's Constitution - still had to be made by an Act of the British Parliament, as the federal and provincial governments were unable to agree on a generally acceptable amending procedure. This state of affairs lasted until 1982, when the British Parliament, acting upon a joint request by the Canadian Senate and the House of Commons with the approval of all provincial governments except that of French-speaking Quebec, passed the Canada Act to terminate its power over Canada. The Constitution Act, 1982 - proclaimed in Canada under the terms of the Canada Act - not only established processes for amending the Constitution, but also "entrenched" or placed certain parts of the written Constitution beyond the power of Parliament or any provincial legislature to touch, and introduced a Bill of Rights - the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - that cannot be changed by Parliament or any provincial legislature acting alone.

Although both the government and the National Assembly of Quebec rejected the agreements under which the Canada Act was passed and denounced the political legitimacy of the Constitution Act, 1982, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the province was legally bound by the Act. Subsequent attempts to win Quebec's acceptance of the Act - the 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord - were both unsuccessful.

It should be noted that the Constitution Act, 1982, was not a new constitution: as in the United Kingdom (but unlike in the United States), Canada's constitution is not a single document; instead, it is comprised by a collection of twenty-five primary documents (listed in the Constitution Act, 1982), federal and provincial legislation, court decisions, agreements between the federal and provincial governments, and unwritten conventions.

Having adopted a Constitution "similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom" (as stated in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867), Canada also established a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system for parliamentary elections along the lines of the British model. Under this system, two major political parties alternated in power from 1867 to 1993: the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives (previously the Conservatives and originally the Liberal-Conservatives). The Conservatives were in power for all but five years between 1867 and 1896, but Liberal governments ruled Canada for almost seventy years during the course of the 20th century. In 1993 the Progressive Conservatives suffered a devastating defeat and lost all but two of their seats in the House of Commons. The Reform Party (which became the Canadian Alliance in 2000) displaced the Progressive Conservatives as the major right-wing force at the federal level, but the party was unable to mount an effective challenge to the Liberals, who dominated Canadian federal politics from 1993 to 2006. The Progressive Conservatives, who never fully recovered from the 1993 election disaster - they only made a modest comeback in 1997 - merged with the Alliance in 2003 to form a new Conservative Party of Canada. The new party emerged as a major contender to the Liberals, who lost their absolute majority in the House of Commons in the 2004 general election. Nonetheless, the Liberals - led by Prime Minister Paul Martin, a former Finance Minister who had been in office since December 2003, when Jean Chrétien stepped down after ten years as head of government - won the largest number of seats in the House, and subsequently formed Canada's first minority government since 1979.

However, the ruling party eventually found itself in an increasingly precarious situation. Despite reaching an agreement with the NDP in April 2005 on support for the government's federal budget, a number of defections and seat vacancies left the NDP-supported government short of an absolute majority in the House of Commons. The following month, the Liberals survived a confidence vote on a budget amendment with the support of the NDP, two independent MPs and one key opposition defection: Conservative MP Belinda Stronach (Newmarket-Aurora, Ontario), who crossed the floor to join the government. Even then, the vote on the budget amendment resulted in a 152-152 tie. As such, the Speaker of the House - Liberal Peter Milliken - voted to break the tie in favor of the amendment, thus keeping the minority government in power until November 2005, when the Liberal-NDP agreement collapsed, and the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP subsequently agreed to introduce a motion of no-confidence to topple the Liberal government.

On November 28, 2005, the House of Commons passed the no-confidence motion by a vote of 171 to 133, and the government was forced to call an early general election - held in January 2006 - in which the Liberals lost to the Conservatives, who emerged as the largest party in the House of Commons, although well short of an absolute majority. The day after the election, Prime Minister Martin announced his resignation as head of government and leader of the Liberal Party; Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper subsequently formed a minority government.

Prime Minister Harper sought a fresh mandate in an early general election held in October 2008, but once more the Conservatives failed to secure an absolute majority, although the ruling party scored further seat gains at the expense of the Liberals, which fared badly in the election. As a result, Harper continued in office as head of a minority government. However, the Prime Minister has come under strong criticism for his perceived abuse of the power to prorogue, that is to suspend Parliament (formally exercised by the Governor General, but almost invariably under the advice of the Prime Minister).

The controversy over prorogation triggered a major political crisis in December 2008, after the Conservative minority government introduced a decidedly uncompromising fiscal update, which not only failed to include an economic stimulus package intended to forestall an anticipated economic recession (contrary to earlier suggestions that it would), but also included other controversial proposals, which would have eliminated public financing of political parties, placed a temporary suspension on the right to strike of the federal public sector, and suspended programs to achieve pay equity between genders in the federal public service. The economic update proved to be unacceptable to the opposition parties, which agreed to join forces in order to bring down Harper's government at the earliest opportunity and replace it with a Liberal-NDP coalition government supported by the Bloc Quebécois. After having unsuccessfully sought to appease the opposition parties with promises of a stimulus package and the removal of the proposals on political financing and the right to strike, Prime Minister Harper then asked Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament - which had been in session for just two weeks - until the following January. Jean agreed to Harper's request, and the opposition parties' agreement came to nothing. When Parliament resumed in January 2009, the government secured the Liberal Party's conditional backing for a revised budget that included a massive fiscal stimulus plan.

