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Electoral Insight - Participation In The Electoral Process

Electoral Insight – January  2001

referendums in canada: a comparative overview

Tim Mowrey
Policy and Research Officer, Elections Canada, and Co-op Student, Department of Political Science, University of Victoria


Alain Pelletier
Co-Editor, Electoral Insight - Participation In The Electoral Process , and Assistant Director, Policy and Research, Elections Canada

While representative democracy limits the participation of electors to voting in elections, direct democracy allows elector participation in the formation of public policy by asking electors to vote on issues, rather than for a candidate. Increasingly, the political climate in Canada is leaning towards greater use of the instruments of direct democracy.Footnote 1 According to the 1997 Canadian Election Study, over 73 percent of respondents thought that referendumsFootnote 2 should be conducted regularly or at least occasionally.Footnote 3

Table 1 - Referendums conducted in Canada, 1867-2000
Jurisdiction Dates of referendums Total
Canada 1898, 1942, 1992 3
Newfoundland 1915, 1948 (2), 1995, 1997 5
Prince Edward Island 1878, 1901, 1929, 1940, 1948, 1988 6
Nova Scotia 1920, 1929 2
New Brunswick 1920, 1921, 1967 3
Quebec 1919, 1980, 1987, 1992, 1995 5
Ontario 1902, 1919, 1921 3
Manitoba 1892, 1902, 1916, 1923 (2), 1927, 1952 7
Saskatchewan 1913, 1916, 1920, 1924, 1934, 1956, 1991 7
Alberta 1915, 1920, 1923, 1948, 1957, 1967, 1971 7
British Columbia 1909, 1916 (2), 1920, 1924, 1937, 1952 (2), 1972, 1991 10
Yukon - 0
Northwest Territories 1982, 1992 2
Nunavut 1997 1

Number in brackets indicates the number of referendums conducted that year, if more than one.

Since Confederation, referendums have been held by all Canadian jurisdictions except for the Yukon (see Table 1). Issues of great importance to the nation have been decided through referendums. These decisions include, for example, whether Canadians would be conscripted to fight in the Second World War, whether Newfoundland would join Confederation, whether the Constitution of Canada should be renewed, and whether the province of Quebec should proceed to a new economic and political partnership with the rest of Canada. Table 2 outlines the issues and results of the most recent referendum by jurisdiction. With such issues on the line, it is important to understand the rules that guide the administration of referendums in Canada.

All jurisdictions in Canada, with the exception of Ontario, currently have some legislative provisions pertaining to the conduct of a referendum. These provisions, in some cases, are included in a separate Act, while in other cases they form part of the legislation governing elections. Canada, Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut all possess detailed referendum legislation or extensive referendum regulations.

Federally and in Quebec, the Chief Electoral Officer has the authority to make regulations by adapting the legislation pertaining to elections for the purposes of a referendum. In all other jurisdictions, the Lieutenant Governor in Council can make regulations at the time a referendum is proclaimed.

Most jurisdictions allow a referendum to be called on any issue of public concern, although at the federal level any referendum must deal with a question relating to the Constitution of Canada. In Alberta, a referendum under the Election Act may deal with any matter of public concern, but the Constitutional Referendum Act requires that a referendum must be called before the provincial government authorizes an amendment to the Constitution of Canada. A similar situation exists in British Columbia, where any amendment to the Constitution of Canada must be put to a referendum under the Constitutional Amendment Approval Act, while a referendum on any matter of public interest may be called under either the Referendum Act or the Election Act. In Quebec, a referendum may be conducted on any matter, including a bill of the National Assembly, provided that the bill includes a provision at the time of tabling allowing it to be put to electors in a referendum. Nova Scotia and Manitoba, while they do not have any general referendum legislation, do have provisions for the conduct of a referendum on very specific issues. In Nova Scotia, the provincial Liquor Commission may conduct a referendum in a community to seek authorization to sell alcohol in that community. In Manitoba, meanwhile, the government cannot proceed with an increase in the rate of taxation in the province unless the increase is approved through a referendum.

Referendums are usually proclaimed by the Governor in Council (for Canada), the Lieutenant Governor in Council (for the provinces) or the Commissioner in Council (for the territories), as the case may be. However, as noted earlier, the National Assembly of Quebec may authorize a bill to be put to electors. Similarly, the Saskatchewan Referendum and Plebiscite Act allows a referendum to be directed by the Legislative Assembly. In addition, Saskatchewan permits a referendum to be initiated by a petition signed by 15 percent of electors. Saskatchewan is the only jurisdiction in Canada with such a provision.

