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Chapter 3 – A History of the Vote in Canada

Modernization 1920–1981

Back to Table of contents, Chapter 3

Black-and-white photo of a large group of people crowding around the door of a building.

We have seen how the right to vote expanded gradually until the First World War and then how the electorate doubled when women gained the franchise. By 1920, with the removal of disqualifications based on gender or the ownership of property, nearly all adults had the right to vote. Nevertheless, many individuals were still disenfranchised for administrative reasons, and some groups were disqualified on racial, religious or economic grounds. That year, the establishment of the office of Chief Electoral Officer began the tradition of an independent, non-partisan agency administering the electoral process–one of the first such agencies in the world.

At the beginning of the period covered in this chapter, few special measures were in place to protect the right to vote by facilitating voting or encouraging those who had the franchise to exercise it. The conventional procedure for casting a ballot–an elector appearing in person at the polling station on the day set for the election–was the only available option. Citizens were presumed to

  • be present in the riding on the appointed day
  • have the time needed to get to a polling station and vote
  • hold employment that did not interfere with voting
  • have no characteristics–such as a disability or a language problem–that might pose an obstacle to voting

By 1981, these assumptions were recognized as faulty and no longer held sway in electoral law and administration.

Black-and-white photo showing a Black woman watching the deputy returning officer placing her ballot in the ballot box on voting day in the 1963 federal election.

Decision Day, 1963

A Toronto voter looks on as the deputy returning officer places the voter's ballot in the ballot box. It was not until 30 years later, when the electoral law was amended by Bill C-114, that voters were entitled to place their own ballots in the ballot box. Pierre Gaudard, National Gallery of Canada, NFB Collection

This chapter traces how the law and election administration have been shaped and reshaped to accommodate the broad diversity that characterizes the Canadian electorate. Legislative and administrative innovations made voting more accessible and convenient, modernized the election machinery, reformed the regulation of political parties and campaign finances and the process for setting new constituency boundaries, and removed racial and religious disqualifications.

Black-and-white portrait of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's face shown in an oval on a postcard.

Prophetic Pronouncement, 1917

Sir Wilfrid Laurier feared the effects of the 1917 election on French–English relations and opposed some of the changes in electoral law that preceded it, but he remained opposition leader after the votes were counted. This image is from a postcard used in Laurier's 1911 campaign. Library and Archives Canada

As we learned in Chapter 2, Sir Wilfrid Laurier feared the Wartime Elections Act would open an abyss that might not close for generations. He was referring to a clash between Canadians of French and British origin, but in the years immediately after the First World War, it seemed that the hysteria of 1917 might extend to other groups as well. Anti-German sentiment, for example, did not fade entirely with the end of the war. During social disturbances such as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, anti-alien feelings were widely expressed. In the 1920s, hostility to racial and religious minorities swept across North America, and these feelings were exacerbated by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War, and only dissipated in the post-war period. One way this hostility was expressed was in exclusionary electoral laws.

Black-and-white portrait of Sir Robert Borden facing the camera.

A New Era Dawns, 1920

Despite criticism of his 1917 election tactics, Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister from 1911 to 1920, is credited with ushering in the modern era of electoral law with passage of the Dominion Elections Act, predecessor of today's Canada Elections Act. William Topley, Library and Archives Canada, PA-027012

But not all developments in the franchise were negative. The Wartime Elections Act governed just one election, that of 1917, and was replaced under Borden's Conservative government by the Dominion Elections Act of 1920.1 The Act established the office of Chief Electoral Officer and named Oliver Mowat Biggar, a retired army colonel, as the first incumbent. After he resigned in 1927, the current mechanism of appointing the Chief Electoral Officer through a resolution of the House of Commons was adopted, thus isolating the incumbent from political pressures.

The new act gave the Chief Electoral Officer the status of a deputy minister and the tenure of a judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, which at that time was for life. In 1927, a mandatory retirement age of 75 years was set for judges of the Supreme Court and, by extension, for the Chief Electoral Officer. In 1948, the Dominion Elections Act was amended to provide for the compulsory retirement of the Chief Electoral Officer at age 65.

During debate on the Act, there was opposition to lifetime tenure. J. A. Currie, the MP for Simcoe North, said, You are only setting up a form of Prussianism when you are appointing officers for life. Other MPs also questioned the value of the office. But many would have agreed with Norman Ward's assessment: a most salutary reform. (Ward, 181)

As first Chief Electoral Officer, Colonel Biggar presided over what could have been the most chaotic election in years. No fewer than 75,000 newly minted election officials were appointed to supervise a completely redesigned process serving an electorate that, including women, was more than double the number of those eligible to vote before 1917. Despite these innovations, Biggar recounted in his statutory report that the problems involved in the election process itself were comparatively small, given the large number of people involved.

An important job of the Chief Electoral Officer was, and still is, to prepare a report after each election. The report, required under the Canada Elections Act, gives the Chief Electoral Officer a regular opportunity to assess how the electoral law is working and to suggest reforms to Parliament. Many of these have concerned access to the vote–how to ensure that electors can exercise their franchise. The post-election reports have had positive effects on the electoral process, as Parliament has adopted many of the Chief Electoral Officers' recommendations.

In his report after the 1921 election, for example, Colonel Biggar recounted the difficulties of electors–particularly women–who had been left off voters lists. He suggested the appointment of more revision officers and advised making more advance polls available. Parliament responded by reducing the number of voters needed for setting up an advance poll from 50 to 15.

Similarly, after the 1925 election, Colonel Biggar pointed out that with the election being held on a Thursday, the advance voting provisions had been of little use to commercial travellers: they were already out on the road when the advance polls opened for the three days preceding the election. In 1929, the law was changed to establish Monday as election day.

Chief Electoral Officers and Their Times

Just seven people have held the position of Chief Electoral Officer since it was established in 1920.

Oliver Mowat Biggar (1920–1927)
Black-and-white head-shot portrait of Chief Electoral Officer Oliver Mowat Biggar

Oliver Mowat Biggar

Elections Canada

The first Chief Electoral Officer, oversaw the development of federal election administration under the new law. It was his task to implement a system that centralized financial and organizational aspects of federal elections for the first time. Under him, reforms were begun to improve the accuracy and completeness of federal voters lists and to make advance polling more widely accessible.

Jules Castonguay (1927–1949)
Black-and-white head-shot portrait of Chief Electoral Officer Jules Castonguay

Jules Castonguay

Elections Canada

Launched the first attempt to establish a permanent list of electors. The last vestige of property qualification was eliminated during his tenure. He was responsible for introducing, in 1935, the short-lived innovation of sending a postcard telling each registered elector where to vote. Dropped in 1938, the postcard was reintroduced in 1982, when technological advances made the practice more cost-effective. During his term of office, a system was introduced that allowed Canadian military personnel serving overseas to vote.

Nelson Jules Castonguay (1949–1966)
Black-and-white head-shot portrait of Chief Electoral Officer Nelson Jules Castonguay

Nelson Jules Castonguay

Elections Canada

Oversaw the end of religious discrimination in the law, the extension of the franchise to all registered Indians and the introduction of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. During his tenure, special arrangements were made for electors in sanatoriums, chronic care hospitals and homes for seniors. Voting by postal ballot became available to spouses of military personnel posted abroad, and the right to vote in advance polls was made available to everyone who would be away from home on election day.

