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BC Election 2019 Category
Election 2019

These Advocates Won’t Be Giving Up on Electoral Reform

Despite several setbacks, the issue won’t go away: ‘We are playing the long game.’

Christopher Guly 15 Oct

Christopher Guly is an Ottawa-based journalist and member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

They live across Canada, are highly educated, and have devoted much of their time toward making the dream of national electoral reform a reality.

Although this month’s federal election will be another first-past-the-post contest — despite the Liberals’ 2015 campaign promise that it wouldn’t be — the four Canadians profiled below are determined to bring an end to a system they believe fails to represent voter intentions and is ultimately undemocratic.

Réal Lavergne, president, Fair Vote Canada

Proportional representation was not a passion for Réal Lavergne during his 32-year career working in international development.

But when he retired in 2012 as a senior policy analyst with the Canadian International Development Agency, he left the federal public service “concerned about the state of our democracy when governments could be elected with 39.6 per cent of the vote.” Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed a majority government in 2011 with that level of support. To Lavergne, it seemed “particularly undemocratic.”

That, and the federal Liberals’ 2014 policy commitment to electoral reform, led the 69-year-old Manitoba-born Lavergne, who holds a PhD in political economy from the University of Toronto, to become actively involved with Fair Vote. Since 2016 he’s been its president.

Fair Vote has endorsed the NDP and Greens, along with four Liberal incumbents, two People’s Party of Canada candidates and two Independents — former high-profile cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott — all of whom back proportional representation.

Fair Vote is even campaigning for Wilson-Raybould in her bid for re-election in Vancouver-Granville — in part because of the strong position she has taken on electoral reform and because, as Lavergne conceded in an interview, the former attorney general has a good chance of holding onto her Commons seat.

Lavergne hopes the election will result in a Liberal minority government, and that the Greens and New Democrats will make the Liberals agree to establish a national citizens’ assembly on electoral reform in return for their support. Fair Vote has targeted 21 potential swing ridings across the country, encouraging voters to cast their ballots either for NDP or Green candidates.

In Ottawa Centre, which Environment Minister Catherine McKenna won with 43 per cent of the vote in 2015, about 50 Fair Vote volunteers will have — by Oct. 21 — distributed up to 37,500 door-hangers urging residents to choose NDP candidate Emilie Taman or Green candidate Angela Keller-Herzog.

In campaigning for pro-reform candidates, Fair Vote is buoyed by the results of a poll it commissioned of 1,510 Canadians conducted last month by Angus Reid Global Inc. that found 77 per cent of respondents support proportional representation; 79 per cent want the next federal government to establish a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform; and 70 per cent think Justin Trudeau was wrong to abandon his promise on the issue.

“We want politicians to acknowledge that there is a very serious vested-interest problem in leaving electoral reform exclusively in their hands,” said Lavergne. He says a citizens’ assembly with the time and resources to study different PR models is the best way to reach a consensus on electoral reform. A referendum is vulnerable to “fear-mongering and misinformation,” he said.

Should reform be a non-starter following the election, Lavergne said that Fair Vote will turn its attention to the provincial level, targeting three provinces.

1. Quebec, where Premier Francois Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec government tabled a bill last month that calls for a referendum on a proposed mixed PR system to be held during the 2022 provincial election.

2. Prince Edward Island, where Progressive Conservative Premier Dennis King and the Green Official Opposition support PR.

3. Ontario, where Fair Vote will try to assemble a coalition of pro-reform parties to push for electoral reform before the next provincial election there in 2022.

But Lavergne doesn’t believe all is lost at the national level, even if Trudeau wins another majority or the Conservatives upset the Liberals.

“The Liberals formally reneged on their promise to bring in proportional representation by saying that there’s no consensus,” Lavergne said. “A citizens’ assembly is the gold standard of deliberative citizens’ consideration of complex problems, and that’s a pretty fair ask of the Liberals.”

Antony Hodgson, president, Fair Voting BC

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Antony Hodgson, president of Fair Voting BC, is currently challenging the constitutionality of the first-past-the-post electoral system in court.