In most Canadian jurisdictions, there is no formal approval process for the adoption of the text of the referendum question. A formal approval process does exist, however, federally and in Quebec. The text of the question or questions for a federal referendum must be put forward in the House of Commons and approved by both the House of Commons and the Senate. In Quebec, debate on the text of a proposed referendum question is business that takes precedence over all other matters before the National Assembly. In the case of Nova Scotia, the exact wording of the question to be asked is specified in the Liquor Control Act. In Saskatchewan, in the case of a petition-initiated referendum, the proposed question comes from the elector who is sponsoring the petition. The minister to whom the petition was submitted may either accept the wording of the question, or file an application with the court, if the minister deems that a change of wording is advisable. The court may then approve the question as it stands, change the wording to make the question clearer, or determine that the subject matter is not within the jurisdiction of the provincial government, thereby cancelling the referendum.

In most jurisdictions, a referendum may be conducted at any time, either on a separate date or simultaneously with a general election. However, neither a federal referendum nor a referendum in the province of Quebec may be conducted during a general election. In addition, two referendums on the same question or topic cannot be held during the same sitting of the Quebec National Assembly. Conversely, in New Brunswick a referendum may only be held in conjunction with a provincial general election. In Alberta, a referendum may be held in conjunction with either a general or municipal election, or on a separate date.

In a majority of Canadian jurisdictions, the results of referendums are consultative in nature only. However, in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, the results may be binding on the government under specific conditions. In Alberta, the results of a referendum pertaining to the Constitution of Canada are binding on the Legislative Assembly if the majority of ballots cast vote the way on the question stated. In British Columbia, a referendum under the Referendum Act or the Constitutional Amendment Approval Act is binding if more than 50 percent of electors vote one way on a given question. However, the results of a referendum called under either the British Columbia or Alberta Election Act are not binding. In Saskatchewan, the Lieutenant Governor in Council may choose at the time of proclamation whether or not the referendum results will be binding on the government. Where it is determined that the outcome will be binding, the government must adopt the results if more than 60 percent of ballots cast vote the same way, and if at least 50 percent of electors who are entitled to vote actually cast a ballot. It should be noted that when the results of a referendum held anywhere in Canada are deemed to be binding, they are only binding on the government that initiated the referendum.

Quebec is the only jurisdiction in Canada that provides for the establishment of a Conseil du référendum, which must hear any judicial proceeding relating to a referendum. The Conseil is composed of three judges of the court of Quebec, with the chief judge designated as the chair. Only the President or a member of the National Assembly may apply to the Conseil to render a decision. The Conseil, after receiving such an application, must submit its decision within ten days.

Table 2 - Results of the most recent referendum/plebiscite in each jurisdiction
Jurisdiction Dates referendum or plebiscite question(s) results (%) - yes results (%) - no voter turnout (%)
Canada October 26, 1992 Referendum Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992? 45.7 54.3 54.3 71.8
Newfoundland September 2, 1997 Plebiscite Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same schools where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided? 72.4 27.2 53.0
Prince Edward Island January 18, 1988 Plebiscite Are you in favor of a fixed link crossing between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick? 59.5 40.2 65.0
Nova Scotia October 31, 1929 N/A Concerning retention of prohibition N/A N/A N/A
New Brunswick October 23, 1967 Plebiscite Are you in favor of lowering the voting age from 21 years of age to 18 years of age? 32.7 67.3 78.7
Quebec October 30, 1995 Referendum Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on June 12, 1995? 49.4 50.6 93.5
Ontario April 18, 1921 N/A Concerning liquor importation N/A N/A N/A
Manitoba November 24, 1952 Referendum Do you wish to continue to sell your oats and barley as at present? * 89.2 10.8 N/A
Saskatchewan October 21, 1991 Plebiscite 1. Should the Government of Saskatchewan be required to introduce balanced budget legislation? 79.7 20.3 80.6
2. Should the people of Saskatchewan approve, by referendum or plebiscite, any proposed changes to the Canadian Constitution? 79.3 20.7 80.5
3. Abortions are legally performed in Saskatchewan hospitals. Should the Government of Saskatchewan pay for abortion procedures? 37.4 62.7 80.8
Alberta August 31, 1971 Plebiscite Do you favour Province-wide daylight saving time? 61.5 38.5 70.3
British Columbia October 17, 1991 Referendum A. Should voters be given the right, by legislation, to vote between elections for the removal of their member of the Legislative Assembly? 80.9 19.1 74.6
B. Should voters be given the right, by legislation, to propose questions that the government of British Columbia must submit to the voters by referendum? 83.0 17.0 74.6
Yukon N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Northwest Territories May 4, 1992 Plebiscite On April 14, 1982, a majority of voters in an NWT-wide plebiscite voted to support the division of the Northwest Territories so as to allow the creation of a new Nunavut Territory with its own Nunavut government. The NWT Legislative Assembly and the Government of Canada accepted this result.