Nevertheless, following a second prorogation of Parliament in December 2009, the opposition parties joined forces in March 2010 to pass a non-binding motion - introduced by NDP leader Jack Layton - that would prevent the prime minister from advising the Governor General to prorogue a session of Parliament for longer than seven days without the support of the House of Commons.

The Electoral System

The Parliament of Canada consists of a lower chamber, the House of Commons, whose members are directly elected by universal adult suffrage for a maximum term of four years (before 2007 for up to five years), and an upper chamber, the Senate, whose members are appointed on a provincial basis and may hold office until they are 75 years of age. Both chambers must pass all legislative bills before they can become law. Both the House of Commons and the Senate may originate legislation, but only the House of Commons may introduce bills for the expenditure of public funds or the imposition of any tax.

As in the United Kingdom, the Crown is formally an integral part of Parliament, but the role of the monarch - since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II - and of her representative in Canada, the Governor General, is primarily ceremonial.

Members of the House of Commons (MPs) are chosen in single-member electoral districts called ridings by plurality or first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting, under which the candidate obtaining the largest number of votes in each riding is elected to Parliament. House seats are allocated among the provinces in proportion to the size of their populations. However, the apportionment is adjusted in a way such that no province has neither fewer members in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate, nor fewer seats than it had in the House of Commons in 1976 or during the 33rd Parliament. Finally, each of the three territories is assigned one seat in the House.

For the 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011 federal elections, House of Commons seats were distributed among the provinces and territories in the following manner:

   Province/Territory       Seats   
        
  
         2000       2004
2006
2008
2011
  
   Newfoundland and Labrador       7       7   
   Prince Edward Island       4       4   
   Nova Scotia       11       11   
   New Brunswick       10       10   
   Quebec       75       75   
   Ontario       103       106   
   Manitoba       14       14   
   Saskatchewan       14       14   
   Alberta       26       28   
   British Columbia       34       36   
   Yukon       1       1   
   Northwest Territories       1       1   
   Nunavut       1       1   
   Total       301       308   

The drawing of House electoral district boundaries is carried out by ten boundary commissions, one for each province. Each one of these commissions is chaired by a judge appointed by the Chief Justice of the province, with two other members appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Except "in circumstances viewed by the commission as being extraordinary", the population of each electoral district must be within plus or minus twenty-five percent of the average electoral district population for the province.

Under the terms of a 2006 amendment to the Canada Elections Act, the early federal election held in 2008 was originally scheduled for Monday, October 19, 2009. Subsequent elections would be held on a fixed date - the third Monday in October - every four years, but early elections are still possible if, for example, a minority government loses a parliamentary vote of confidence.

The Political Parties

Like other Western democracies with first-past-the-post electoral systems, Canada developed a party system centered around two major political forces. However, while the centrist Liberals and the right-of-center Conservatives have historically dominated Canadian federal politics, regional voting differences have allowed other parties to attain both significant popular support and parliamentary representation: although FPTP makes it difficult for minor parties with evenly spread support to win seats in Parliament, the system rewards smaller parties with strongly concentrated support in specific geographic areas.

Since 1935, the Socialist-oriented Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and its 1961 successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP), have been continuously represented in Parliament. Usually, the party has won most of its seats in Western Canada; however, in 1997 the NDP secured a significant number of seats in Atlantic Canada. In addition, the rightist Social Credit Party was represented in Parliament from 1935 to 1958, and again from 1962 to 1980. The party won most of its seats in Alberta between 1935 and 1957, and in Quebec from 1962 to 1979.

Neither the NDP nor Social Credit was in a position to displace either of the two major parties. Nonetheless, the presence of four parties in Parliament - Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, NDP and Social Credit - led for a while to periods of minority governments and frequent early elections. Between 1962 and 1980, eight federal elections were held in Canada, five of which (1962, 1963, 1965, 1972 and 1979) resulted in minority governments, as no party won an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons.

More recently, the collapse of the Progressive Conservative vote across Canada in 1993 - which the electoral system greatly amplified to reduce the party to a mere two seats in the House of Commons - led to the emergence of two parties with strong regional bases: the Bloc Quebécois (BQ) and the right-wing Reform Party (subsequently the Canadian Alliance). The BQ, which advocates separation of predominantly French-speaking Quebec from the rest of (largely English-speaking) Canada, has secured a majority of the House of Commons seats in the province since 1993; the party does not field candidates outside Quebec. Reform (and later the Alliance) won an increasing majority of seats in Western Canada in 1993, 1997 and 2000, but few or no seats in Ontario, and none in Quebec or the Atlantic provinces. From 1993 to 1997 the BQ held the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons, becoming the Official Opposition to the Liberal government. However, in 1997 Reform displaced the BQ as the Official Opposition.

