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A History of the Vote in Canada


"The simple act of voting, of marking an ‘X' on a ballot, repeated twelve million times in one day, can overthrow a government without a single shot being fired."Footnote 1

The "simple act" of voting – once a privilege conferred on those affluent enough to own land or pay taxes – has become a right of citizenship enjoyed by all but a very few Canadian adults.Footnote 2 Canadians see voting not only as a treasured right but also as a civic obligation – a way of acting on our commitment to democratic principles and protecting our stake in Canada's political life.

The electorate (the body of people eligible to vote at an election) is defined by the constitution and by law – in the case of federal elections, the Canada Elections Act. The provisions determining eligibility are referred to collectively as the franchise – the conditions governing the right to vote.

Today, exercising the federal franchise means voting to elect a representative to sit in the House of Commons. Canada's Parliament consists of two chambers: the Senate, whose members are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister and represent provinces or regions, and the House of Commons, whose members are elected at regular intervals by popular vote. For election purposes, the country is divided into electoral districts – also known as constituencies or ridings – each entitled to one seat in the Commons. The number of constituencies is adjusted every 10 years, following the census, to reflect changes in population numbers and distribution. Since Confederation, the number of constituencies (and seats) has risen from 181 to 308.

Voting follows the first-past-the-post system; in each constituency, the candidate with the most votes is declared elected. After all the constituency results are in, the Governor General invites the leader of the party holding the most seats in the House of Commons to form a government, and the leader becomes the Prime Minister.

Canada's parliamentary institutions have seen considerable evolution and they are, to quote Professor Tom Symons, "the vehicle, the framework, and the practical reality of democracy in Canada. "But this book is not concerned mainly with the history of institutions. Many other excellent works offer readers the full story of how Canadians gained representative government and how parliamentary institutions developed as the federation matured. Instead, this book is about the evolution of the franchise and the body of people who exercise it –the electorate.

The franchise has a long history in Canada. The first elections in New France saw popularly elected representatives, known as syndics, chosen by residents of Québec, Montréal and Trois-Rivières to sit as members of the colonial council in the city of Québec. Syndics were not representatives in the way legislators are today. At first, they were intermediaries who simply presented electors' views to council and conveyed council's decisions to the citizenry. After 1648, the council chose two syndics at a public assembly to become regular council members. In 1657, it was decreed that four members of the council were to be elected by the general populace "by a plurality of votes in a free vote"– essentially the single-member plurality system in use today. But throughout this period, the council remained responsible to the king or the governor of New France, not to the people. The office of syndic lapsed in 1674, when Jean-Baptiste Colbert – France's secretary of state responsible for colonial affairs and a critic of representative institutions – reprimanded Governor Frontenac for his innovations.

Parliamentary institutions began to take shape in the second half of the eighteenth century under the British regime; 1758 saw the election of the first assembly with legislative responsibilities, in Nova Scotia, and the other colonies followed suit in the ensuing decades. But these assemblies had limited influence, because executive councils – the real decision-making bodies – reported to governors, not elected councils, and because appointed upper houses could block bills passed by assemblies. Moreover, the franchise at that time was far more limited than it is today. Thus, the capacity of most residents to influence the affairs of a colony was limited. This would not change before responsible government was won in the various colonies between 1848 and 1855. Even then, it was some years before the franchise was expanded to include a much greater portion of the population.

Image of County of Quebec election proclamation of 1810

Election Proclamation, 1810

Anyone who met the property and income qualifications (including women) would have been eligible to vote at this election in Lower Canada. Everyone wishing to vote gathered in one place and declared their choice before the assembled crowd of voters (see Chapter 1).

This book is about how the limited franchise of the last two centuries became the universal franchise of today. We examine the evolution of the vote chronologically, focusing on expansion of the right in Canada and on the development of mechanisms to ensure or facilitate the exercise of the right. In advancing the concept of universal male (and later female) suffrage – and the institutional arrangements needed to ensure it – Canadians owe a great deal to ideas made current by British and French thinkers and writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as to the experience of these democracies and of our continental neighbour to the south. While acknowledging this debt, we have chosen to maintain the focus on the path Canada took to give these ideas legislative and institutional expression. At the same time, we must acknowledge other exercises in democracy that took place long before colonization. Prior to the election of the syndics and the election of the first assembly with legislative responsibilities in Nova Scotia, Canada's Aboriginal peoples had formed unique social groupings and elaborate systems of government. This book, however, addresses representative democracy since colonization.

This history of the vote in Canada unfolds in four chapters. Chapter 1 examines the vote from the beginnings of responsible government in the colonies that would become Canada until Confederation. In Chapter 2, we look at the period from 1867 to 1919, one of considerable turbulence in electoral matters, including several shifts in control of the federal franchise between federal and provincial governments. Chapter 3 discusses changes in the franchise from the beginning of the modern era in electoral law, in 1920, through to the year 1981. The fourth and final chapter examines more recent reforms in Canada's electoral system in the period following the adoption of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – undoubtedly the most significant influence on electoral law in the post-war years.