In the Iqaluit Agreement of January 15, 1987, the Nunavut Constitutional Forum (NCF) and the Western Constitutional Forum (WCF) agreed that the boundary for division for the NWT would be the boundary separating the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut (TFN) land claim settlement area from the Inuvialuit and Dene-Metis land claim settlement areas. On April 19, 1991, the Government of Canada endorsed the compromise boundary shown on the map below (map was reproduced on the ballot paper).

Division will occur in such a way as:
  • to maintain adequate levels of public services;
  • to respect the opportunity of residents in the Mackenzie Valley and Beaufort areas to develop new constitutional arrangements in the future for the western part of the NWT;
  • to respect the employment status and location preferences of GNWT employees.
54.0 46.0 56.1
Nunavut May 26, 1997 Public vote ** Should the first Nunavut Legislative Assembly have equal numbers of men and women MLAs, with one man and one woman elected to represent each electoral district? 43.0 57.0 39.0

* Only grain producers were entitled to register to vote.

** Since no legislation existed for the conduct of a plebiscite in only a part of the Northwest Territories, a public vote was conducted under special rules established by the government of the Northwest Territories and the government of Canada.

N/A data not available

Referendum committees

Photo: Elections Canada
The bilingual ballot for the 1992 federal referendum,
with the question Canadians were asked to support or oppose.
The question was approved by the House of Commons and
Senate and the vote was held on October 26. The province
of Quebec held its own referendum, under provincial law,
using the same question and voting day.

Only in Quebec and at the federal level are there legislative provisions concerning referendum committees. In Quebec, these are known as National Committees.

Federally, any group or individual may incur referendum expenses and advertise, directly and during a referendum period, for or against a referendum question. However, no person or group, other than a registered referendum committee, may incur referendum expenses that exceed $5 000. A person or group may apply for registration with the Chief Electoral Officer as a referendum committee at any time during the referendum period. The application must set out the name and address of the leader and officers of the committee, as well as the name the committee chooses for itself. A committee cannot be registered if the name or logo so closely resembles the name or logo of a previously registered committee that it may cause confusion. Federal referendum committees remain registered only for the duration of the referendum. During the 1992 federal referendum, the Chief Electoral Officer registered a total of 241 referendum committees.

In Quebec, National Committees are made up of members of the National Assembly who register, within five days after the adoption of a referendum question, with the Chief Electoral Officer in favour of one of the options. Unlike the federal legislation, the Quebec Referendum Act limits the number of committees to one for each option: one for and one against. All members of the National Assembly who register with the Chief Electoral Officer for one of the options must form the provisional committee in favour of that option. If no members come forward to register, the Chief Electoral Officer may invite between three and twenty electors to form the committee.

Each National Committee in Quebec must determine its own operating rules and by-laws at a meeting called by the Chief Electoral Officer. These by-laws will govern many aspects of the committee, including the name under which the committee will operate, the establishment of local authorities, and the manner in which the committee and affiliate groups will conduct and coordinate their operations and financing.

Registered referendum committees at the federal level are subject to expenses limits. The expenses limit is calculated by multiplying: (a) the product obtained by multiplying 30 by the fraction published by the Chief Electoral Officer in the Canada Gazette pursuant to section 414 of the new Canada Elections Act; and (b) the number of names on the preliminary voters lists for all the electoral districts in which the committee indicated it would be active. In the 1992 federal referendum, the average expenses limit for each referendum committee on the "yes" side was roughly $1.1 million, while for the "no" side it was nearly $4.1 million.