Jean-Marc Hamel (1966–1990)
Black-and-white head-shot portrait of Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Marc Hamel

Jean-Marc Hamel

Elections Canada

Implemented many changes in election law and administration, including the registration of political parties, the establishment of an election financing regime controlled by the 1974 Election Expenses Act and the creation of the position of Commissioner of Election Expenses, which in 1977 became the Commissioner of Canada Elections. After 1982, Jean-Marc Hamel oversaw the implementation of amendments arising from legal challenges to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. During his term in office, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years, and measures to increase the accessibility of the vote for electors with disabilities were put into place.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley (1990–2007)
Black-and-white head-shot portrait of Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley

Jean-Pierre Kingsley

Elections Canada

Continued the reforms needed to comply with the Charter and ushered Elections Canada into the age of computerized election administration. He implemented Elections Canada's new mandate to inform and educate voters, particularly those most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights. His tenure also saw the introduction of the 36-day election calendar and digitized electoral geography systems and products, and the establishment of the National Register of Electors. As well, the election financing regime was expanded to regulate third-party advertising and election financing of all political entities. During Jean-Pierre Kingsley's tenure, Elections Canada participated in many significant international development missions aimed at promoting democratic electoral processes. Following his recommendations to Parliament, the Canada Elections Act was amended in 2006 to authorize the Chief Electoral Officer to appoint returning officers.

Marc Mayrand (2007–2016)
Black-and-white head-shot portrait of Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand

Marc Mayrand

Elections Canada

Established an open and consultative approach with parliamentarians and political parties on electoral matters, particularly issues related to electors who face barriers to voting, such as electors with disabilities and youth. He launched the Advisory Group for Disability Issues to provide expertise on accessibility initiatives and identify ways to make information about the electoral process more accessible. He also created the Elections Canada Advisory Board to seek advice on the conduct of elections, electoral participation by voters and political participants, regulatory compliance and electoral reform. During Marc Mayrand's term, Parliament adopted legislation that set fixed dates for general elections, focused Elections Canada's public education and information programs on primary and secondary school students, and implemented voter identification measures at the polls. Under his leadership, the Online Voter Registration Service was introduced, as was the use of social media channels to communicate with electors.

Stéphane Perrault (2018–)
Black-and-white head-shot portrait of Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault

Stéphane Perrault

Elections Canada

Served in several positions at Elections Canada before becoming Associate and then Acting Chief Electoral Officer in 2016. He was formally appointed as Chief Electoral Officer in 2018. He has set up a consultative process with political parties to bring greater transparency and engagement to resolve regulatory issues and has overseen initiatives to increase young people's interest in electoral democracy, including the creation of the Advisory Circle of Educators and the renewal of the agency's civic education program. In the lead-up to the 2019 general election, he guided the implementation of the provisions of the Elections Modernization Act. Under his leadership, Elections Canada has also worked with government security agencies to address growing threats to electoral security, such as cyberattacks and disinformation.

The Dominion Elections Act of 1920

Parliament's overhaul of the electoral law in 1920 not only established the office of Chief Electoral Officer but also centralized the financial and logistical operations of federal election administration for the first time. It was a comprehensive revision of the election law, yet flaws remained in the system.

An Elections Canada proclamation announcing the General Election of Monday, November 21, 1988, to the voters of Nunatsiaq, Northwest Territories.

Never on Sunday

Since 1929, the law has specified that elections are to be held on a Monday unless that day is a federal or provincial holiday, in which case voters cast their ballots on Tuesday. Election proclamations have followed a similar format for the past 200 years. This 1988 proclamation is for Nunatsiaq, which was then Canada's largest riding in terms of area (a distinction held by Nunavut since 1993) and its smallest in population. Library and Archives Canada, Office of the Chief Electoral Officer fonds

The most serious deficiencies were the continuing obstacles to voting for some female electors; exclusion from the franchise of specific groups for racial, religious or economic reasons; disqualifications for judges, prisoners, expatriates and people with mental disabilities; and administrative disenfranchisement of individual voters. One hundred years after the passage of the revised electoral law, efforts continue to be made to increase accessibility, fairness and transparency to safeguard democratic values.

Voters Lists

As was the case before 1920, the new law provided for elections to be conducted on the basis of lists of electors; in urban areas, the lists to be used were provincial lists compiled previously, but in rural areas, an enumeration would be conducted. These lists proved contentious, not only in their compilation, but also in what they contained and how they were published. The most serious problem—placing the names of eligible women on the electoral rolls—was solved by 1929, but methods of preparation, revision and publication continued to be debated and modified over the years.

The reason for the distinction between rural and urban polling divisions and the two different methods of compiling and revising voters lists was concern about the completeness and accuracy of existing voters lists in rural areas. This fear was borne out in the 1921 election, when lists from rural Ontario proved virtually useless.

The law, therefore, stipulated that in rural polling divisions (places with a population of less than 1,000), lists were to be open. People would be enumerated by specially appointed registrars in a door-to-door canvass. Voters missed by the enumeration could be sworn in on election day, as long as another voter named on the list vouched for them.

But in urban polling divisions, voters left off a provincial list had to apply to a registrar–a person appointed by the returning officer to register people on the voting list. One was available in each constituency for 10 hours a day for 6 days. After this time, urban lists were closed until the next election. The argument used to justify this difference in treatment was that rural areas were harder to canvass, so election day swearing-in was needed to protect the franchise of rural voters. There was also an assumption that in rural areas, people were more likely to know each other than in urban areas. It was not until 1993, when Bill C-114 eliminated the distinction between urban and rural polling divisions, that urban voters had access to this provision.

The urban/rural distinction appears to have been a significant impediment to the exercise of the franchise for many electors. Some constituencies included both rural and urban polling divisions, and voters did not always know which type of polling division they lived in–which meant that they might not take the steps necessary to have their names added to the list. To add to electors' confusion, a few months before the 1921 election, the definition of rural polling divisions was changed. Now towns with a population of less than 2,500 were considered rural. (This population figure was later revised several times.)

But the most serious impact that became apparent in the 1921 election was that large numbers of women seemed to have been prevented from voting, despite the removal of legal restrictions in 1917–1918.

In Quebec, for example, women did not have the vote in provincial elections until 1940. (Indeed, Alexandre Taschereau asserted that they would never get it so long as he was premier—which he was until 1936.) Until 1929, provincial lists were used in rural areas; because women's names did not appear on those lists, they tended to be disfranchised. The only way women in rural areas could register was to swear an oath on election day.

The results are apparent in the figures for elector registration. In Ontario, 99.7 percent of the population aged 21 or older was registered; the comparable figure in Quebec was 90.6 percent. The 9 percentage-point difference was the equivalent of 107,259 people. As there were 581,865 women aged 21 or over in Quebec in 1921, it seems likely that the vast majority of unregistered people were women who were thus unable to exercise the federal franchise.

In 1929, the Act was amended to abolish the use of provincial voters lists, making it much easier for Quebec women to be registered on federal voters lists, even though they did not gain the provincial franchise until 1940.

These changes did not come without protest. The Conservative leader, Arthur Meighen, felt that allowing swearing-in on election day in towns of 2,500 could lead to fraud. Charles G. (Chubby) Power, a Liberal member of Parliament, agreed, saying that some people might show their patriotism through their willingness to vote more often than the law considers judicious. (Debates, June 19, 1925; 4548) Despite these warnings, there appears to have been little such patriotism in the ensuing decades.

Beginning with the election of 1930 and until the 1990s, most federal elections were conducted using lists assembled by enumerators during the election period. For most of this period, urban enumerators worked in pairs; in rural areas, there was only one enumerator per polling division. In urban areas, enumerators were appointed from lists of names submitted to each returning officer by the parties of the candidates placing first and second in the electoral district in the previous election.

Black-and-white photo of a man wearing a suit and a long coat walking by a tree that has several documents pinned to it, one of which reads 'Notice of Election.'

Privacy Matters

The location of polling stations was clearly posted for all to see during the 1963 general election. The same practice applied to voters lists until 1982, when concerns about privacy prompted its abandonment, to be replaced by a voter notification system based on postcards sent to everyone who had been enumerated. Since 1997, however, preliminary voters lists have been compiled from the National Register of Electors, following the 1996 amendment to the Canada Elections Act. Pierre Gaudard, National Gallery of Canada, NFB Collection, no 63-3289

Once lists were compiled through enumeration, voters–particularly in urban polling divisions–had to make sure that their names appeared if they wanted to be able to cast a ballot. A few copies of the pertinent list were posted in every polling division so voters could check on the accuracy of the enumeration. In his 1926 report, Colonel Biggar stated that the lists had been drawn up in haste, that publicly posted lists were subject to damage by weather and vandals, and that many people felt they had been left off on party grounds. Since revising officers were normally partisan appointees, simple mistakes were often attributed to bad faith. Biggar suggested that there should be wider access to the lists so people could check their accuracy more easily.

