Electoral Reform

For almost 150 years, the MP with the most votes has been the winner in federal elections – this is called “First Past the Post” – like the winner is decided in a horse race. Our new federal government is proposing to change the way we elect our MPs. The territories have a strong tradition of consulting the people on major decisions and have built in various mechanisms to ensure full public engagement; in Nunavut, the Plebiscite Act regulates direct votes on community and Nunavut-wide questions.  For example, past important questions on which the people of Nunavut were given a voice include:

  • Do you agree with dividing the NWT—yes or no? (1982)

  • Where do you want to have Nunavut’s capital—Iqaluit or
    Rankin? (1995)

  • Should each Nunavut constituency elect one female and one
    male MLA—yes or no? (1997)

I believe that the people must have a voice and a vote if we are to change our way of electing MPs.

Are you happy with First-Past- the-Post – keeping the system the way it has been for both federal, territorial and municipal elections? Or do you agree with changes proposed by the Liberal Party to end the First-Past-the-Post system of voting to be replaced by a form of preferential balloting, (ranked or proportional) where voters would choose their MPs by marking which party they prefer to vote for in order on the ballot? Do you feel you know enough about each option to choose? Do you agree that if our voting system is to change, all Canadians should vote in a referendum rather than have Parliament and political parties make the change?

Please fill out this short survey to help me ensure the federal government makes the changes Nunavummiut want to see happen.




On December 1, 2016, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform released its 348 page report available here.

The committee recommended the need to have a national conversation that taught Canadians more about the different options available and to give Canadians a direct say in how they vote by holding a national referendum.

I made the same argument when I appeared before the committee in Iqaluit on October 17, 2016:

Qujannamiik. Thank you, Mr. Chair, for inviting me to appear before you today.

I would like to welcome all honourable members of Parliament here and thank you very much for this opportunity to discuss my thoughts on electoral reform as they relate to my home jurisdiction of Nunavut and here in my home community of Iqaluit.

I understand that today marks the final day of committee hearings outside of Ottawa. I want to strongly commend you for taking the time to visit every province and territory in the country. I’m sure it has not been easy.

I have two messages for you today.

First, we have a long-established tradition of dealing with important public policy questions in the Northwest Territories and Yukon, which I respectfully ask you to consider in formulating your recommendations to the government.

Second, please let’s not rush this important process. It’s especially important to us northerners to have an opportunity to weigh in on a question with significant national importance, such as this one.

As you know, Nunavut was officially separated from its sister territory, the NWT, on April 1, 1999. The NWT and Nunavut, in their relatively short time as fully elected governments responsible to their people, have forged strong traditions that the rest of us could well emulate, including a tradition of respectful relationships with the aboriginal peoples who are the strong majority in both territories.

Another of our strong traditions is the so-called consensus system of government, which has served us well in making major progress on challenging issues such as the resolution of complex and comprehensive land claims and significant progress in what we call “constitutional development”, reflected in the steady acquisition of province-like responsibilities from Ottawa in areas such as health, public utilities, and management and a revenue share of lands and resources in the NWT in 2014, a process that is being negotiated in Nunavut as we speak.

We’ve managed to do all that without partisan politics in the NWT and Nunavut. It is a great system in which I proudly served for 16 years, and a system I’m most comfortable with and welcome in the Senate of Canada, now moving towards more independence and less partisanship.

What I want to emphasize today, honourable members, is that we know how to address big public policy questions successfully. We agreed to divide the Northwest Territories to create a new public government in Nunavut with a strong Inuit majority, alongside the largest and most ambitious land claims settlement in history; to establish a new regulatory regime—because we don’t use the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act here in Nunavut—and to determine a boundary for division. All that was done without strife, and certainly without bloodshed or bitterness.

We did so by taking our time, as it was a process of more than 20 years. We did so by consulting all citizens at every major step of the way, and this is my message to you today, respectfully.

Dear parliamentary colleagues, I ask you to respect that the NWT and Nunavut have a very strong tradition of consulting the people on major public policy decisions and have established from the first days of elected government a long-standing and well-established system of public voting—we call them plebiscites—to ensure that the general electorate is consulted on major public policy decisions such as the one you’re wrestling with, reform of the electoral system.

In Nunavut, the Plebiscites Act regulates direct votes on community and Nunavut-wide questions. This fundamental tool for legislators to secure a mandate for major changes in public policy was established in the NWT when major electoral and constitutional reforms were contemplated by the elected legislators of the day.

The Plebiscites Act was established in 1974 and became a crucial vehicle to assure the federal government that the people of the NWT were supportive of major political changes. I want to give you some examples of the important questions on which the people of Nunavut were given a voice.

In 1982, when Nunavut was part of the NWT, there was a very important vote on whether or not the Northwest Territories should be divided into two territories. The outcome of this vote, in which 56.5% of residents of three years’ standing in the NWT voted “yes”, was absolutely critical in paving the way for the creation of Nunavut.

