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ERRE Committee Report

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CHAPTER 7
DIVERSITY AND ENGAGEMENT: A PARLIAMENT THAT MIRRORS CANADA

The second principle in the Committee’s mandate, “Engagement,” calls on the Committee to identify measures that “encourage voting and participation in the democratic process, foster greater civility and collaboration in politics, enhance social cohesion and offer opportunities for inclusion of underrepresented groups in the political process.” Furthermore, the mandate stipulates that the Committee was to “develop its consultation agenda, working methods, and recommendations on electoral reform with the goal of strengthening the inclusion of all Canadians in our diverse society.”[416]

With these instructions in mind, the Committee considered a wide range of views and concerns regarding the inclusiveness of the electoral system. This chapter summarizes views expressed to the Committee on the representation of women, visible minorities, Indigenous Canadians and Canadians with disabilities.

A.  A Parliament that Mirrors Canada

The Committee heard significant testimony regarding the diversity of members of Parliament (MPs). Much concern was raised to the Committee with respect to Canada’s poor ranking in terms of women’s representation in the House of Commons, compared to lower houses in other countries. Currently, with 26% women MPs, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Canada 64th overall in the world in terms of women’s representation.[417]

Many Canadians expressed the desire for, and the value of, having a House of Commons that mirrors the population. Donna Dasco said:

Why do we care? Women's voices have to be there. It's a matter of democratic representation. Decisions are made in our Parliaments. Women have to be there.[418]

Victor Tootoo in Iqaluit echoed this view when he stated:

I think that our decisions are better made by a collective that reflects what we look like and the discussion among us. Without that equal representation on a gender basis, we don't get those decisions.

In Canada, women running for office are only slightly less likely than men to be elected, and as Melanee Thomas said “we have no evidence to suggest that voters discriminate against candidates on the grounds of gender or race.”[419]

The Committee heard diverging views concerning why women and visible minorities are underrepresented and to what extent electoral reform can resolve this issue. Two distinct opinions emerged: some experts and individuals contended that electoral systems are a key factor influencing the electoral prospects of women, whereas others were of the view that the effect of electoral system design on women and minorities representation is less significant than is often claimed. The latter group held that electoral systems cannot be understood as the single most important factor to ensure or increase women’s and minorities’ representation in Parliament. Other factors, such as the nomination process and political parties, play a significant role. Electoral systems are one factor among many that may impact women’s political representation in legislatures.

B.  Effects of Electoral Systems on the Diversity of the House of Commons

A common view expressed to the Committee was that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system poses problems for the election of women and minority groups, particularly in comparison to proportional electoral systems. Brian Tanguay suggested that the FPTP system does a “very poor job” at producing a parliament that mirrors the population and that it poses “significantly high barriers to the election of women.”[420] Madeleine Webb echoed this point, and stated:

In a plurality system, women and minorities are less likely to be on the ballot. It's not because they're not electable; it's because in the nomination process parties have historically favoured white male candidates as the best choice for the winner-take-all competition. White men are often considered to be a more acceptable candidate, and thus there's a disincentive to choose women to run.[421]

Donna Dasco added that electoral reform could provide a solution to under-representation. She stated:

[M]ajority systems, including first past the post, are poor at electing women.… PR systems are best for women, and such mixed systems as MMP are somewhere in between.… Even on their own, PR systems, I would argue, make it more likely that women will be elected.[422]

Michael Gallagher also noted that countries with PR systems tend to have more women in parliament than those that do not.[423] Miriam Anderson added, at an open-mic session, that many of the countries that rank better than Canada in terms of the representation of women use PR electoral systems. She stated:

Many of the systems that rank near the top have some form of proportional representation. It's also easier to ensure that there are more women running with some kind of list. When parties have to put forward a full list, then they can guarantee that a certain percentage are of each gender, which is easier than dealing with just single-member electoral districts.[424]

As discussed in Chapter 4 (on electoral systems), a number of witnesses suggested that the use of party lists can be helpful in making Canada’s electoral system more inclusive and diverse. Mercédez Roberge mentioned how party lists would give political parties a certain level of control over the types of candidates on the list, and suggested that rules could be established requiring parties to present no less than 40% and no more than 60% of candidates of a given gender.[425]