Illustration showing the Honourable John Young speaking to his supporters in 1872

Before the Secret Ballot, 1872

In Montréal, at about the midpoint of the 1872 general election (which dragged on for three months), the Hon. John Young addressed his supporters after the close of a poll. It would be two more years before the secret ballot was introduced in law and six more years before it was used for the first time in a general election (see Chapter 2).

Focusing on the details of electoral law makes the history of the vote appear extremely complex – an endlessly changing catalogue of rules, regulations and procedures, with many variations in the franchise and its exercise attributable to provincial peculiarities or made necessary by the vast geography and striking diversity of the country. Our goal in this book is not to provide an exhaustive inventory of changes and variations but to sketch the broad outlines of how the franchise has evolved over the past 200 years.

In Canada, as in other democracies, the struggle for universal suffrage was not won overnight. Instead, the vote evolved in piecemeal fashion, expanding and sometimes contracting again as governments came and went and legislatures changed the rules to raise, lower or remove barriers to voting. At first, colonial authorities in England determined who was entitled to vote. Then the elected assemblies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island gained control of this function between 1784 and 1801.

Among the barriers imposed were restrictions related to wealth (or, more precisely, the lack of it), gender, religion, race and ethnicity. These barriers varied from colony to colony (and voting practices varied from one settlement to another within a colony) and later from province to province (see chapters 1 and 2). Even qualifications to vote in federal elections varied, because under the British North America Act, the federal franchise was governed by the electoral statutes in effect in each province joining the federation.

The struggle for universal suffrage was more than a struggle for partisan advantage or political power. As Professor Jean Hamelin points out, resistance to expanding the franchise reflected a general nineteenth-century discomfort with liberal-democratic ideals, an uneasiness with the concept of majority rule and an attitude that equated universal suffrage with social upheaval and disorder created by teeming new urban populations.

As suffragists gradually overcame this resistance, the franchise expanded step by step until the First World War. Then it took an unprecedented leap in 1918: with the enfranchisement of women, the electorate doubled overnight. Since then, voting eligibility has expanded to include many other groups and individuals previously excluded for various reasons.

In 1982,the right to vote was constitutionally entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so that today the only significant remaining restrictions are age and citizenship. Section 3 of the Charter ("Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly ...") cast doubt on the constitutionality of various disqualifications then in effect, giving rise to efforts by those excluded (judges, prisoners, persons with mental disabilities) to petition the courts to have the exclusions set aside. This development gave the courts a significant role in determining who has the right to vote.

Photo showing how electors were urged to exercise their democratic rights in the 1963 general election

Safeguarding Democratic Rights, 1963

During the 1963 general election, the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Kingsville, Ontario, built a likeness of the recently erected Berlin Wall to impress on Canadians the importance of exercising their democratic right to vote. That right was constitutionally entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 (see Chapter 4).

Barriers to voting are not only legal or constitutional – they can be procedural or administrative. If citizens have the right to vote but are unable to exercise it because of obstacles inherent in the electoral rules or the way they are implemented, these barriers constitute a restriction of the franchise – one not intended by legislators. The steps taken to overcome such barriers – some of them taken before the advent of the Charter and some of them since – include proxy voting, advance voting, special mail-in ballots, polling-day registration, use of multiple languages in election information, a ballot template for people with visual impairments and level access at polling stations, among many others. In short, the Charter not only guaranteed the right to vote but also highlighted the need to ensure that the right can be exercised.

Yet even extending the right to vote to virtually every adult in a society does not guarantee the sanctity of the democratic process. There is an additional requirement that participants in any electoral race compete on a fair and equal footing, and that the voting public be fully informed of the campaign activities of electoral candidates to ensure this equitability. In the last 30 years, sweeping legislation has been introduced to advance these ideals through registration of political parties and other political entities, regulation of political financing and third-party advertising, mandatory reporting of campaign contributions and spending, and other rules central to maintaining due restraint and visibility within the electoral process.

From its origins as a privilege of the propertied class, the vote has become a universal right of Canadian citizenship. As we will see, the road to universal suffrage was not without bumps and detours. Moreover, like its counterparts elsewhere, Canada's democratic system continues to evolve toward the goal of ensuring that all citizens can exercise their right to vote. Each generation faces anew the task of shaping institutions and adjusting processes to serve Canadians and reflect their values and aspirations.

Footnote 1 Joseph Wearing, ed., The Ballot and its Message: Voting in Canada (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman Ltd., 1991), p. 1. The actual number of votes cast at the general election of January 23, 2006, was more than 14 million – 14,908,703 to be exact.

Footnote 2 Canadian citizens age 18 or over have the right to vote in all but a few limited circumstances. Those excluded from voting in federal elections are the Chief Electoral Officer and the Assistant Chief Electoral Officer.  Note: in the Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer) decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Canada Elections Act provision disqualifying incarcerated individuals serving sentences of 2 years or more from voting in federal elections infringed the Charter.