From 1993 to 2004, there were five parties represented in Parliament: the BQ, the Liberals, the NDP, the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Alliance (the latter now merged into the Conservative Party of Canada), with the Liberals commanding an absolute majority of House of Commons seats on a plurality of votes in the 1993, 1997 and 2000 federal elections, as detailed below:

   Party       1993       1997       2000   
        
     
     
  
         Votes       %       Seats       %       Votes       %       Seats       %       Votes       %       Seats       %   
   Liberal       5,647,952       41.3       177       60.0       4,994,277       38.5       155       51.5       5,252,031       40.8       172       57.1   
   Reform/Alliance       2,559,245       18.7       52       17.6       2,513,080       19.4       60       19.9       3,276,929       25.5       66       21.9   
   BQ       1,846,024       13.5       54       18.3       1,385,821       10.7       44       14.6       1,377,727       10.7       38       12.6   
   NDP       939,575       6.9       9       3.1       1,434,509       11.0       21       7.0       1,093,868       8.5       13       4.3   
   PC       2,186,422       16.0       2       0.7       2,446,705       18.8       20       6.6       1,566,998       12.2       12       4.0   
   Others       488,453       3.6       1       0.3       211,482       1.6       1       0.3       290,220       2.3       0       0.0   

The division of the right-of-center electorate between Reform/Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives worked to the advantage of the Liberals, particularly in Ontario, where the first-past-the-post electoral system allowed the party to win nearly all the House seats in the province in the 1993, 1997 and 2000 federal elections. However, while Liberal representation in the House of Commons stood well above the party's proportion of the vote, Progressive Conservative and (to a lesser extent) NDP representation remained significantly below their respective vote percentages; only Reform/Alliance and the BQ attained representation roughly in proportion to their electoral following.

In August 2008, the Green Party of Canada - which polled a significant number of votes in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections but won no seats in either contest - secured representation in the House of Commons for the first time ever when Independent MP Blair Wilson (West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, British Columbia) joined the environmentalist party. Wilson had been elected as a Liberal in 2006, but left the party caucus in 2007, following allegations of misspending. However, the Greens won no seats in the 2008 federal election, although they polled their best result ever.

The Law Commission of Canada Report on Electoral Reform

The disproportionate results of the 1993, 1997 and 2000 federal elections led to renewed concerns about the fairness of Canada's electoral system. In a series of public consultations across the country, the Law Commission of Canada found that many Canadians regard the existing FPTP system as inherently unfair for a number of reasons, among them that it rewards the party that wins a plurality of votes with a legislative majority disproportionate to its share of the vote; that it allows the governing party, with its artificial swollen legislative majority, to dominate the political agenda; that it promotes parties formed along regional lines, thus exacerbating Canada's regional divisions; that it leaves large areas of the country without adequate representatives in the governing party caucus; and that it favors an adversarial style of politics. Moreover, the Commission found that for many Canadians, the drawbacks of the first-past-the-post system might outweigh advantages such as the fact that the average voter easily understands it, and that it can produce majority governments that take decisive action.

In a 2004 report titled Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, the Law Commission found FPTP defective on a number of criteria used to evaluate electoral systems. After considering various alternatives, the Commission recommended the adoption of a mixed member proportional representation system, which combines elements of the first-past-the-post system with proportional representation (PR). Under the proposed system - modeled after the Additional Member System (AMS) used to elect members of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales - two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons would be chosen in single-member ridings, while the remaining one-third would be filled from provincial or territorial party lists, or from regional party lists in Ontario and Quebec. List seats would be distributed on a compensatory basis, in order to achieve a proportional distribution of seats.

While similar to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system used in Germany since 1949 and in New Zealand since 1996, the system proposed by the Law Commission would allocate list seats at the provincial/territorial or regional level, rather than on a nationwide basis. Moreover, unlike in Germany and New Zealand, party lists would be open, allowing voters to indicate a preference for a candidate within a list.

Single-party majority governments would occur infrequently under the proposed system: generally speaking, the winning party would need to obtain an absolute majority of the popular vote in order to secure an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons. As such, coalition governments - which have been rare in Canada under FPTP - would in all likelihood become the norm, as in Scotland, Wales, Germany and New Zealand.

However, successive Canadian governments - elected under the existing FPTP system - have not acted upon the recommendations of the Law Commission. Moreover, in September 2003 the House of Commons rejected a NDP-sponsored motion to allow Canadians to vote on whether to change the current system to a more proportional system.

Online Resources


Copyright © 2003-2011 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: October 4, 2011.