Pippa Norris noted that electoral systems can have an impact on the diversity of MPs, but added that there are other relevant factors. She stated:

Proportional representation has the strongest representation for women overall. Under the mixed member system, women get in through the party list. Under the first past the post, it becomes more difficult at the selection or recruitment stage for women to get selected, and therefore to get elected.[426]

Conversely, other witnesses and individuals told the Committee that the electoral system is not the root cause of underrepresentation, that electoral reform is not necessary to increase the representation of certain groups, and that the implementation of a proportional electoral system would not be sufficient in improving underrepresentation. Melanee Thomas stated:

I can’t help but conclude that introducing more proportionality into our electoral institutions on its own will probably not meaningfully increase representational diversity in Canadian politics.[427]

She added:

There are powerful, informal barriers that work to keep women out of politics, people who are not white out of politics, and people who are [I]ndigenous out of politics. Simply changing the electoral system is not going to address any of these informal barriers that are in place.[428]

Ann Decter noted how numerous other factors, beyond the electoral system, impact women’s decision to run as candidates. She suggested, “[w]omen have reported that the cost, lack of predictability, and lack of transparency of nomination processes are for some a major disincentive.”[429]

C.  Nomination Process and the Role of Political Parties

A number of witnesses and individuals were of the view that the party nomination process is the most significant barrier to the election of women and minorities. Emmett Macfarlane submitted that “the most effective way to get there is to change our political culture and to change how candidates are selected in parties.”[430]

Nomination procedures vary considerably among Canada’s federal political parties and furthermore, they vary considerably from riding to riding. Some of the federal parties have very few nomination rules, while others have formal nomination processes that must be followed by every riding association.[431] Kelly Carmichael described how the nomination processes within ridings are carried out almost completely independently of each other:

If you think about our ridings, the way that they are silos right now, we vote for certain members, and we don't know outside of our silo if a party is running a lot of men or a lot of women.[432]

Former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley noted that “[c]urrently, the structure of parties and how local associations operate discriminate against the participation of women.”[433] Melanee Thomas went so far as to say that embedded in the recruitment process are sexist and racist perceptions of the ideal candidate. She stated:

The one that concerns me most in terms of informal barriers for electoral reform is implicit assumptions about what makes a good candidate and who’s the best candidate. I think built into recruitment policies and into how we approach the political system is a lot of latent sexism and latent racism, this idea that a good candidate or a good politician looks a certain way.[434]

Amanda Bittner echoed this argument and suggested that:

Part of the problem is recruitment. Part of the problem is that senior party officials have this idea that women and racialized minorities are not successful candidates, even though there’s no evidence to suggest that this is the case. All the evidence shows that when women run, they do win. So really, the issue is about recruitment.[435]

Many believe there is more that political parties can do to produce more representative parliaments. As Paul Thomas suggested, “There are things parties can do without having to change the electoral system in a fundamental way.”[436] Finally Melanee Thomas concluded that focusing on electoral reform as the solution to the underrepresentation of women, minority groups and Indigenous Canadians “is giving the people who are recruiting candidates a pass.”[437]

D.  Overcoming Barriers to Entry

A variety of barriers prevent potential candidates from running for office, such as the financial burdens associated with campaigning across large geographic areas, the cost of child care and other personal expenses. For example, former Member of Parliament, Jack Anawak described the financial burdens faced by candidates running in vast, particularly northern, ridings. He explained that in Nunavut:

A person considering running for office here has to consider forgoing income for the duration of the campaign. While this is true in many ridings, we have high costs for food, housing, electricity, heating fuel, and child care. For us, choosing to run for office usually means living off our savings in the most expensive riding in the country.[438]

Melanee Thomas noted that becoming an MP may not appear as an attractive career option for some women because there are “work-life balance and things like commuting … the nature of political work itself doesn’t lend itself to maternity or parental leave, which is challenging.”[439] She explained how one significant way to help increase the representation of women and other underrepresented groups would be to consider policies focused on the nomination process. Examples include limiting the amount of money that can be used in a nomination contest, focusing on developing diverse personal networks within riding associations to recruit potential candidates, and funding child care and related expenses at the nomination stage in order to remove some of the barriers that may prevent otherwise strong candidates from running: 