The Election "Telegram"

Despite steady improvement in electoral law, the "telegram," a form of electoral fraud well known in the 19th century, did not disappear until the middle of the 20th century. Campaign organizers "sent a telegram" by giving a voter an illegally obtained ballot already marked in favour of the organizer's candidate. Inside the booth, the voter concealed the blank ballot received from the deputy returning officer, then emerged with the pre-marked ballot, which was placed in the ballot box. Presenting the blank ballot would garner a "reward" from the organizer, who would then mark the ballot and repeat the process with another voter. Since the reward was received only after the ballot was cast, a voter could swear with impunity before entering the booth that he had received neither money nor other inducements. This fraudulent practice was finally laid to rest with the introduction of administrative controls.

Jules Castonguay, the second Chief Electoral Officer, took up the issue again after the 1930 election, reporting that there was no easy way for voters to protect their right to vote by ensuring they were on the voters list. He suggested that every household receive a copy of the list for the relevant polling division. This recommendation was adopted–eventually–after a different method was tried in 1934.

Black-and-white photo showing a child in a dog cart used to promote a 'Yes' vote in the 1942 plebiscite on conscription for military service, with a second child and a man in a suit looking on.

Too Young to Vote, 1942

The rules governing eligibility to vote in federal elections also apply to federal referendums. Here, the Rooney Club of Toronto uses a dog cart to promote a "Yes" vote in the plebiscite on conscription for overseas military service, held on April 27, 1942. The other national referendums were on prohibition (1898) and the Charlottetown Accord (1992). In 1992, Parliament adopted the Referendum Act to govern the conduct of consultative referendums on the Constitution. Milne Studios, Library and Archives Canada, C-029452

The 1934 innovation was to send each registered elector a postcard showing where to vote. The Chief Electoral Officer's report described this as quite onerous, because each card had to be addressed individually. The postcards were dropped after this election, and from the 1940 election until 1982 (when postcards were reintroduced), voters were sent a copy of the list showing the name, address and occupation of all voters in the relevant polling division.

Cartoon depicting a male and a female enumerator standing in the open doorway of a home. The older man who answered the door frowns as his wife asks him, 'But Rodney, are you sure the Geneva Convention requiring you to give only your name, address and social security number applies?'

The Enumerator's Challenge, 1965

"But Rodney, are you sure the Geneva Convention requiring you to give only your name, address and social security number applies?" As this cartoon by The Vancouver Sun's Len Norris suggests, the enumerator does not always get co-operation. With the advent of the National Register of Electors in the spring of 1997, enumeration is now a thing of the past. Len Norris, Library and Archives Canada, C-1333444

The Conservative government of R. B. Bennett also introduced a standing list of electors (a form of permanent voters list) in 1934. It established the office of Dominion Franchise Commissioner; the registration of electors became regulated under the Dominion Franchise Act. There was to be a final enumeration, and constituency registrars would revise the lists annually after that. All voters lists, both rural and urban, would be closed—anyone left off inadvertently would have to apply to be put on and could not vote until that was done.

One annual revision was undertaken, and the list was used for the election of 1935, but financial constraints prevented revision of the electoral register after that. The technology of the day was insufficient to overcome the logistical obstacles, so the effort was abandoned in 1938. Enumeration was restored as the method of compiling lists.

MPs who had experienced Bennett's electoral register system saw it as far too expensive and cumbersome, and even the Chief Electoral Officer, whose reports were normally circumspect, said that it was no improvement on the pre-election enumeration system. Jules Castonguay observed that the updated elections act had not worked effectively. Sending individually addressed postcards to notify electors was costly and time-consuming, he said. The government adopted his suggestion of sending a poll list to each voter, and the idea of a permanent list did not resurface until the 1980s.

Access to the Vote

A significant innovation of the 1920 elections act was the provision for voting in advance of election day by specified groups of voters: commercial travellers, railwaymen and sailors could vote during the three days (excluding Sundays) preceding an election.

Although most people would consider advance voting a positive step, the provision was controversial from the first. A former minister of finance, W. S. Fielding, saw it as a waste of money; it was, he said, like creating a steam engine to run a canoe for a mere handful of voters. Fielding maintained that railwaymen and others should cast their votes by proxy. This would interfere with the secrecy of the ballot, he conceded, but most men, at least in his home province of Nova Scotia, made no secret of how they voted, so the loss of secrecy did not matter much. (Debates, April 13, 1920; 1163)

This grudging attitude toward advance voting endured for decades. In 1934, it was extended to workers in airships (as aircraft were described in the law until 1960), to members of the armed forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and to fishermen–although MPs pointed out that fishermen were unlikely to be in port for the brief advance polling period if it occurred during fishing season.

The advance polls were available only to voters who expected to be absent from the riding on business on election day; they had to swear to this and obtain a certificate. It was thus no easy matter to vote at an advance poll, even if a voter was among the lucky few who qualified.

Another step that improved access to the vote was legislation increasing worker entitlement to time off for voting. The measure was first introduced in 1915, when employers were required to allow workers to absent themselves from work for an hour to vote (in addition to their lunch hour). In 1920, this was increased to two hours. The number of consecutive hours was increased to three in 1948 and to four in 1970.

During the interwar years, the only new group to obtain the vote consisted of people receiving public charitable support or care in municipal poorhouses (who had not been enumerated in the past because they lacked a home address). They received the franchise in 1929. On the whole, the two decades after the First World War were marked by modest but steady improvements in the conditions under which electors exercised the right to vote.

The Second World War and its Aftermath

The next stage in the evolution of the franchise saw the lifting of racial and religious restrictions on voting, some of which had been in effect for many years. It was also a period of innovation in the accessibility of the vote, with legislative and administrative changes to facilitate voting and make it more convenient for electors.

The interval between the world wars saw the spread of antagonism toward minority groups in Canada. A degree of mistrust or suspicion of aliens had persisted since the First World War. As is common in periods of economic distress, this grew into hostility toward minorities during the Great Depression of the 1930s, exacerbating the social conflicts arising from competition for scarce jobs and societal resources. Finally, the crisis of the Second World War provoked further racial animosity, particularly toward Canadians of Japanese origin.

One result of these powerful social currents was the continued disqualification of particular groups on racial or religious grounds. Many ordinary Canadians seemed to accept these developments as a fact of life. To their credit, some MPs from all parties opposed racism and social injustice in impassioned speeches in the House of Commons. But in the pervasive climate of intolerance, especially in the 1930s, their voices did not prevail.

Black-and-white photo of an internment identification card of a Canadian citizen of Japanese origin in 1941. His photo appears on the right-hand side of the card.

Japanese Canadians

In addition to being registered and interned during the Second World War, citizens of Japanese origin living in British Columbia had been excluded from voting by the Dominion Elections Act of 1920. This internment identification card, belonging to Sutekichi Miyagawa, was presented to the National Archives of Canada in 1975 along with a collection of related items. Library and Archives Canada, PA-103542

When the Second World War was over, Canadians seemed to realize that they had mistreated minority groups, and disenfranchisements of earlier years began to be reversed. By 1960, when all Status Indians–people registered as an Indian under the Indian Act–were finally granted the unconditional right to vote, disqualifications on racial and religious grounds had been eliminated altogether. At the same time, legislative and administrative change was making it possible for more and more Canadians to exercise their right to vote in various ways.