Past director of the biomedical engineering program at the University of British Columbia and an expert in computer-assisted orthopedic surgery, Antony Hodgson’s professional focus is on improving the accuracy of reducing bone fractures and placing implants.

On a personal level, the 58-year-old native British Columbian is devoting a good chunk of his time as president of Fair Voting BC, trying to repair what he sees as a fractured electoral system.

Since proportional representation has gone nowhere in B.C. following three referenda and was stalled federally after the Liberals abandoned their 2015 pledge on electoral reform, Hodgson decided to make the case for it in court.

Fair Voting BC and Springtide, a Halifax-based political activist group, have raised over $70,000 from some 900 donors to challenge the constitutionality of the first-past-the-post system on the basis that it violates Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees Canadian citizens “the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly” and the equality-rights provision under Section 15.

“Courts have interpreted Section 3 to be effective representation, and we claim that our current system denies that to large chunks of the population — to Liberal supporters in the Prairies to Conservative supporters in Atlantic Canada,” explained Hodgson. The Section 15 challenge argues the current electoral system discriminates against “people who have certain political beliefs in certain parts of the country” and underrepresented groups, such as women and visible minorities, by denying them representation.

Seven years ago, the Quebec Court of Appeal dismissed a similar challenge to the first-past-the-post system, and the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear an appeal. The Fair Voting BC-Springtide case will be heard in the Ontario Superior Court.

As with Fair Vote Canada, Fair Voting BC is endorsing the Greens, New Democrats and Wilson-Raybould as electoral-reform supporters in the current campaign.

Hodgson, who holds a PhD in medical engineering and medical physics jointly awarded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also hoping for a minority government in which the NDP or Green party could advocate for a national citizens’ assembly if they were in a negotiating position.

He believes Canada will eventually adopt a proportional representation system, pointing to incremental steps toward it in Ontario, which allows cities to use single or multi-member ranked choice voting in municipal elections, and the possibility of proportional representation in Vancouver, where the city’s Independent Election Task Force recommended it two years ago.

However, Hodgson’s passion for PR is, perhaps, the greatest pitch for it.

“It’s the baseline for everything — it’s like the rules of the game,” he explained. “If we don’t have fairness at the base of our politics, it’s very hard to make progress on anything that we care about, like climate action or transportation or health care or jobs or my kids’ education.”

“In our charter challenge, we will ask the court to consider our claim that if we are going to see ourselves as a representative democracy, we need a voting system that makes sure that all of us are represented in the People’s House, the House of Commons,” said Hodgson. “We want the court to rule that our current system is unconstitutional and expect that it will defer to Parliament to choose the appropriate remedy.”

Anna Keenan, Green Party candidate, Malpeque, P.E.I.

960px version of AnnaKeenanGreenScarf.jpg
Anna Keenan, currently running for the Green party in the riding of Malpeque, PEI, says our current electoral system ‘leads to short-term thinking.’

In a Grade 9 social studies class in her native Australia, Anna Keenan learned about different voting methods around the world and discovered that proportional representation systems are “a really important check-and-balance on the intense polarization and partisanship that we see in first-past-the-post,” she said during a campaign break in Prince Edward Island, where she’s lived since 2015.

“I see the failures of our current system on climate change and environment, on rising income inequality and debt levels, on discrimination — all long-term issues that we’ve seen coming for a long time. First-past-the-post leads to short-term thinking and a focus on what can we do to win votes in a four-year election cycle, rather than what is the right thing to do over 10, 20 or 30 years, and the direction our society should be moving in,” said the 33-year-old Keenan, who holds dual undergraduate degrees in physics and math, and economics and environmental studies from the University of Queensland.

As a Green candidate, Keenan is on leave as a community manager for the international climate-change advocacy organization,

In 2016, she served as campaign director for the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation during the provincial plebiscite — the second non-binding referendum on electoral reform in P.E.I. since the one in 2005 — in which 52 per cent of Islanders voted for a mixed-member proportional system. But a day after the plebiscite, then-premier Wade MacLauchlan opted against implementing a proportional system, citing low voter turnout at 36 per cent.