I think money matters most for women at the nomination stage. This is one of the things you talked about. Regulating how much people can spend on nominations does a lot for historically under-represented groups.
Something that should be noted for the record is that networks matter. They matter for money, but they matter as much for recruitment. Electoral district associations [EDAs] that have women on their executives, especially women as their EDA presidents, are much more likely to run women as candidates, simply because you have somebody with a network who knows a woman and can do that kind of recruitment.
Women tell us that money becomes a barrier also at that nomination stage, and it matters in ways that don't matter for men. It's not just about getting money for getting on the ballot and mounting a campaign, but for things like after-hours child care. It's for things like hair and clothes and the whole presentation in which women are required to engage in ways that men aren't.…
When it comes to actually helping women's numbers, though, being able to regulate and have clear pathways for things like nominations and recruitment is where the money really matters for gender parity in terms of elections.[440]

Another option would be to tie the campaign reimbursements that a political party is eligible to receive to the diversity of its candidates, as Melanee Thomas explained:

A great deal of political parties' election-based financing comes from campaign reimbursements. You spend a certain amount, and then you can get 80% of it back. That should be, in my view, docked depending on how few women or visible minorities a party fields. Something tells me that if you tie diversity to the money, parties will solve the problem overnight. They just will.[441]

In a similar vein, Mercédez Roberge suggested:

In order for public funds to be used to achieve our objectives of equality, inclusion and non-discrimination in a broad sense, the reimbursement of election expenses should be increased based on the performance achieved, the percentage of women elected and the percentage of racialized persons elected.[442]

E.  Indigenous Representation

Numerous witnesses spoke to the need for greater Indigenous representation in Parliament. Charles Smith noted that he believes that “reform to a more proportional system has the potential to transfer voice and power to Indigenous communities, both on reserve and in urban centres, so that these voices can be heard.”[443] Some suggested that a certain number of seats should be reserved for Indigenous Canadians. For example, David Blain recommended in his brief that:

Electoral reform should also make provision for First Nations who have been under represented in the House of Commons. In the process of electoral reform we should set aside seats for First Nations based on population. These seats will be filled with First Nations elected by First Nations.[444]

Kirk Cameron made a similar suggestion. He stated:

In our Canada of today, we have set as a very high priority working to find a path of reconciliation with the first peoples of this country—first nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples.
One avenue that is open to you to contribute to this reconciliation is to consider some form of guaranteed representation in the House of Commons for [A]boriginal peoples.[445]

James T. Arreak also posited that guaranteed representation for Indigenous peoples should be part of any electoral reform, and that such representation should ensure that Canada’s three Aboriginal peoples – First Nations, Inuit and Metis – have direct representation in the House of Commons.[446] He specified that representation “in the range of two to four representatives from each of Canada's three Aboriginal peoples would roughly track the New Zealand precedent. Aboriginal peoples' representatives should be elected by Aboriginal electors.”[447] He also added that:

There is no reason that [A]boriginal peoples' representatives need to be elected on the occasion of federal general elections. For reasons of continuity of representation, it would be a considerable advantage to have such representatives elected for fixed terms.… In the absence of elections being tied to overtly partisan general elections, there would be an enhanced argument for us for using a ranked ballot system to ensure at least 50% support.[448]

F.   Representation of Canadians with Disabilities

In order for the Canadian electoral system to be truly inclusive, a number of witnesses and participants noted that there ought to be greater representation of Canadians with disabilities in the House of Commons. Diane Bergeron indicated:

I would suggest that the issue of having fewer people with disabilities or people with sight loss participating in political life is less reliant on the electoral system and more on the attitude of the political parties, the attitudes of people in general, and the stereotyping of people with disabilities as not being as capable or competent. If we change the attitudes, no matter what electoral system we use, we're going to find more people with disabilities, more women, and it's going to be more proportional regardless of how that system works out.[449]

Marcia Carroll noted that incentives should be put in place to pressure political parties to run candidates with disabilities. Such incentives could include mandated targets for diversity, requirements to comply with targets or justify missed targets, financial incentives and/or penalties for meeting targets. She held that:

[I]ncentives could be imposed to encourage people with disabilities to run as well and be engaged in the electoral system. Currently, we know that people with disabilities in this country are some of the poorest and most disenfranchised. To have those individuals run against somebody in their community who is known to one of the parties in power in our first-past-the-post system is very frightening.
We hear that all the time from the people we talk to when it comes time for elections. We really encourage people with a disability to go through a nomination process and try to be represented on the ballot. More often than not, they don't want to go against one of the other parties and they're not encouraged within our two-party system to be their candidate.[450]

