Canada's electoral history from 1867 to today

The history of electoral systems in Canada since 1867

by Maurice Y. Michaud (he/him)

Image courtesy of Elections CanadaMost Canadians alive today have always voted at the federal, provincial or territorial level using a single electoral method, namely the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. To be elected in a general election, a person only has to win a relative majority of the votes in their race, and in a competitive multi-candidate race, it is very likely that this "relative majority" will be well below half the votes cast.

Then, the political party having elected the most candidates is called upon to form a government in the legislative assembly for which the election was held. If that party obtained an absolute majority of winning candidates (50%+1), it will form what is known as a "majority" government. However, if the number of winners of all the other parties combined represents the absolute majority, the party with the relative majority of winners will instead form a "minority" government. Either way that party will take power, which is one of the reasons that leads some to refer to the FPTP system as one in which "the winner takes all."

About majority governments

It should be noted that the notion of a majority government is moot in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut (and the Yukon prior to 1978) because of their consensual form of government with no political parties.

Similarly, it was a vague and fluid notion in the 19th century in those jurisdictions where parties did not formally exist. Instead, candidates would declare themselves as supporting either "Government" or "Opposition," while others simply branded themselves as "Independent." In other words, they aligned themselves to the individual who either was or was not the head of government (or premier) when the election was being held. As such, if a general election yielded a plurality of "Opposition" winning candidates, they became the government after the election, but that allegiance to a given leader could change during the course of a legislature, sometimes leaving a handful of men at the helm of the government. This ostensibly consensual but confusing non-party system existed in British Columbia until 1903 and Manitoba until 1879. And while parties were not formally recognized in the New Brunswick legislature until 1935, party alignments similar to the federal level were used de facto in that province as early as 1878.

Electoral systems in Canada

The following electoral systems have been or are used in Canada at the federal or provincial/territorial levels during general elections or by-elections. Quebec and the territories for which a legislative assembly was formed in the 20th century are the only jurisdictions to have used the FPTP system in all their elections, while all the other jurisdictions have used other systems in some elections, either exclusively or in combination with other systems.

Only Manitoba and Alberta have used a proportional system in some ridings, the other ridings using a majoritarian system like FPTP. Overall, the governments formed by these electoral hybrids were just as lopsided in favour of the winning political party, and the tabulation of the votes (at a time when computers did not exist) was tedious. It could at times take days before some winners could be declared.

¤ First-past-the-post (FPTP)
First-past-the-post is a majoritarian system in which the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. Since 1991, it is the only system in use in all jurisdictions in Canada, British Columbia being the last jurisdiction to get rid of its FPTP/PAL hybrid system in favour of an exclusively FPTP system.

¤ Plurality-at-large/Block (PAL)
Plurality-at-large, also known as block voting, is a majoritarian system in which the candidates with the most votes each win one of the available seats. In other words, there were two or more seats to be won in the riding. This system was the only one used in Nova Scotia until 1933 and almost exclusively in New Brunswick until 1967, although FPTP was used de facto in by-elections to replace a single member.

¤ Instant runoff/Alternative voting (IR-AV)
Instant runoff or alternative voting is a majoritarian system in which each voter ranks the candidates by order of preference and the votes are redistributed until one candidate obtains an absolute majority (50% +1). This system was used in all rural ridings of Alberta from 1921 to 1956 and of Manitoba from 1927 to 1958, as well as in all ridings in British Columbia from 1952 to 1956.

¤ Single transferable vote (STV)
Single transferable vote is a proportional system in which each voter ranks the candidates by order of preference and the votes are redistributed in a way that the final distribution of seats is closer to the popular vote each political party receives as long as it has reached a mimimum overall threshold. Alberta used this system for the cities of Calgary and Edmonton from 1926 to 1956, and Manitoba for Winnipeg from 1920 to 1958.
Electoral systems used in Canada, 1866–2024
Jurisdiction Years FPTP PAL IR-AV STV
1 CA Canada 1867–1968

9 AB Alberta 1905–1909




8 BC British Columbia 1871–1952




11 MB Manitoba 1870–1920



3 NB New Brunswick 1866–1874



7 NL Newfoundland and Labrador 1949–1975

2 NS Nova Scotia 1867–1933

14 NT Northwest Territories 1951–2024

13 NU Nunavut 1999–2024

6 ON Ontario 1867–1886


4 PE* Prince Edward Island 1873–1893

5 QC Québec 1867–2024

10 SK Saskatchewan 1905–1917


12 YT Yukon 1970–2024

15 NW North-West Territories 1888–1892

* From 1893 to 1996, two members per riding were elected (Assemblyman and Councillor)

Referendums in Canada have used other majoritarian systems, including one that requires a super global majority or a dual majority.

¤ Global simple majority (G-SimM)
Majoritarian system in which an absolute majority (50% +1) is sufficient to win (usually lends itself only for a binary choice). Only the overall result is considered, not the results by riding.

¤ Global super majority (G-SupM)
Majoritarian system in which two thresholds must be reached to win (e.g., 60 percent of votes in 60 percent of ridings). Seemingly without irony, British Columbia imposed a high threshold in 2005 to change the voting system from FPTP to STV, namely at least 60% of the valid votes cast in support of the proposal and a simple majority in favour in at least 60% of all ridings. The first threshold was missed by 2.3% but the second one was met in 97.5% of the ridings.

Variations of the following proportional system are used in many countries and has been proposed in several Canadian jurisdictions but ultimately never adopted:

¤ Mixed-member proportional (MMP)
Proportional system in which each voter chooses one local candidate and one regional candidate, the goal being to have a final distribution of seats that is closer to the popular vote each political party receives as long as it has reached a mimimum overall threshold. Germany and New Zealand are two countries using this system, as do the parliaments of Scotland and Wales.

Tabulating the results of an election conducted with a proportional system can be a bit more complicated than those from an FPTP or PAL election — certainly for an election using the STV method — but considering that such elections have been successfully conducted well before the easy access to computers, the argument that a proportional system is inherently "just too complicated" does not hold water given how a majoritarian system like alternative voting has already been used despite being really complicated.

Now the question must be asked: Could we change our electoral system... again?

© 2019, 2024 :: (Maurice Y. Michaud)
Pub.:  9 May 2022 23:15
Rev.:  1 May 2023 23:15