Activists gear up for 'historic opportunity' to usher in proportional representation

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As the Liberal government begins to move forward on its election promise to change the way Canada votes, advocacy groups and non-profit organizations that have been tackling the issue of electoral reform long before the Liberals were sworn in last fall are ramping up their campaigns.

"We have a historic opportunity at the national level for voting reform," Jamie Biggar, Campaigns Director at Leadnow told rabble.

Leadnow developed from a desire to bring people together across party lines and has focused on educating people about various voting systems. Leading up to the 2015 election, the organization campaigned heavily against the sitting Conservative government whose decisions ran counter to the values of a majority of Canadians by encouraging them to vote strategically.

Since the election, Leadnow's focus has shifted to electoral reform, specifically highlighting proportional representation.  

Fair Vote Canada has been involved in proportional representation campaigns for over a decade and launched its federal campaign over three years ago. Targeting proportional representation as the best option for Canada, the organization strives to address the voter frustration caused by the discrepancy between Canadian values and majority seats with volunteers who educate MPs on the benefits of proportional representation for Canada.

"We're pretty dismayed with the way that government is working," says Kelly Carmichael, Executive Director of Fair Vote Canada. "Any party that has the majority of seats should have the majority of the votes and be very reflective of Canadian values."

Both Fair Vote Canada and Leadnow are members of the Every Voter Counts Alliance which brings together organizations and individuals that are in support of a proportional representation system.

"It's a system that puts values of fairness and making peoples' votes count first," says Willy Blomme, Every Voter Counts Alliance spokesperson.

This "fairness" in proportional representation, Blomme points out, is something that 85 per cent of OECD countries use. For Canada, it has the potential to capture the views and values of this large, diverse country.

Electoral reform advocacy groups have long held that PR systems would increase gender and ethnic diversity. Proportional electoral systems on average elect twice as many women. Of the five democracies in the world that have greater than 30 per cent representation of women in parliament, all are PR systems. Countries using proportional systems are more likely to elect Indigenous members of parliament. Advocates argue that proportional systems will diversify Parliament Hill and respond quicker to calls for more inclusive representation.

"It does allow for a more diverse, inclusive representation in parliament," says Blomme.

Carmichael notes that the current first-past-the-post system is one that works best in a two-party democracy. In Canada, however, our current electoral system has made the country look more regionally divided than it actually is because parties are able to claim a significant amount of power with an insignificant number of votes.

"We think that it's time that Canadians have an updated electoral system," she says. "We inherited this system when there were two parties; we inherited it from Great Britain." Canada has five main political parties represented in Parliament.

Furthermore, Biggar points out that the benefit of proportional representation for Canada is the fact that parties would need to work together and cooperate in order to govern and implement long-term projects under proportional representation.

"What we don't want to see is a situation in Canada where Harper's terrible on climate change, Trudeau comes in and brings in a climate plan and then the Conservatives get in again and destroy that climate plan," he says. "That kind of pendulum swing politics actually makes us incapable of dealing with problems that require long-term commitment."

During his campaign, Trudeau promised to introduce legislation for electoral reform within 18 months of taking office. While the Liberals appear to be pushing for preferential ballots, these groups are still waiting to hear what the consultation process for a new electoral system will look like and are encouraging Canadians to get involved in the conversation now.

To join in to the push for proportional representation, Biggar, Carmichael and Bloom all recommend signing onto the Every Voter Counts Alliance so that those supporting this type of electoral reform can connect and stay up to date on the campaign.

In addition, Fair Vote Canada has a Declaration of Voters' Rights that Canadians can sign to express their demand "that the House of Commons immediately undertake a public consultation to amend the Canada Elections Act to incorporate these vital democratic rights" followed by a quick implementation of proportional representation.

Reflecting back on the 2015 election, Biggar commented that Canadian citizens have the ability to band together to fight for their democratic rights. This unity could, therefore, be useful in the campaign for electoral reform and proportional representation moving forward.

"A lot of people around the country really came together around recognizing the particular threat of Prime Minister Harper and the damage he was doing to our democratic institution," he says. "Now that he's been defeated, I think we have a real opportunity to recognize that Harper was really just the logical evolution of the first past the post system. He's the kind of politician that that system will produce. The people who came together to defeat Harper have a real chance to come together to improve our democracy so somebody like him would never be able to be in power again."


Interested in contributing to this series on proportional representation? Send us a pitch to [email protected] with the title "Proportional representation series"

Part 1: Proportional representation is not 'too complicated' -- the fix is in

Part 2: Activists gear up for 'historic opportunity' to usher in proportional representation

Part 3: Proportional representation for Canada: A primer

Part 4: Nation-to-nation recognition, not electoral reform, key to increasing Indigenous voter turnout


Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and is excited by media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She is now rabble's News Intern.

Photo: flickr/Laurel L. Russwurm

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