Racial Exclusions

One of the significant exceptions to universal adult suffrage in the Dominion Elections Act of 1920 was a clause stating that people disenfranchised by a province for reasons of race would also be excluded from the federal franchise. In 1920, only one province–British Columbia–discriminated against large numbers of potential voters on the basis of race. British Columbia excluded people of Japanese and Chinese origin, as well as Hindus–a description applied to anyone from the Indian subcontinent who was not of Anglo-Saxon origin, regardless of whether their religious affiliation was Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or any other. Saskatchewan also disenfranchised people of Chinese origin, although the number of persons affected by the exclusion was much smaller than that in British Columbia.

British Columbia had a long history of such discrimination: when it entered Confederation in 1871, it is estimated that at least two thirds of the province's population was of First Nations or Chinese origin. Under successive provincial governments, measures excluding First Nations people and people of Asian ancestry from the franchise were extended as immigration increased toward the end of the 19th century.

The exclusion was challenged in the Homma case of 1900, but in 1903, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom (at that time the ultimate court of appeal for Canada) upheld the prerogative of the British Columbia legislature to decide who could vote in provincial elections.

Denial of the franchise had far-reaching implications, because provincial law also required that pharmacists, lawyers, and provincial and municipal civil servants be registered on the voters lists. As a result, Canadians of Japanese and Chinese origin were barred from these professions and from contracting with local governments, which had the same requirement.

Even military service was not enough to qualify people of Asian ancestry for the vote. After the First World War, the British Columbia legislature decided, following much debate, not to give the vote to returning veterans of Japanese origin, much less to other Japanese Canadians. Some had voted in the 1917 federal election: under the terms of the Military Voters Act, provincial disqualification had not deprived them of the federal vote. In the debate on the 1920 elections act, however, Hugh Guthrie, the solicitor general of the day, made clear his objection to enfranchisement:

So far as I know, citizenship in no country carries with it the right to vote. The right to vote is a conferred right in every case … This Parliament says upon what terms men shall vote … No Oriental, whether he be Hindu, Japanese or Chinese, acquires the right to vote simply by the fact of citizenship …

Debates, April 29, 1920; 1821

Guthrie maintained that his government was not discriminating but merely recognizing the provincial disqualification imposed by the law of any province by reason of race.

In 1936, a delegation of Japanese Canadians asked the House of Commons to extend the franchise to them. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King said that he had been unaware that they wanted the franchise. A. W. Neill, the Independent MP for Comox–Alberni, British Columbia, an area with a significant Japanese Canadian population, said the request for the franchise was sob stuff and claptrap. Another member for British Columbia, Thomas Reid, suggested that the whole affair was a plot to enable the Japanese government to plant spies in British Columbia. Needless to say, given such views, the franchise was not extended.

Black-and-white photo of a group of three Japanese men and one Japanese woman standing on the steps of Parliament.

Seeking the right to vote

In 1936, this delegation representing the Japanese Canadian Citizens League travelled to the House of Commons in Ottawa to request the right to vote. Isami (Sam) Okamoto Collection, Nikkei National Museum, 2000.

The war years and the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought expulsions and internment for Canadians of Japanese origin. In 1944, Parliament amended the Dominion Elections Act to deny the vote to the Japanese Canadians forced to leave British Columbia and relocate in provinces where they had not previously been disqualified from voting. Extending British Columbia's racially based disenfranchisement laws to the rest of Canada provoked considerable reaction from MPs representing other provinces.

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation member for Cape Breton South, Clarence Gillis, said:

While we know that the war with Japan is a serious matter and that many atrocities have been committed by the people of that country, there is no reason why we should try to duplicate the performances of that country.

—Debates, July 17, 1944; 4912

Arthur Roebuck, the Liberal MP for Toronto–Trinity, said that he

could not face the minority groups in my own city—the Ukrainians, the Poles, yes, the Italians, and many others—if I allowed this occasion to pass without making myself absolutely clear before this House and the country that, when it comes to racial discrimination against anybody, count me out.

—Debates, July 17, 1944; 4926

Not all members were of like mind, however. Independent MP A. W. Neill supported the disenfranchisement, stating that, This is a white man's country, and we want it left a white man's country. (Debates, July 17, 1944; 4935)

Prime Minister King denied that the policy was racist: a Japanese Canadian who had lived in Alberta before 1938 would not lose his vote, he argued, only a Japanese Canadian who moved there from British Columbia after 1938. The evacuees were still citizens of British Columbia, he said, and subject to its laws even though they no longer lived in the province. (Debates, July 17, 1944; 4912–4937)

After the Second World War, the most virulently anti-Japanese MPs lost their seats to more moderate members, and public opinion began to shift as well. Voting restrictions on Japanese Canadians continued until 1948, when Parliament deleted the reference to discrimination in the franchise on the basis of race. The discussion was brief, occupying just one column in the House of Commons debates for June 15, 1948. This particular form of racism in Canadian electoral law now belonged to history, although First Nations people would not be enfranchised for more than a decade.

Black-and-white photo of an elderly Chinese man placing his ballot in a metal ballot box while a female election worker sits beside him, smiling.

Voting for the First Time

Won Alexander Cumyow, the first Chinese-Canadian born in Canada, votes for the first time in the 1949 federal election at the age of 88. Most racial barriers were removed the previous year, and Chinese Canadians were no longer barred from voting. University of British Columbia Libraries Special Collections, Won Alexander Cumyow fonds. BC 1848, 9

Religious Exclusions

Several religious groups were disenfranchised by the Wartime Elections Act of 1917, mainly because they opposed military service. Most prominent among them were the Mennonites and the Doukhobors. This disenfranchisement ended with the end of the First World War, but the treatment later accorded the two pacifist groups in the development of the franchise varied enormously.

Mennonites migrating to Canada in the 1870s had been given an exemption from military service by an Order in Council dated March 3, 1873, but they lost the franchise during the First World War because they spoke an enemy language (German). They regained the vote when the Dominion Elections Act of 1920 superseded the Wartime Elections Act.

The Mennonites attracted relatively little anti-alien hostility, as their way of life allowed them to blend into the farming communities where they lived. By contrast, the Hutterites and the Doukhobors aroused more animosity, not so much because of their pacifist beliefs, but because they practised communal farming. The Hutterites had migrated to Canada from the United States in 1918 to avoid conscription. Although they sparked some opposition locally where they settled, generally they attracted little notice, and they rarely voted.

Black-and-white photo of a crowd of people gathering before a large church.

Conscientious Objectors

Mennonites and other religious groups whose faith forbade them from bearing arms lost the right to vote under the Wartime Elections Act of 1917. While Mennonites regained the right to vote in 1920, other religious groups, such as the Doukhobors, were excluded until the ban on voting by conscientious objectors was lifted in 1955. Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

The Doukhobors were another matter. In 1917, and again from 1934 to 1955 (when the ban on voting by conscientious objectors was lifted), Doukhobors lost the federal franchise, ostensibly because their faith forbade them to bear arms. The debates in the House of Commons showed clearly, however, that the MPs who opposed giving Doukhobors the vote were less concerned about military service than about the Doukhobors' social views and behaviour.

Debate on the 1934 Dominion Elections Act in particular revealed the intolerant views of some British Columbia MPs, in contrast with more widespread support for freedom of religion from MPs of other provinces.

W. J. Esling, the Conservative member for Kootenay West, stated that if MPs from other provinces had been in his constituency, they would all have been quite willing to disenfranchise this religious sect.

Another Conservative MP, Grote Stirling, soon to be minister of national defence, said the Doukhobors behaved with disgusting indecency. In particular, he resented the fact that they voted Liberal en bloc, on the orders of their leader. Independent MP A. W. Neill said that only sickly sentimental MPs wanted Doukhobors to have the franchise.

One of the MPs who did support the Doukhobors was J. S. Woodsworth, leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. He praised the Doukhobors for their industriousness and protested against religious tenets being made the basis for disfranchisement. Woodsworth and a number of Liberal MPs participating in the debate pointed out that the Doukhobors could hardly become good citizens if they and their descendants were disenfranchised.

