Canada's electoral history from 1867 to today

Guess we should replace 'em, huh?

by Maurice Y. Michaud (he/him)

Joseph Howe (18041873)
© Photo — Public domain

In 2023, there are far fewer by-elections than there were a century ago. Seats just don't seem to become vacant as frequently as they used to. A few factors might explain why.

  • People didn't live as long as they do today, so deaths in office were a far more common occurrence until the late 20th century.
     
  • Up until the 1930s in most jurisdictions, a person who was named to the cabinet for the first time was required to resign their seat and run in a ministerial by-election soon afterwards. That's what happened in April 1869 when Joseph Howe, portrayed here, accepted Confederation as a fait accompli and joined the Liberal-Conservative cabinet of John A. Macdonald.
     
  • Up until the middle of the 20th century, unseating a member was commonplace and the mechanism to challenge someone's election seems to have been very lax when viewed through presentist lens, as many by-elections were held merely because the challenger — often the government or the defeated incumbent — did not like the result.

All jurisdictions combined, there have been 3,182 by-elections since 1866. However, what the table below strikingly illustrates is that their frequency dropped significantly after 1925. In fact, 1,817 (or 57.10%) of all by-elections were held in the first 34 years of the Confederation era (1866 to 1924).

  • Between 1866 and 1874 inclusively — that's only nine years, compared to the other slices which are 25 years — there had only been three federal general elections, the last of those being held in January 1874. Never­the­less, in good part due to a frenzy of declaring elections void and unseating members, coupled with ministerial by-elections and normal reasons for seats becoming vacant like resignations, appointments and deaths, 108 by-elections were held from mid-1867 to December 1874. The third parliament alone, which was dissolved in the summer of 1878, had a total of 90 by-elections!
     
  • Between 1875 and 1899, the provincial and territorial legislatures held 505 by-elections, which is an astonishing number considering that Alberta and Saskatchewan did not exist yet, although the North-West Territory, which was their equivalent, did have a legislature from 1888. In addition to those, four provincial or territorial legislatures that exist today were more than three-quarter of a century from coming into existence, which means that none of them contributed to that total of 505.

However, starting in 1950, the frequency of by-elections stabilized to more or less what is it today.

By-Elections, 1866–2023
F: Federal    P/T: Provincial/Territorial
Years AB BC MB NB NL NS NT NU NW ON PE QC SK YT Total
F P F P F P F P F P F P F T F T F T F P F P F P F P F T F P
1866—1874 6 12 8 2 8 47 15 17 36 42 7 10 28 31 108 161
1875—1899 10 56 11 59 23 69 39 37 3 13 123 120 9 42 107 109 325 505
1900—1924 3 43 10 53 8 41 15 57 15 42 1 8 68 96 4 37 78 100 6 32 1 209 509
1925—1949 6 19 8 37 8 19 9 21 7 20 45 40 2 27 43 40 13 37 141 260
1950—1974 3 19 4 21 6 25 6 20 3 10 4 15 6 25 35 2 12 29 39 2 16 1 85 218
1975—1999 2 13 3 17 2 17 3 17 6 26 2 21 7 22 27 2 16 23 51 2 20 1 10 68 242
2000—2023 10 17 7 15 7 18 17 6 33 2 23 4 14 21 43 7 18 58 2 26 3 73 278
Total 24 111 48 211 50 181 64 248 15 69 84 175 17 14 4 21 340 403 26 151 326 428 25 131 3 13 1,009 2,173
Greyed out cells indicate the absence of the jurisdiction. 3,182


© 2019, 2023 :: PoliCan.ca (Maurice Y. Michaud)
Pub.:  5 Nov 2022 10:05
Rev.: 12 Nov 2023 23:59 (but data presented dynamically)