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Introduction – A History of the Vote in Canada

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The simple act of voting, once a privilege conferred on men who were affluent enough to own land or pay taxes, has become a right of citizenship for all Canadian adults, with the notable exception of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.

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 law is the Canada Elections Act. The provisions that determine eligibility are referred to collectively as the franchise. These are the conditions that govern the right to vote.

Canada's Parliament consists of the Crown (represented by the Governor General) and two chambers:

  • the Senate, whose 105 members are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister and represent provinces or territories; and
  • the House of Commons, whose members are elected at regular intervals by popular vote.

Today, exercising the federal franchise means voting to elect a representative to sit in the House of Commons. For election purposes, the country is divided into electoral districts, also known as constituencies or ridings; each of these is now entitled to one seat in the House of Commons. (Until 1966, a number of electoral districts were represented by two members.) The number of seats is readjusted every 10 years, following the decennial census, to reflect changes and movements in Canada's population. Through this process, the number of seats has increased incrementally, from 181 at the time of Confederation to 338 following the readjustment in 2013.

Canada's electoral system is a single-member plurality system (often referred to as a first-past-the-post system); in each constituency, the candidate with the most votes—even if it is not a majority of the votes cast—is declared elected. Generally, after all the constituency results are in, the Governor General invites the leader of the party holding more than half of the seats in the House of Commons to form a government; the leader becomes or remains the Prime Minister. If no party wins the majority of seats, the leader of the party that is likely to enjoy the confidence (the support) of the House becomes or remains the Prime Minister. However, the last word belongs to the House of Commons, which may support or defeat a minority government when voting on a question of confidence.

Before looking at the history of the franchise in Canada, we must acknowledge other exercises in democracy that took place long before European colonization. Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples had formed culturally distinct groups and developed elaborate systems of government. This book, however, addresses representative democracy since colonization.

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. 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.

Parliamentary assemblies did not exist in France or its colonies because the French monarch was absolute. Great Britain had a Parliament, and it was accepted that British subjects in the colonies also had the right to establish local representative institutions. As early as the 17th century, Britain's American and West Indian colonies had separate legislatures; it was only natural that colonies in what is now Canada should be entitled to the same privilege.

In 1758, the election of the first assembly with legislative responsibilities took place in Nova Scotia; 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.

Public notice, dated March 16, 1810, of an election to be held in the County of Quebec for the purpose of electing two members of the provincial assembly.

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. Although the colonies that would form Canada had different rules about who was eligible to vote, the franchise was mostly a privilege of wealthy men. Library and Archives Canada, MG55/24-No9, Volume 2, R11484-0-2-E

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 until responsible government was established in the various colonies between 1848 and 1855. Even then, it was many years before the franchise was expanded to include a much greater portion of the population.

In advancing the concept of universal male (and later female) suffrage, Canadians owed a great deal to ideas made current by British and French thinkers and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as to the experience of the democracies of Great Britain, France and the United States of America. While acknowledging this debt, we have chosen to maintain the focus on the path Canada took to give these ideas legislative and institutional expression.

This history of the vote in Canada unfolds in four chapters:

  • Chapter 1 examines the vote from the beginnings of responsible government in the British colonies that would become Canada, up 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 1920, the beginning of the modern era in electoral law, through to 1981.
  • The fourth and final chapter examines more recent reforms to Canada's electoral system in the period following the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

Throughout these chapters, we also look at other important legislative reforms related to the right to vote and fair elections, particularly the regulation of political financing and of political parties, candidates and third parties (individuals or groups other than candidates or registered political parties). These legislative reforms aimed to level the playing field and increase transparency.

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. Many variations in the franchise and its exercise can be attributed to provincial peculiarities or were 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 and the electoral system have evolved over the past 200 years and to look at the key factors that might have brought about these changes.

A lithograph from the Canadian Illustrated News that depicts John Young addressing a large crowd of supporters from a balcony.

Before the Secret Ballot, 1872

John Young, a candidate in the 1872 general election, addresses a group of supporters after the close of a poll. At the time, voters gathered in one place and declared their choice before the assembled crowd. It would be six years before the secret ballot was used for the first time in a general election. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Illustrated News, September 7, 1872, C-058780

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. Among the barriers imposed were restrictions related to wealth (or, more precisely, the lack of it), gender, religion, race and ethnicity. As discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, these barriers varied from colony to colony (voting practices even varied from one settlement to another within a colony), and later from province to province.

The struggle for universal suffrage was more than a struggle for partisan advantage or political power. Resistance to expanding the franchise reflected a general 19th-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.

The franchise expanded incrementally until the First World War (1914–1918) as various groups, including advocates for women's suffrage, overcame resistance. Then, in 1918, with the enfranchisement of women, the federal electorate doubled overnight. However, though people could no longer be denied the right to vote in federal elections because of their gender, other restrictions persisted.

Black and white photo of an Asian-Canadian couple voting during the 1963 federal election. The deputy returning officer is placing their ballots in the ballot box

The Universal Franchise, 1963

By the 1963 general election, the last traces of racial and religious discrimination had been expunged from the law governing the federal franchise. Pierre Gaudard, National Gallery of Canada, NFB Collection

By the early 1960s, voting eligibility had expanded to include many other groups and individuals who were 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, which states that "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. This gave rise to efforts by those excluded (judges, prisoners, expatriates, persons with mental disabilities) to petition the courts to have the exclusions set aside, which allowed the courts a significant role in determining who has the right to vote.

Barriers to voting are not only legal or constitutional—they can also 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 the rules are implemented, these barriers constitute a restriction of the right to vote as it is intended by legislators. Over the years, steps taken to overcome such barriers 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.

Photo of a document showing the text of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A Democratic Right

The rights to vote and to be a candidate for office have been enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms since 1982. Elections Canada

Yet even extending the right to vote to virtually every adult citizen in a society does not guarantee the sanctity of the democratic process. There are additional requirements.

First, the administration of the process must remain independent and non-partisan. To this end, the position of Chief Electoral Officer was created in 1920, and electoral boundaries commissions were established in 1964. More recently, the Canada Elections Act was amended to provide that returning officers are appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer rather than by the government of the day.

Second, participants in any electoral race must be able to compete on a fair and equal footing. To ensure that they compete equitably, information about their campaign activities must be available to the voting public. Since the early 1970s, legislative reforms have advanced these ideals through the registration of political parties and other political entities, regulation of political financing and third-party advertising, and other rules central to maintaining due restraint and visibility within the electoral process.

More recently, concerns over the integrity of the vote led to new requirements for electors to prove their identity and address when registering on the list of electors and voting in a federal election. Also, after a number of irregularities occurred in voting procedures during the 2011 general election, changes were made to ensure compliance with voting procedures at polling stations. As well, Elections Canada has put in place a number of legal, procedural and information technology measures in response to threats to the security of the vote from disinformation and cyberattacks.

From its origins as a privilege of men of the propertied class, the vote has become a universal right of Canadian citizenship. As documented in the following chapters, the road to universal suffrage was not without bumps and detours. Canada's democratic system, like its counterparts in other countries, continues to pursue the goal of ensuring that all citizens can exercise their right to vote freely and in secrecy.

Photo of two poll workers seated at a table, watching a young woman place her ballot into a ballot box.

Every Vote Counts

One of the over 18.3 million voters who participated in the 2019 general election casts her vote as election officials look on.

This was the first federal election in which Canadian citizens living abroad for more than five years had the right to vote. Elections Canada