Debating further revisions to the elections act in 1938, Esling, Stirling and Neill again opposed giving Doukhobors the vote. T. C. Love, provincial member for the region of British Columbia where the largest number of Doukhobors lived, claimed that giving them the vote would be the end of true democracy in the West Kootenays. (Vancouver Province, April 7, 1938) The Doukhobors remained disenfranchised.

After the Second World War, as part of the general easing of racial and religious discrimination, racial disqualifications from the franchise were gradually dropped. In 1955, the last vestige of discrimination against a religious group in Canadian electoral law was repealed.

Indigenous Peoples and the Franchise

Indigenous peoples in Canada consist of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. Each has its own history and experience of the franchise.

First Nations people in most parts of Canada had the right to vote from Confederation on, but only if they gave up their status through a process defined in the Indian Act and known as enfranchisement. Understandably, very few were willing to do this. It is worth noting that this requirement to give up status was not imposed on them if they joined the military. In fact, the franchise was extended to members of the First Nations who served in the world wars–although until 1924, any First World War veterans who returned to their reserves lost the right to vote. A great many First Nations people also served with distinction in the Canadian Forces during the Second World War; this was among the reasons eventually leading Canadians to conclude that all Indigenous people should have the full rights of citizenship.

Proposals to extend the franchise to First Nations date to at least 1885, when Status Indians in Eastern Canada who met the existing requirements gained the right to vote. This was revoked in 1898, and in general such proposals met with a great deal of hostility.

One reason for this opposition, apart from prevailing paternalistic or racist social attitudes, was the notion that First Nations people would become the dupes of non–First Nations politicians. Both Canada and the United States have a long tradition of newly enfranchised voters voting as a bloc, often as directed by their community leaders. As these voters gained more education and became more integrated into North American society, they tended to drift away from the influence of political bosses.

Black-and-white photo of an election worker and Inuit man shaking hands while several other Inuit men stand on the steps of a building watching.

Elections in the North

In 1950, Inuit regained the right to vote. During the 1953 federal election, election officials travelled to many northern communities to deliver election supplies and to provide voting services. The advent of modern communications technologies, along with changes in the law such as the special ballot for mail-in registration and voting, has made voting from northern and remote communities easier. Elections Canada

There was opposition to the franchise on the other side, as well. First Nations peoples had formed social groupings and elaborate systems of government well before their first contacts with Europeans. Many, therefore, looked unfavourably on 19th-century proposals for enfranchisement for at least two reasons.

First, they perceived it as an end to their recognition as distinct nations or peoples and possibly the beginning of assimilation into non–First Nations society.

Second, voting in Canadian elections would mean participating in a system of government that was alien to the traditions, conventions and practices of governance of many First Nations peoples. Furthermore, electoral participation would have been essentially redundant: they already had their own systems for choosing leaders and governing themselves.

For almost a century after the 1885 debate, there was little pressure to extend the franchise to First Nations citizens, though it was granted in 1924 to First Nations veterans of the First World War, including veterans living on reserves. With the exception of those veterans, the Dominion Franchise Act of 1934 explicitly disqualified First Nations persons living on reserves and Inuit from voting in federal elections.

Inuit in Canada had the vote restored to them without qualification in 1950. Among other strategies by the Canadian government to protect its sovereignty in the Arctic following the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, it relocated individuals, families and communities into the high Arctic in the 1950s. At the same time, the government also extended the right to vote and all rights of citizenship to the Inuit. The 1952 federal election was the first in which they had the right to vote, and efforts were made to bring election supplies to isolated Inuit communities. However, it was not until the 1962 federal election that ballot boxes were finally placed in all Inuit communities in the eastern Arctic, thus permitting full exercise of the franchise. (Milen, 5)

The Métis, on the other hand, were treated as having the same rights as all other Canadians with respect to voting; thus, they never experienced any legislative impediments to the exercise of the franchise. Moreover, few Métis were covered by treaties or a federal statute like the Indian Act, so there was no basis on which to attempt to justify disqualifying them. In fact, in 1873 the Métis in Manitoba voted to elect Louis Riel, a Métis leader, to Parliament.

A special joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons recommended in 1948 that First Nations people be given the vote. But it was not until John Diefenbaker became prime minister that the franchise was extended with no strings attached. Diefenbaker had long advocated extending the vote to First Nations people. In his memoirs, he described how, as a child growing up in Saskatchewan, he had met many First Nations people and had committed himself to getting them the right to vote. (Diefenbaker, 29–30) In 1958, Diefenbaker appointed James Gladstone (Akay-na-muka, or Many Guns) to the Senate, where he was the first member of First Nations origin.

The right to vote is one of the great privileges of democratic society, for after all it is you the people, not the Gallup poll, who determine into whose hands the guidance of public affairs may best be entrusted.

— John G. Diefenbaker
June 15, 1962
Black-and-white photo of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker talking to three First Nations men.

A Question of Rights

In 1960, First Nations people gained the right to vote at the federal level without any conditions. Before that, they were mostly excluded from voting unless they gave up their "Indian" status under the law. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker played a key role in removing voting restrictions for First Nations people. University of Saskatchewan, University Archives & Special Collections, John G. Diefenbaker fonds MG 411, JGD 3635

On March 10, 1960, after a debate marked by virtually unanimous support, the House of Commons finally voted to give First Nations people the right to vote without forcing them to give up their status in exchange. In 1968, the first Status Indian elected to the House of Commons was Len Marchand, representing the British Columbia constituency of Kamloops–Cariboo. More First Nations people have been elected since then, though by no means in proportion to their presence in the Canadian population.

Black-and-white photo of a polling station where a First Nations man is placing his ballot in a metal ballot box as election workers look on.

First Nations Voters

Following the extension of the vote to all First Nations people, members of the Hiawatha and Curve Lake First Nations in Central Ontario voted for the first time in a federal by-election on October 31, 1960. From left: Lawrence Salleby; Chief Ralph Loucks, deputy returning officer; Lucy Muskratt, poll clerk; Eldon Muskratt, poll constable. Library and Archives Canada, PA-123915

First Nations women experienced a different and more complex history. Under the Indian Act, until 1985 a male Status Indian conferred status on his non-Status wife upon marriage, while a female Status Indian who married a non-Indian or a non-Status man lost her status, as did any children of the marriage. They could no longer live on reserve and lost the right to own reserve land or inherit family property, they could not receive treaty benefits or participate in band councils and political or social affairs in the community, and they lost the right to be buried in cemeteries with their ancestors.2 On June 28, 1985, Parliament passed Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Indian Act, which, among other things, removed this form of discrimination against First Nations women.

In each of the instances just recounted–extension of the vote to Canadians of Japanese and Chinese origin, to the Doukhobors and to Indigenous people–change was accomplished by amending the existing electoral law. Such advances in the franchise might have been trumpeted as great achievements in human and democratic rights. For instance, J. W. Pickersgill, minister of citizenship and immigration in the previous Liberal government, suggested the adoption of a special explanatory preamble to the 1960 act that gave First Nations people the right to vote without having to give up their status. But Ellen Fairclough, Canada's first female Cabinet member, who was charged with seeing the amendments through the House, said that this would be merely gilding the lily, or in other words, unnecessary. (Debates, March 10, 1960; 1957) In the years since the unconditional right to vote was granted to all Indigenous peoples in Canada, many voters from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities have recognized the importance of federal electoral participation and have exercised their right to vote.

Accessibility and the Electoral Process

Mechanisms to ensure that electors could exercise their franchise multiplied in this period. In 1948, for example, time off from work to vote was increased to three hours. This rose to four hours in 1970, before settling back at three hours in 1996, when polling hours were extended, making the extra time off unnecessary.

Black-and-white photo of a man in a wheelchair being assisted into a polling station during the 1963 General Election. The photo includes the posted Notice of Grant of a Poll on a tree outside the polling station.