Then in 1995 there was a vote on which community should become the capital of Nunavut. The choices were Rankin Inlet or Iqaluit, and 60% voted for Iqaluit as the capital, compared to 40% who voted for Rankin Inlet.

Please note that we then considered what I thought was an exciting and beneficial change to our voting system in territorial elections. It was a very exciting proposal that would have seen one man and one woman guaranteed to be elected in each territorial riding. We held a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the general electorate. The question in that vote was, “Should the first Nunavut Legislative Assembly have equal numbers of men and women MLAs, with one man and one woman elected to represent each electoral district?” The result, which sadly was very disappointing to me, was that 57% voted against the change.

People must have a voice and a vote if we are to change our way of electing MPs. However, for that vote to truly be representative of the will of the Canadian people, I strongly believe that it’s important to ensure that every Canadian has the opportunity to make a truly informed decision.

I have a Senate Facebook page. Facebook is ubiquitous in the north, even though we have very slow Internet. Some of my posts have had a reach of over 4,000 all the way to 19,000 people. My most popular post to date has had 933 interactions, which include likes, shares, and comments.

In September I launched an Internet survey asking respondents to identify how much they understood about the options available for electoral reform. I’ve received only two responses to date. This, to me, is an indication that more engagement and a better, deeper understanding of alternative systems are needed.

In preparing for today, I reviewed your committee’s mandate and noted in particular the welcome emphasis on principles of engagement and legitimacy connected with your study of alternative voting systems. I also noted that the standing order establishing the committee directed the committee to study and advise on additional methods for obtaining the views of Canadians.

Today I’ve described a decades-long tradition of a territorial government seeking the views of their electorate on proposals for significant policy change through what we call plebiscites. I do hope this history of our experience dealing with major changes in a non-partisan system of government, time-tested over decades in our albeit short history of representative elected government, is informative. I also hope that your committee will consider this method of engaging northerners and obtaining their views. This is how we make important decisions on matters of public policy in the north. This is how we’ve engaged our aboriginal majorities and established successful partnerships to implement modern treaties, enshrining aboriginal rights alongside public government. This is how we persuaded the federal government to draw new boundaries in the north and on one-third of the map of Canada, and to create a new contiguous territory of Nunavut alongside a modern treaty.

I respectfully recommend that a public vote is similarly what will be required to give legitimacy to any plans for electoral reform in Canada.

Thank you very much for this opportunity.



Our current federal electoral system

  • Description: Our current electoral system at the federal level is First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). FPTP is a plurality system. Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides. The winning candidate must win the most votes – though not necessarily a majority.

  • Current use example: The United Kingdom and the United States.
    Source: Library of Parliament. For more information, see the Library of Parliament website.

Alternative electoral systems

Alternative electoral systems to FPTP can be grouped into three broad families:

  • majority systems;

  • proportional representation systems; and

  • mixed electoral systems.

Majority systems

  • Description: In majority electoral systems, the winning candidate is the individual who gets a majority (over 50%) of the votes cast. This system can be designed in different ways. For example, the system could allow voters to rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. If no candidate receives a majority of votes on the first count, the lowest candidate is dropped and the second-preference votes for that candidate are assigned to the respective remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate receives the necessary majority. Another example is a system in which there are two election days, generally weeks apart. In this type of electoral system, if no candidate receives a majority of votes in the first round, there is a second election with only the top two candidates from the first election result. The candidate with the higher number of votes in the second round is elected.

  • Examples: Examples of majority systems include Alternative Vote (AV) and Run-off (or Two Round) System. 

  • Current use example: Australia – lower house (AV) and France (Two Round) 
    Source: Library of Parliament. For more information, see the Library of Parliament website.

Proportional representation systems

  • Description: As its name suggests, proportional representation (PR) systems seek to closely match a political party’s vote share with its seat allocation in the legislature. PR systems tend to vary and the method for calculating seat distribution can range from simple to complex. Proportional representation systems are not based on single-member constituencies. Citizens generally vote for more than one candidate or for a political party.

  • Examples: Examples of proportional representation systems include Single Transferable Vote (STV) and List Proportional Representation (List PR).

  • Current use example: Australia – upper house (STV) and Sweden (List PR)
    Source: Library of Parliament. For more information, see the Library of Parliament website.

Mixed electoral systems

  • Description: Mixed electoral systems combine elements of a plurality or majority system with elements of proportional representation. Citizens in a riding cast two votes: one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a political party or parties to fill seats in the legislature allocated according to the proportion of the vote share they receive. 

  • Examples: Examples of mixed electoral systems include Mixed Member Majoritarian (MMM), which is a semi-proportional system, and Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), which is a proportional system. 

  • Current use example: Japan (MMM) and New Zealand (MMP). 
    Source: Library of Parliament. For more information, see the Library of Parliament website.

To learn more about electoral systems in Canada download this Background Paper: 16 06 01 – LoP – Electoral Systems 101 (2016-06-e)

You can also visit: https://www.canada.ca/en/campaign/electoral-reform.html

For information visit the Government of Canada website here.


Help make sure your voice matters. Take the survey and tell us what electoral reform means to you!