G.  The Per-Vote Subsidy and Party Financing

An additional topic that the Committee heard about throughout its consultations was the per-vote subsidy, a source of public funding that was available to political parties until it was phased out in 2015.[451]

The Committee heard from a number of witnesses who stated their preference for reinstating the per-vote subsidy, in accordance with the principles of fairness and equity. Jean-Pierre Kingsley recommended a return to the formula, stating:

That is a more equitable way to proceed, even though it's not perfect. It is not possible to establish a perfect mechanism to maintain fairness within the electoral system. Invariably, some people benefit and others are disadvantaged. It's a matter of minimizing that inequality and making the situation acceptable from the perspective of a reasonable Canadian.[452]

This position was supported by Paul Howe, who stated that the current system of individual donations to political parties is less equal as donations vary greatly between Canadians of different socio-economic levels.[453]

Others stated that a return to the per-vote subsidy would also help Canadians feel like their vote has an effect, as it would directly impact the party they supported.[454] Melanee Thomas discussed the per-vote subsidy in her testimony, arguing that public financing of political parties, in addition to being of benefit to Canadian voters, is also more democratic:

In the literature on party and campaign finance internationally, most countries do have some form of public financing. It's broadly seen to be a good thing, because the political party is a key institution linking representative institutions and the voting public.... [The per-vote subsidy] struck me as a democratic way of doing party financing. It also struck me as a way of being able to tell people who thought their votes were wasted because they weren't necessarily voting for the winner that their vote was actually contributing to something. I think it would be worthwhile to re-engage in this kind of discussion about what kind of public financing the parties need.[455]

H. Recommendations

Recommendation 7

The Committee recommends that any electoral reform seek to enhance the likelihood of improving voter turnout and to increase the possibilities for historically disenfranchised and underrepresented groups (i.e. women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, youth, and Canadians of lower economic means) to be elected. [Note that this recommendation applies to both Chapter 7 and Chapter 8]

Recommendation 8

The Committee recommends that the Government amend the Canada Elections Act to create a financial incentive (for example through reimbursement of electoral campaign expenses) for political parties to run more women candidates and move towards parity in their nominations.


[415]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 25 July 2016, 1515 (Nelson Wiseman).

[416]         Extract from House of Commons, Journals, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 7 June 2016.

[417]         Inter-Parliamentary Union, Women in National Parliaments, 1 September 2016.

[418]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 21 September 2016, 1535 (Donna Dasco, Fellow, School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto).

[419]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 30 August 2016, 1425 (Melanee Thomas).

[420]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 25 July 2016, 1410 (Brian Tanguay).

[421]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 20 October 2016, 0915 (Madeleine Webb, Advocacy Coordinator, Canadian Federation of University Women).

[422]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 21 September 2016, 1535 (Donna Dasco).

[423]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 26 July 2016, 1025 (Michael Gallagher).

[424]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 21 September 2016, 2030 (Miriam Anderson, as an Individual).

[425]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 September 2016, 1440 (Mercédez Roberge, Campaigner, as an Individual).

[426]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 August 2016, 1450 (Pippa Norris).

[427]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 30 August 2016, 1415 (Melanee Thomas).

[428]         Ibid.

[429]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 20 October 2016, 1810 (Ann Decter, Director, Advocacy and Public Policy, YWCA Canada).

[430]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 August 2016, 1015 (Emmett Macfarlane).

[431]         Erin Virgint, Electoral Systems and Women’s Representation, Publication No. 2016-30-E, 5 July 2016.

[432]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 20 October 2016, 1840 (Kelly Carmichael).

[433]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 7 July 2016, 1600 (Jean-Pierre Kingsley).

[434]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 30 August 2016, 1540 (Melanee Thomas).

[435]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 5 October 2016, 1335 (Amanda Bittner).

[436]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 20 September 2016, 1930 (Paul Thomas, Professor Emeritus, Political Studies, University of Manitoba, as an Individual).

[437]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 30 August 2016, 1425 (Melanee Thomas).

[438]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 17 October 2016, 1830 (Jack Anawak, as an Individual).