Restricted Right

By the 1963 general election, most legal restrictions on the franchise had been removed, but a voter with a disability might still face physical barriers to the polling station. Jack Marshall, National Gallery of Canada, NFB Collection

A greater change in voting procedures was the postal ballot for members of the armed forces. The King government instituted the system for military personnel serving overseas during the Second World War. Following the dissolution of Parliament in 1940, the Cabinet adopted, under the War Measures Act, a measure that allowed soldiers to vote by mail at the election that had just been called. In 1944, this was made part of the Dominion Elections Act, allowing some 342,000 members of the armed forces to vote in the 1945 general election.

For the same election, proxy voting was introduced for Canadians being held as prisoners of war. Proxy votes, some 1,300 in 1945, were cast by the nearest relatives of those being held prisoner. The provision was restored in 1951 and used again during the Korean conflict, when 18 Canadians were prisoners of war. It disappeared from the statute book when the statutes of Canada were revised in 1985.

Voting by people who were away from home on election day was accommodated by several innovative procedures in this period. In 1951, special arrangements were introduced in sanatoriums and chronic care hospitals. Voting at polling stations set up in these locations, and in homes for the elderly after 1960, would be suspended temporarily so that election officers (with permission from those in charge of the facility) could take the voting equipment from room to room, enabling anyone who was bedridden to vote if he or she wished to do so.

In addition, the military postal ballot was extended to the spouses of armed forces personnel in 1955 so that they could vote while accompanying their husbands or wives on a posting away from the home constituency.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman in a wheelchair accessing a polling station using a wheelchair ramp.

Exercising a Right

In the 1970s and 1980s, as public awareness of voters' diverse abilities and needs grew, better access for people with disabilities was achieved at many polling stations through administrative measures. But it was not until 1992 (Bill C-78) that the law was changed to require level access at polling stations. Elections Canada

The 1942 Conscription Plebiscite

On April 27, 1942, the second federal referendum was held. The Liberal government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King asked Canadians if they were in favour of releasing the government from its promise not to use conscripts for overseas military service in the Second World War. Voter turnout was 71.3 percent. More than 60 percent of the voters replied "Yes," the others, "No." In Quebec, however, about 72 percent voted "No."

Consolidation and Review, 1961–1981

By 1960, then, amendments to Canada's electoral law had resulted in significant advances over the situation in 1920: racial and religious discrimination was no longer a factor in voter qualification, and no major group was deprived of the franchise deliberately or directly. The most significant changes in the law were concerned mainly with refining the electoral process–changes that affected how the process worked, rather than the extent or nature of the franchise.

Among these modifications were the regulation of political parties and campaign finance and the appointment of impartial commissions to set new constituency boundaries to reflect demographic change. Both changes had significant effects on the electoral process; from an elector's perspective, the most discernible result was probably the appearance of candidates' party affiliations on the ballot and the opportunity to make a tax-deductible political contribution.

This period also saw numerous changes undertaken to meet the varying needs of electors, including extension of advance voting provisions to all voters, adjustments to voters lists and reduction of the voting age from 21 years to 18. In addition, this was a time when the rights and concerns of people with disabilities began to gain greater public recognition, resulting in changes in their access to the polls and privacy in casting their ballots. Finally, the passage in 1969 of the Official Languages Act meant that voters everywhere gained the right to have access to election materials in either English or French.

Regulation of Political Parties, Candidates and Campaign Finance

From Confederation to the present, there has been a steady expansion of the franchise as citizens' right to vote became the cornerstone of electoral law. For this right to be meaningful, however, citizens must be able, first, to choose among competing parties and candidates and, second, to support the validity of their choice by having access to information about the activities of the contestants.

Yet the full disclosure of electoral activity required by today's standards is a strikingly recent innovation. This is due to the fact that political actors used to believe that party financing was an internal matter and that the state should not interfere with it. This mentality disappeared at the beginning of the 1960s. Scandals that surfaced in the country or abroad, such as the Watergate scandal in the United States, ushered in this shift in perspective.

As we saw in Chapter 2, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Dominion Elections Act was amended to require candidates to disclose election expenses, to make it an offence to assist a candidate in exchange for money, to ban corporations from making campaign contributions and to require donations from others to be made only through a candidate's official agent.

Starting in 1920, candidates were required to reveal the names of contributors and the amounts of their donations. In 1930, the restrictions on contributions from corporations were lifted. Until the 1970s, these changes remained the last significant amendments to the election financing provisions of the Act, despite the lingering deficiencies that would be exposed from time to time.

However, if the mid-20th century was marked by a prolonged inattention to the advancement of electoral financing provisions, after 1970 there was a flurry of legislation. It was during this period that political parties were first recognized in law–and the financial activities of political parties, candidates, third parties, and local electoral district associations alike first became regulated. Also dating from this period is the position of Commissioner of Election Expenses, later designated the Commissioner of Canada Elections.

Recognition of Political Parties in Law

Before 1970, the Canada Elections Act did not recognize the existence of political parties. However, this situation was examined in 1966 by the Advisory Committee to Study Curtailment of Election Expenses (known as the Barbeau Committee after its chair, Alphonse Barbeau), which contended that such legal recognition could be used to enable

  • equalization in the money available to electoral candidates
  • access to information by requiring disclosure of electoral financing
  • wider participation in politics by the electorate through a tax credit system

The Committee considered these objectives fundamental to the development of the democratic system.

Following the Barbeau Committee's recommendations, the Canada Elections Act was amended in 1970 to include a process by which political parties could register and thereby receive legal recognition. This was an attractive innovation for party leaders because, by registering, a party was for the first time allowed to place its name on the ballot under that of its candidate in any electoral district. Given that candidate support is strongly influenced by party affiliation, this was an important piece of information to have on the ballot.

Regulation of Election Spending

Registration became all the more significant a few years later, when, following recommendations from both the Barbeau Committee and the 1972 report from the House of Commons Special Committee on Elections Expenses (known as the Chappell Committee after its chair, Hyliard Chappell), Parliament adopted the Election Expenses Act in 1974. This was a significant new piece of legislation because it required political parties to limit their election spending and report the sources of their contributions, but at the same time, it made them eligible to receive reimbursements for a portion of their election expenses.

Before 1974, only the finances of candidates were regulated under electoral legislation, leaving all others free to promote the party or candidate of their choice to whatever extent they saw fit. In the opinion of the Barbeau Committee,

no group or bodies other than registered parties and nominated candidates [should] be permitted to purchase radio and television time, or to use paid advertising in newspapers, periodicals, or direct mailing, posters or billboards in support of, or opposition to, any party or candidate, from the date of the issuance of the election writ until the day after polling day.

Barbeau Committee Report 1966, 50

Conceding that such limits might encroach somewhat on the freedom of third parties, the Barbeau Committee nonetheless concluded that without any restrictions, it would simply be impossible to limit and control election spending. The Committee's recommendation, however, extended only to expenditures aimed at directly opposing or endorsing parties or candidates during an election period. It did not support a ban of indirect expenditures (issue advocacy), believing that this would stifle the actions of such groups in their day-to-day activities. In 1972, the Chappell Committee–while supporting the Barbeau Committee's position on direct expenditures–extended the recommendation to indirect expenditures as well.

In 1974, a Liberal minority government had a slim margin of seats over the opposition Progressive Conservatives, with the New Democratic Party holding the balance of power. It was a time when many closely related events caused concern about mushrooming election expenditures. To this were added all the ramifications of the Watergate scandal following the 1972 election in the United States. These events built up public concern about the impact of high election expenses on democracy, and they are said to have greatly influenced the adoption of the Election Expenses Act by Parliament in 1974. (Stanbury) This legislation established the first comprehensive set of financial rules for federal political parties.

A key innovation of the 1974 legislation was to impose limits on how much parties and candidates could spend during election campaigns. This measure was intended to prevent an upward spiral in spending and to make election contests fairer by ensuring that parties and candidates could not vastly outspend one another. This position has been upheld consistently since. For instance, the 1992 report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (also known as the Lortie Commission after its chair, Pierre Lortie) concluded that spending limits

constitute a significant instrument for promoting fairness in the electoral process. They reduce the potential advantage of those with access to significant financial resources and thus help foster a reasonable balance in debate during elections. They also encourage access to the election process.

Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, 336

The 1974 legislation also made significant advances in spending transparency, which is a key consideration for any regulatory regime governing political finance. To make informed judgments about candidates and political parties, voters must have access to information about who is contributing to these parties and in what amounts. Embracing this principle, the Election Expenses Act required candidates and political parties to disclose the names and contribution amounts of all contributors donating more than $100. (This threshold was later raised to $200 under the 2000 amendments to the Canada Elections Act.)

Also among the 1974 reforms were amendments to the Broadcasting Act (1968) that entitled registered political parties to an allotment of free and paid broadcasting time during elections. Radio and television stations were required to make available up to 6.5 hours of prime time for paid advertising or political broadcasts by registered parties during the last 4 weeks of the election campaign. (Starting in 1983, this time was allocated among parties by the Broadcasting Arbitrator, who used a formula based on the party's popular vote and the number of seats it won in the previous election.) As well, radio and television networks were required to make free-time programming available to registered parties during network-reserved time periods–although not necessarily in prime time. Broadcasters were not required to allot air time for individual candidates, but if they did, they would trigger an obligation to offer equal time for that riding's other candidates.

Another major innovation of the 1974 Election Expenses Act was to reimburse candidates and political parties for a portion of the money they spent campaigning in elections. Public funding in the form of reimbursements is intended to make political office more accessible to political parties and candidates that might not have wealthy financial backers. Under the system of reimbursements instituted in 1974, candidates were the major beneficiaries of public funding. Candidates who won at least 15 percent of the vote in their electoral districts became eligible for partial reimbursement of their election expenses. In 1974, the amount of the reimbursement was based on a formula taking into account the number of electors in the district.

The 1974 act also instituted the reimbursement of certain election expenses for registered parties, compensating them for 50 percent of their total expenditures for television and radio advertising.

The final important element of the 1974 reforms was to introduce the Political Contribution Tax Credit, which allows Canadians who make a contribution to a candidate or a registered political party to claim a generous credit on their income taxes. The tax credit is a way for government to finance political parties while rewarding those parties that successfully solicit donations from Canadians.

In an effort to prevent circumvention of the spending limits for parties and candidates imposed by the 1974 Election Expenses Act, the legislation also established that only parties and candidates themselves would be permitted to spend money during an election period for the purpose of promoting or opposing candidates. In other words, expenditures by so-called third parties–that is, any individual or group other than a candidate or a registered political party–were expressly prohibited, except where intended to gain support for a policy stance or promote the objectives of a non-partisan group. However, the Act did offer a defence against prosecution under the new provisions if a defendant could show that such election expenses had been incurred in good faith–in other words, without any intent to act maliciously or take unfair advantage.

In addition, the 1974 Election Expenses Act established the position of Commissioner of Election Expenses to oversee compliance with and enforcement of the election expenses provisions in the Canada Elections Act. The position title was changed to Commissioner of Canada Elections in 1977, when these powers were extended to cover all provisions of the Act.

Under the 1974 Election Expenses Act
  • Political parties and candidates were each given a limit on how much they could spend during election campaigns.
  • Groups and individuals other than parties or candidates were prohibited from spending during elections to promote or oppose candidates, unless the expenditures were intended to gain support for a policy stance or to advocate the aims of a non-partisan organization.
  • Both political parties and candidates were required to disclose the amount and the source of all contributions over $100.
  • Registered political parties qualified for a partial reimbursement of their election expenses.
  • Candidates who won at least 15 percent of the vote in their electoral districts were reimbursed a portion of their election expenses.
  • Radio and television stations were required to make up to 6.5 hours of prime time available for paid advertising or political broadcasts by registered parties during the election campaign.
  • Radio and television networks were required to make free-time programming periods available to registered parties.
  • A maximum tax credit of $500 was available to individuals who contributed to political parties and candidates.
The Commissioner of Canada Elections

The 1974 Election Expenses Act established the position of Commissioner of Election Expenses. The title was changed to Commissioner of Canada Elections in 1977, when the position was made responsible for ensuring compliance with and enforcement of all provisions of the Canada Elections Act.

The Commissioner

  • is appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions and can only be removed for cause
  • functions independently of the government and the Chief Electoral Officer
  • reviews all complaints and may begin investigations, including those of their own initiative
  • may employ various compliance or enforcement measures, such as
    • issuing caution and information letters
    • entering into compliance agreements
    • accepting undertakings (formal pledges)
    • issuing notices of violation and imposing administrative monetary penalties, and laying charges for offences committed under the Act (prosecuted by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada).

During an election period, the Commissioner may seek a court order to require a person or entity to comply with the Act.

The Commissioner may also seek the judicial deregistration of a political party that does not have, as one of its fundamental purposes, endorsing a candidate at an election.

Boundary Redistribution

As we saw in Chapter 2, the Constitution Act, 1867 made the number of seats in the House of Commons per province proportional to their respective populations. It also established a mechanism for adjusting the provincial seat allotments, as well as boundaries of individual ridings, after each 10-year census. Initially, the government determined the boundary placements, but the Representation Act of 1903 conferred this job on a committee of the House of Commons.

In 1915, the formula for allotting seats (the representation formula) was modified by the adoption of the senatorial clause. Under this clause, a province cannot have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate. The formula was changed again in 1946, in 1951 and in 1974.

At times, however, Parliament suspended the readjustment process to permit amendments to the representation formula in the Constitution Act, 1867 and to make some changes to the readjustment process itself. This happened after both the 1971 and 1981 censuses.

In 1964, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (EBRA) established a genuinely impartial process for redrawing constituency borders in Canada–one that has remained essentially unchanged. The premise underlying the impartiality sought by EBRA is that the responsibility for boundary adjustment must be assigned to formally non-partisan bodies. To this end, the legislation provides for the appointment, in each province,3 of an independent electoral boundaries commission to supervise the redistribution process.

Readjusting Electoral Boundaries

The process of boundary readjustment, largely unchanged since the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act of 1964, works as follows:

  1. After each decennial census

    After each decennial census, the Chief Statistician of Canada sends provincial population data to the Chief Electoral Officer, who applies the formula set out in the law to calculate how many seats are allotted to each province. (Since its first incarnation in the Constitution Act, this formula has changed many times in attempts to maintain fair representation in the face of shifting demographic realities.)

  2. Electoral boundaries commissions are established

    Electoral boundaries commissions are established, consisting of a chair–typically a provincial court judge–appointed by the chief justice of each province, and two residents of the province, appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The commissions must be established before the earlier of 60 days after the publication of the census results or 6 months after the census.

  3. Each commission develops a redistribution plan

    Each commission develops a redistribution plan that is published in newspaper ads, along with times and locations for public hearings, at least 30 days before the first scheduled hearing. Upon written notice to the commission, any interested individual or group–including sitting MPs and senators–can speak at the hearings.

  4. Commissions must complete their reports

    Commissions must complete their reports, typically, within 10 months of receiving the population data.

  5. A designated House of Commons electoral committee

    A designated House of Commons electoral committee receives the commissions' reports, by way of the Chief Electoral Officer and the Speaker of the House.

  6. MPs have 30 days to file written objections

    MPs have 30 days to file written objections to the reports, which must be signed by at least 10 MPs. The committee then has another 30 days to discuss these objections before returning the reports, with their comments, to the commissions.

  7. The commissions modify the reports

    The commissions modify the reports–or not, as they choose–then forward their final boundary decisions to the Chief Electoral Officer.

  8. The Chief Electoral Officer issues a draft representation order

    The Chief Electoral Officer issues a draft representation order, based on the commission reports, documenting names, populations and descriptions of the new electoral districts, and forwards this document to the responsible minister.

  9. Cabinet proclaims the representation order

    Cabinet proclaims the representation order within five days of its receipt, making the new boundaries public. Within five more days, Cabinet must publish the representation order and the proclamation declaring it to be in force in the Canada Gazette.

