open Secondary menu

How we began

Small groups of people sitting on the grass along the Toronto waterfront in 1920. A few trees scatter the shoreline. A man in a suit and boater hat strolls down a boardwalk beside the grass
Elections Canada was created in 1920 as Canadians transitioned from war to peace and Parliamentarians looked to ensure trust in the democratic process. Credit: Toronto Public Library, 980-9-587

Canada's electoral democracy began long before Elections Canada. Different parts of the country held elections prior to Confederation in 1867, the year of Canada's first federal election. It wasn't until 1920, more than 50 years later, that Elections Canada was created.

Before 1920, government officials ran federal elections. There were no federal lists of who was eligible to vote. Instead, provinces kept lists of who was allowed to vote in their jurisdictions, and federal officials used these same lists.

Election laws changed several times between Confederation and 1920, but the most significant changes were brought in during and after the First World War.

The Wartime Elections Act

Black and white photo of a dozen soldiers in military uniforms holding and signing election documents as they crowd around an antique car
Canadian military men vote during the First World War, when special, but controversial, election laws were in place. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, PA-000554

A special, but controversial, Wartime Elections Act was passed in 1917. It allowed women connected to the war effort to vote for the first time. It also took away voting rights from men with connections to enemy countries.

Critics argued the changes were made for political reasons and reduced the level of trust Canadians had in their electoral system.

The special rules no longer applied when the war ended and politicians of all political stripes agreed that something new was needed:

[I]t is very essential for us to have some definite legislation upon the subject of general elections [ … ] providing a simple and comprehensive system which, it is hoped, will afford both a just and satisfactory franchise and an expeditious and convenient means of conducting elections.

Hon. Hugh Guthrie, Solicitor General, House of Commons debates, March 25, 1920

To this end, Parliament set up a special committee made up of both Conservatives and Liberals. Its mandate was to look for a way of running federal elections that would help restore Canadians' confidence in their democracy.

Creating the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer

Black and white photo of a spacious hall set up with rows of desks on either side facing inwards. About fifty men wearing suits sit at the desks and look towards the camera
Former Prime Minister Robert Borden created a Parliamentary committee to explore ways to improve elections after the First World War. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, PA-139684

The committee spent several months consulting, researching, and studying electoral systems used in other countries. Members debated how to best centralize the "machinery" needed to run an election. After all, Canada still needed a way to create and manage lists of eligible voters for the entire country.

What the committee recommended was a new approach — one not being used anywhere else in the world. It proposed the creation of an independent, non-partisan body to administer federal elections:

  • The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer would take over the role from government officers.
  • The Office would be headed by an independent Chief Electoral Officer, who would be appointed by Parliament.
  • One of the Office's main first tasks would be to create federal voters lists.

While the idea was vigorously debated, both Conservative and Liberal members of Parliament supported the recommendation. There was broad political agreement when the House of Commons passed the Dominion Elections Act.

The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, commonly known as Elections Canada, was officially created on July 1, 1920.

Black and white photo of long, symmetrical building with four stories of arched windows and a main entrance at its centre
In 1920, the law that created Elections Canada was one of the first laws passed in the newly opened Centre Block building. The Peace Tower had yet to be built. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, PA-012925

Did you know?

While countries like Australia had a Chief Electoral Officer before 1920, Canada was the first to make the position independent from government. This makes Elections Canada one of the world's first independent election agencies.