[439]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 30 August 2016, 1605 (Melanee Thomas).

[440]         Ibid., 1545.

[441]         Ibid.

[442]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 September 2016, 1445 (Mercédez Roberge).

[443]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 19 September 2016, 1425 (Charles Smith, Associate Professor, St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, as an Individual).

[444]         David Blain, Electoral Reform for Canada.  

[445]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 26 September 2016, 1340 (Kirk Cameron). He added:

I do not know if New Zealand's chief electoral officer spoke to this unique aspect of the New Zealand parliamentary system, but they have had guaranteed seats for the Maori dating back, interestingly enough, to 1867. Today there are seven Maori seats in its House of Representatives, which is determined through a mixed member proportional system. There are two rolls, one for Maori voting. Maori can choose whether they wish to vote on a general or on a specific Maori roll.

I'm not suggesting this particular model. It's only to say that this is an example of where a parliamentary system has embraced a unique approach so that a first people—in the New Zealand case, the Maori—can, quote, see themselves represented directly in the system.

I am reminded of Jean-Pierre Kingsley's presentation to you. The fifth point that he asked you to consider is that the “Canadian reality must be reflected in the system of representation.” As well, “Canadians must be able to see themselves in their representatives and in the system by which they choose them.”

I believe there is no better way to achieve this than by your committee actively engaging with [A]boriginal representative groups such as the Assembly of First Nations, and Inuit and Métis organizations, among others, to determine if there is an avenue forward that would achieve this principle for the [A]boriginal peoples of our country. I do not know if you have hearings set with these groups, but if not, I would suggest that you reach out to them.

I note there is [A]boriginal interest in reform at the parliamentary level that would build linkages between our [A]boriginal citizenry and Parliament. You may be aware that in 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal [p]eoples recommended that a house of first peoples be established as a third chamber of Parliament. The details on its role and responsibilities are set out in the commission's report. In brief, it is recommending a chamber with legislative responsibility over bills that have substantive impact over Canada's [A]boriginal peoples.

The Committee wishes to indicate that it had invited various organizations that were unfortunately unable to appear.

[446]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 17 October 2016, 1340 (James T. Arreak).

[447]         Ibid.

[448]         Ibid.

[449]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 21 September 2016, 1610 (Diane Bergeron).

[450]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 6 October 2016, 1535 (Marcia Carroll, Executive Director, PEI Council of People with Disabilities).

[451]         In 2011, the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-13: An Act to implement certain provisions of the 2011 budget as updated on 6 June 2011 and other measures, which became the Keeping Canada’s Economy and Jobs Growing Act, S.C. 2011, c.24. The legislation was enacted to phase out the per-vote subsidy to political parties (sometimes referred to as the quarterly allowance) by January 2015. Before the reductions, the amount of the subsidy was $0.4375 per vote received, per quarter, adjusted annually for inflation. The first stage in the reduction became effective 1 April 2012, when the subsidy was reduced to $0.3825 per vote received in the 2011 general election. The amount was reduced to $0.255 per vote effective 1 April 2013. As of 1 April 2014, the amount was reduced to $0.1275 per vote. Finally, the allowance was terminated after the fourth instalment of 2014 was paid on 1 January 2015. See: Dara Lithwick and Sebastian Spano, The Canadian Electoral System, Publication No. 2013-81-E, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 22 October 2015.

[452]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 5 July 2016, 1435 (Jean-Pierre Kingsley).

[453]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 7 October 2016, 1940 (Paul Howe, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of New Brunswick, as an Individual):

Every single Canadian is able to provide for the party they wish through their vote, whereas, when you look at the system of individual donations … you find that, although we've moved to a system where the maximum has gone down considerably to what seems like a rather low level, wealthier Canadians are definitely more likely to give the maximum or near the maximum. The total amount of money they are giving is substantially more than what those at the lower end of the economic spectrum are giving.

[454]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 31 August 2016, 1905 (Jane Hilderman, Executive Director, Samara): “I think that is the appeal behind the notion of a per vote subsidy, in that everyone at least gets to make some donation to a party. It's compelling as an incentive to think that your vote counts for something more. I also think it helps parties maybe think a little differently about their fundraising direction.”

[455]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 30 August 2016, 1600 (Melanee Thomas).