  10. At least seven months must pass

    At least seven months must pass between the date Cabinet proclaims the representation order and the date Parliament is dissolved for a general election before the new boundaries can be applied to that election.

Advance Voting

When first introduced in 1920, voting at advance polls had been limited to only a few classes of voters. Advance voting was extended to members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the armed forces in 1934, and to members of the military reserves in 1951. In each case, a voter at an advance poll had to swear an oath that he or she would be away on business on election day.

Colour photograph of a woman standing beside a table on which there is a ballot box. Two Elections Canada officials at the table are assisting her with voting. A poster on the wall behind them says 'Advance Poll.'

Advanced Practices

Any voter who finds it more convenient can vote at an advance poll, held on the 10th, 9th, 8th and 7th days before election day. Before 1960, voters could take advantage of advance polls only if they had one of the occupations specified in the law. An amendment to the Canada Elections Act in 1960 allowed voters to use an advance poll, provided they swore an oath that they would be away from home on election day. The oath was dropped in 1977. Elections Canada

The election of 1953 was held in August, when many potential voters were on vacation. Turnout was only 68 percent, compared with 75 percent in both the June 1949 and June 1957 elections. The Progressive Conservatives felt that they had been especially hard hit by this.4 After they gained power in the 1957 election, the advance vote was extended to all electors who had reasonby to believe they would be absent from their polling division on election day and therefore unable to vote. Electors still had to swear an affidavit, however, under this 1960 amendment to the Act. At the next general election–in 1962–voter response was remarkable. The number of advance votes rose from an average of 10,000 in previous elections to nearly 100,000.

In 1970, the list of those who could vote at advanced polls was expanded to include persons who found it more convenient to vote at an advance poll for reasons of age, infirmity or advanced pregnancy or who were unable to vote on the ordinary polling day because of their religious beliefs or membership in a religious congregation. In 1977, the requirement to swear an affidavit was dropped. At the same time, a provision was introduced allowing people to vote at the returning office during the electoral period if they could not vote at an advance poll or on election day.

In 1993, voting in advance became more widely available when a provision was introduced permitting any elector to vote at the advance polls. Advance voting was no longer restricted to those who would be absent on election day.

Voter Notification

As we have seen, the 1934 provision requiring that a postcard be sent to each registered elector proved too expensive. Instead, voters were sent a copy of the list of electors for their poll. This system continued for several decades, but by the 1970s, many voters were objecting to what they considered an unacceptable invasion of privacy–in particular, women living alone and people who thought their occupation or the identity of the members of their households was no one's business but their own. There were also concerns that the lists–which together contained the names, addresses and occupations of the adults in every household in the country–could be used for other than electoral purposes.

In 1982, this provision was therefore dropped from the Act. Instead, in a move reminiscent of 1934, each registered elector would receive a postcard confirming registration and showing where to vote; technological change had made this approach much more feasible and affordable than it had been in 1934. Electors who did not receive a card would know that they had to take steps to register if they wanted to vote.

Colour photo of a man receiving a voter information card in his standing mailbox.

Everything Old Is New Again

First introduced in the 1930s but abandoned as too expensive and time-consuming, the postcard system of voter notification was made feasible in the 1980s by technological advances. In 1982, postcards replaced the public posting of electoral lists, a practice that raised privacy concerns, among others. Elections Canada; ACU00701

Opening up the Process

In the largest expansion of the vote since women were enfranchised in 1918, people between the ages of 18 and 20 got the vote in 1970 and used it for the first time in the 1972 election. Although reducing the voting age to 18 expanded the electorate considerably—by some two million young people in all—this change was not quite like removing religious or racial discrimination from the electoral law. Unlike extension of the franchise to racial and religious minorities, lowering the voting age aroused relatively little controversy. It was the 1970s, the youth culture was at its height, and a general opening up of social and political life had begun as the politics of participation took hold.

Photo showing a pile of stamped envelopes received by Elections Canada from voters who voted by mail.

From Far and Wide …

Since 1993, voting by special ballot has enabled electors away from home on election day – including anyone travelling or living abroad temporarily – to vote by mail. An ingenious system of envelopes within envelopes enables election officials to assure the integrity of the vote (so that no one votes more than once, for example), while also preserving the secrecy of each voter’s choice. Elections Canada

This same social climate gave rise to greater recognition of the rights of voters with disabilities and others who might be excluded from voting for reasons related to physical abilities or illness. This recognition produced some legislative change, but for the most part, voters' special needs were addressed through administrative measures that were later incorporated into the law. Thus, for example, a 1977 amendment to the law introduced transfer certificates, allowing electors to vote at an advance poll at another polling station with level access if their own was inaccessible. At the same time, throughout the 1970s, polling stations were located increasingly in public places, so that level access became more widely available. Special templates were also devised so that voters who were blind or visually impaired could preserve the secrecy of the vote, casting their ballots without assistance. These administrative arrangements became part of the law in 1992.

Photo of a person's hands using a pen to fill out a special ballot. Papers with instructions and a pair of envelopes sit on the table near the ballot.

Voting from Anywhere

By applying for a kit like this one, an elector who cannot go to the polling station can register to vote and cast a ballot by mail. The special ballot is especially helpful for Canadians living abroad or travelling during an election campaign. Elections Canada

During this period, the law included provisions for proxy voting, which had been used during the Second World War and the Korean conflict. It was introduced for fishermen, sailors and prospectors in 1970, along with people who were ill or had physical disabilities, and extended to airplane crews, forestry and mapping teams, and trappers in 1977. In 1993, proxy voting was repealed when the use of special ballots under the Special Voting Rules was expanded.

A third set of changes opened the vote to certain classes of electors living abroad. In 1970, public servants, mainly diplomats, and their dependants posted outside Canada became eligible to use the Special Voting Rules–previously available only to military personnel and their dependants. Civilian employees of the military (usually teachers and administrative support staff at schools on Canadian Forces bases) gained this eligibility in 1977. But, until 1993, ordinary Canadians who happened to be away from home and unable to vote, either on polling day or at advance polls, still could not cast a ballot.

After the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969, Elections Canada implemented a policy to ensure that electors were served in their official language in constituencies where at least 5 percent of the population spoke the minority official language. From the early 1990s onward, this service was ensured across Canada.

One slight narrowing of the franchise occurred in this period. In 1970, the law was amended to provide that British subjects who had not adopted Canadian citizenship would be disqualified from voting unless they took out citizenship by 1975. Before then, British subjects were qualified electors, but they had to be ordinarily resident in Canada. This privilege, which of course was not enjoyed by immigrants who were not British subjects, could be defended when Canada was part of the British Empire, but was no longer in harmony with Canada's status as an independent country.

Black-and-white photo of three male election workers organizing packages and documents on a table in a supply room.

Distributing Election Supplies

In the 1950s, some 50,000 packages of election supplies were shipped to returning officers across Canada at each general election. Frank Royal, NFB, Library and Archives Canada, PA-169812


1 The title was changed to the Canada Elections Act in 1951.

2 Persistent challenges to this unfair law began with Mary Two-Axe Earley in 1967. Others followed in her footsteps. In February 1973, the cases of Jeannette Corbiere Lavell and Yvonne Bédard, both women who lost their Indian status by marrying non-Indian men, were heard together by the Supreme Court of Canada. On August 27, 1973, the Court delivered a 5-4 majority decision that the Bill of Rights did not apply to that section of the Indian Act, and the legislation was upheld. A similar case was brought before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 1977 by Sandra Lovelace, who was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2005. In 1981, the Committee found Canada in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

3 Territories are excepted since each comprises a single riding–their boundaries, therefore, need no adjustment. This has been the case since 1999, when Nunavut was established and the two ridings making up the Northwest Territories were separated. (Yukon has held its single riding since becoming a distinct territory in 1898.)

4 Debates, January 27, 1954; 1515. J. W. Pickersgill, replying for the Liberals, said that if there are a great number of Canadians who value their holidays more than their franchise, that does not mean they were disfranchised.