The National Committees of Quebec are also subject to expenses limits. National Committees must not spend more than $1.00 per elector on the preliminary or revised voters lists, whichever is greater, for all electoral districts. Quebec provides for a special referendum fund, out of which all expenses must be paid. The fund can only consist of direct contributions from electors, amounts transferred by political parties (the total sum of which may not exceed 50 per elector), and a special subsidy established by the National Assembly. While the federal Referendum Act defines referendum expenses as only those expenses used to directly support or oppose a referendum question, Quebec defines referendum expenses to include those spent to directly or indirectly support or oppose one of the options. In the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, both the committees for the "yes" and for the "no" side were limited to referendum expenses of $5.1 million.

Federal referendum committees are subject to reporting requirements, which are similar to those imposed on candidates and registered political parties during an election. For example, candidates and parties in a federal election, and registered committees in a federal referendum, must all submit audited reports to the Chief Electoral Officer. The reports must list contributions received, by class of contributor, and the name of each contributor who donated more than $250 (that total is $200 in the case of an election). There is also a prohibition on foreign contributions, similar to the prohibition on foreign contributions to political parties and candidates during an election.

National Committees in Quebec are also required to disclose their contributions and expenditures. National Committees must submit a return of the expenses incurred by the committee, and the name and complete address of each elector who donated more than $200 to the committee. Only electors may make contributions, and the total amount of contributions to each National Committee by the same elector in the same referendum must not exceed $3 000.

The allocation of free broadcasting time is only regulated at the federal level. Two basic principles underlie federal allocation: it must be fair to all registered committees that requested broadcasting time and it must not be contrary to the public interest. Every network operator that meets criteria defined in the Act must provide a total of three hours. Each side of the referendum question (i.e. the "yes" side and the "no" side) is then allocated one and a half hours of free broadcasting time, to be divided among all registered committees. To be considered for allocation, a committee must have indicated it would like to receive free broadcasting time, registered for application before the 27th day before polling day, indicated on which network it wishes to broadcast and whether it supports or opposes the question, and paid a deposit of $500. In deciding which committees will get time and how much, the Arbitrator must consider whether the committee represents national interests, whether the proposed broadcasting messages would be directly related to the question at hand, and whether fair time is being granted equitably to both the opposing and promoting sides of the question.

Federal referendum legislation also provides for a blackout period on all referendum advertising, including polling day and the day immediately before polling day. Similarly, the Quebec referendum regulations prohibit referendum advertising in the seven days following the issuance of the order for a referendum, and also on polling day.

While most Canadians think that referendums should be conducted regularly or occasionally, they have rarely been used in Canada. Referendums are generally proclaimed by the government and the results are usually not legally binding. However, referendums have allowed Canadian electors to express their views on significant policy issues of the day.

For a more detailed comparison of each jurisdiction's referendum legislation, as well as electoral legislation, please consult the Compendium of Election Administration in Canada, produced by Elections Canada, on Elections Canada's Web site at


Footnote 1 David Macdonald, "Referendums and Federal General Elections in Canada," Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (1991), vol. 10, p. 301.

Footnote 2 As indicated by Butler and Ranney (in Boyer, 1992) the terms "referendum" and "plebiscite," while originally possessing two separate definitions, have been used interchangeably in contemporary language so much as to render the same definition to both terms. In this article, only the term "referendum" will be used, although the legislation may indicate "plebiscite."

Footnote 3 This study was conducted following the 1997 federal general election. Elections Canada participated in the study, and asked the following question on a mail-back questionnaire: "Do you think that referendums on important questions should be held regularly, occasionally, rarely or never?" The results were: regularly 30 percent; occasionally 43.4 percent; rarely 20.1 percent; never 2.7 percent; not sure 3.8 percent.


David Macdonald, "Referendums and Federal General Elections in Canada," Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (1991), vol. 10, Research Studies.

Alain Pelletier (editor), 2000, Compendium of Election Administration in Canada, Elections Canada, Ottawa (see

1997 Canadian Election Study.

Pierre-F. Côté, Q.C., Instruments of Direct Democracy in Canada and Quebec, Études électorales, 1995, Directeur général des élections du Québec.

Patrick Boyer, Q.C., Direct Democracy in Canada: The History and Future of Referendums, 1992, Dundurn Press, Toronto.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.