by Matthew Levitt
Voters in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta were denied fair representation in Canada’s Parliament for a long time. And the constitutional inequity that allowed it to continue has to end.
The electoral systems the country’s vast northern territories use have simply not reflected the political preferences of voters in the three provinces whose residents comprise most of the territories’ electoral districts. For example, Liberal MP Peter Julian of British Columbia was elected the best-supported individual by popular vote in the 2015 election, but he only received a plurality of votes from voters in 39 electoral districts across B.C.
All Canadians should have a chance to select their representatives through a representative electoral system.
The Liberal government is now considering a new political system that could address this issue.
The research is clear. Canadian federal elections are successful when proportional representation mixes the votes of as many Canadians as possible.
The candidates and ridings in federal ridings are mainly popular, but since individual votes in federal ridings do not matter that much, many Canadians are happy to come out to vote, knowing they will never end up electing a federal politician or share power with that person.
Not only do jurisdictions with proportional representation tend to elect more federal politicians with minority governments, they also have more stable legislatures. They also tend to elect members more representative of the overall population than they do in Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system.
Because of this, federal elections conducted under the current system are more unstable and less successful. A similar point can be made in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
Canada could follow the lead of Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, where governments are more stable and have more credibility with parliamentarians and voters. Similar approaches have been employed in the northern Indian province of Orissa, as well as Australia and the Scandinavian countries.
In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the “tenuous link” between the voting rights of Canadians living on the territories and Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta – Canada’s northernmost provinces – violated the constitutionality of a measure introduced in 1958 to allow the territories to elect their own parliamentarians. Canada’s Parliament has consequently remained under a first-past-the-post system ever since.
None of Canada’s 39 electoral districts that matter in federal elections were elected by Canadians who live in these three provinces. Under the current electoral system, politicians from these three provinces are often a part of a majority in Parliament, even if the votes from those districts and provinces only make up 20 percent of the representation in Parliament.
Addressing this inequity, one option the Liberal government could consider is the possibility of a vote system that would elect Parliamentarians by popular vote in the territories, like Australia uses.
A second option is to combine Canada’s three North American territories into a single electoral district – a proposal that some have proposed as a solution for the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Advocates of this idea point out that it would help relieve some of the inequity problem and shore up Canada’s political balance, but it would not solve the larger problem of the distribution of political representation throughout the country. As the Supreme Court of Canada recognized in 2005, Canada’s various federal territories should have a chance to elect politicians who reflect their popular preferences.
Canada should consider the option of recognizing the popular will of voters living in the three territories by allowing voters in the territories to elect their own representatives in Canadian Parliament. A solution should reflect those preferences, but be firmly rooted in the constitution.
The federal government should move toward introducing a system that will help address the imbalance in representation that exists within Canada’s huge northern territories.
Matthew Levitt is a lecturer in political science at the University of Virginia and is the co-director of its China Globalization and Political Economy Program.