In the April 2019 referendum, held simultaneously with the P.E.I. election, 52 per cent of voters chose to stick with first-past-the-post. But MacLauchlan’s Liberals also lost the election to Dennis King’s Progressive Conservatives.

Keenan now hopes to push PR in Ottawa, should she wrest Malpeque from Liberal Wayne Easter, a former federal cabinet minister who’s held the riding since 1993. Easter voted with the government against the recommendations for electoral change by the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform.

If she’s successful, Keenan would also have support for electoral reform within the Liberal caucus if fellow Islander Sean Casey hangs onto his seat in Charlottetown.

Voters have been telling Keenan that they would like to see a minority government, she said. If Green MPs hold any sway, she added, electoral reform and climate action will be issues “in any coalition negotiation or confidence-and-supply agreement.”

Keenan added that the Green party’s platform is also committed to ensuring that “the 2019 election is the last under the first-past-the-post system.”

Keenan, who serves as the federal Green shadow cabinet critic for democratic institutions, echoed her party’s desire for a national citizens’ assembly that would, “based on the study of evidence,” recommend to Parliament “an electoral-reform system that would make every vote count,” she said. “And not a referendum, which in P.E.I. and B.C., we’ve seen a proliferation of misinformation because we don’t have a truth-in-political advertising framework.”

Yet if history is a guide, Keenan and like-minded candidates in this election could have a long wait for voting reform. The idea in Canada dates back more than a century. Legendary Liberal prime ministers Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau initially endorsed proportional representation and later abandoned the idea.

“People are going to continue to push for this,” said Keenan, who added that voters would reward either the Liberals or Conservatives if they “change their tune” on electoral reform.

“It certainly cost the Liberals votes in this election to have reneged on their promise,” she offered. “Part of the reason they won with such a large majority last time was that many Green and NDP supporters held their nose and voted for the Liberals because they promised to make 2015 the last election under first-past-the-post.”

“We are patient,” added Keenan on the realization of proportional representation. “We are playing the long game.”

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch

Through the national citizens’ advocacy group he helped establish 26 years ago, Duff Conacher has become a well-known advocate for government ethics and accountability, and a harsh critic of federal politicians found in breach of those standards. But from the very beginning, one of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch’s main issues has been to push for democratic reform.

The 56-year-old Conacher, who holds a law degree from the University of Toronto and recently taught a course he designed on the law of good government at the University of Ottawa’s law school, views PR as part of a major overhaul of Canada’s democratic system toward “open, honest, ethical and waste-preventing government.”

He believes there will be electoral reform in Canada “because of ever-increasing distrust of politicians, abuses of authority, and more and more questioning of the power of the prime minister, which in part is handed to him by the voting system.”

Yet while Democracy Watch is a member of the Every Vote Counts Alliance, Conacher parts ways with others in the group, such as Fair Vote Canada and Fair Voting BC, on citizens’ assemblies.

“I favour a study-circle method, because you can involve more people,” he explained. “A citizens’ assembly is never going to be more than 200 people. A study circle is like focus-group polling, so you can have as many people as you want across the country.”

There could be 1,000 study circles, each consisting of 10 or 15 people randomly selected from different demographic groups who would meet several times, do a deep dive on proportional representation and present their preferences that would then be analyzed for “what system pleases most people the most,” according to Conacher, who is pursuing a PhD in law at the University of Ottawa focused on developing a model political-ethics system for, as he explained it, the “process of decision-making” within all levels of government in Canada.

“A study circle is as representative as a referendum, and you could put the most-favoured system to a referendum and it would likely pass because of the number of people involved in the study circles.”

Should electoral reform get stonewalled, again, in Ottawa, Conacher hopes that action on it will come through “a breakthrough in a province that proves that the system is better and trickles up to the federal level.”

But as he added: “Canada belongs to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Its position is that proportional representation is the best voting system.”  [Tyee]

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