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PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION IN CANADA, YEA OR NAY?

Updated: Aug 24, 2023


1. Our system.

2. Poor Israel doesn't have our voting system. Israel has proportional representation. With horrid irony, Israel mirrors Germany of the 1930s.

3. How Canada traditionally has coped with major and minor tyrannies.

3A. Contemporary Canadian Tyrannies (the fragility of a federation).

4. Federations are fragile constructions (alliances).

5. Learning to love the Senate, and senators (and Canada).



1. Our system.

If you see something you like about Canada in Bill Browder’s Freezing Order, you might want to applaud the way Canada passed the Magnitsky Act.



(The Magnitsky Act allows Canada to sanction foreign nationals “responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights and to make related amendments to the Special Economic Measures Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.”)


From Bill Browder’s Freezing Order: “. . . on October 4 [2017] The Canadian House of Commons voted 277 – 0 to pass their own version of the Magnitsky Act. It passed the Canadian Senate unanimously on October 17, and was signed into law the next day” (265).


The Senate voted unanimously in support of this bill.

So? Does anyone care?

What does the Senate mean to Canadians?

What does the Senate do for Canadians?



The Westminster system, Canadian style, has two chambers – and neither is terribly lordly.

In Freezing Order Browder refers to them: the House of Commons and the Senate. Both houses passed the Magnitsky bill into law. The elected and appointed houses agreed. Unanimously. Their agreement is reassuring, because, really, the cultures of the two chambers couldn’t be more unalike.


Canadians and Canadian pundits relentlessly focus on the sayings and doings of politicians in the House of Commons. And from time to time because we’re a “frugal” people and often goaded by the outrage of the Globe and Mail, we cast a suspicious, miserly eye on the expenses of the Governor General. In any event, we all know the House of Commons is a raucous place. Democracy is messy. The electorate and editorials opine furiously and sometime unhappily on parliamentary (HoC) raucousness.


What counteracts raucousness? Sobriety, of course.


In our upper chamber, Canadians have sobriety. We have given our appointed senators a space for sober second thoughts.


Who among us wouldn’t love such a space? If you’re inclined to raucousness, wouldn't you like a designated "chamber" where you might think your good thoughts, and think them in your soberest moments. (Was the sober reference a dig at John MacDonald?) Anyway, as to the issue: Canadians are fortunate. Our politicians have reserved a special room for sobriety – a place where appointed mavens consider a bill’s ramifications and possible unfairnesses. If a majority of senators deems recalibration is necessary, they will throw shade at the House, maybe even try to kill a bill.


You don’t like the Senate of Canada. Like John Lennon, you imagine perfect. C’mon. This time the Stones have it. You get what you need.


2. Poor Israel doesn't have our voting system. Israel has proportional representation. With horrid irony, Israel mirrors Germany of the 1930s.

Recently, some voters in some democratic countries are leaning so far to the right, they’re smothering inclusion – and liberalism (human rights).


Take unitary Israel, for instance. After a passel of elections (five in four years), Israel has settled on a right-wing coalition. Power to the far right. Is that really what most Israeli voters want? Power to the far right? Stop right there. You don’t understand. What the majority wants is immaterial. Under Israel's proportional representative political system, extreme nationalism is what enough Israeli voters want.


In 2022, Israeli voters legitimized the tyranny of the minority. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-centrist Likud party has formed a ruling coalition with Itamar Ben-Gvir’s extreme nationalist Otzma Yehudit party. To be prosaic: Israeli centrists and Arabs are likely evacuating – in every sense of the word. Suffrage, human rights, civil rights, justice, and personal economies hang in the balance.


You may know, as I do, more than a few Canadian Jews who remain unmoved by the Israeli coalition and Israel’s contemporary political landscape, even though it echoes pre-World War 2 Germany, whereby an elected but raging, ragtag, nationalist element of the German population held the key to power.


Volumes have been written about this era. For late-bloomers, of which I’m one, Babylon Berlin is the series to watch. The setting is Germany, at the end of Weimar. The democratic republic has many small blocs (sub-national, proportional culture clubs) – e.g., communists, opportunist manufacturers, crime syndicates, Kaiser-lovers, and Nazi scapegoaters. The German blocs are unyielding, power-hungry, and usually nativist; alliances among them are tenuous, if alliances exist at all. You watch the series develop and shudder at the foreshadowing. You know it’s going to be bad. For Jews and homosexuals and women, bad doesn't even begin to cover it.


Certainly Jews in Canada feel the pull of Zionism because a twenty-first century flare-up of international antisemitism is a worrisome affordance, making prudential Toronto the Zionists’ home-away-from-home – or so some say.


For inciting hate and antisemitism, "influencer" types, people like “Ye” (Kanye West), should be removed from social platforms.


But are regional pockets of hate, horrific though they be, enough reason for Canada’s Jews, women, brown immigrants, and Blacks, to ignore the warnings apparent in the Israeli coalition as the people welcome into government, thanks to proportional representation, the tyranny of a far-right minority? Israel's current mess is confounding.


Proportional representation always teeters on dangerous. For small-l liberals, the wrong proportion always seems to have too much say.



Netflix photo, Babylon Berlin

Israel is only one example. Journalists report a general rightward tilt in global democracies.

In today’s affordances, inclusiveness appears to be in danger of losing its T-shirt. The left-right contest to rule the hegemony is well and truly on. Everyone fears the tyranny of the other.


3. How Canada traditionally has coped with major and minor tyrannies.

After Upper and Lower Canada turned into the United Province of Canada, two electoral issues proved contentious. The first issue, “responsible government,” positing that the cabinet is responsible to the elected assembly and not an appointed British lieutenant governor, ruffled the feathers of the Château Clique and the Family Compact, who clung to power.

The second issue lathered up the people.


The second issue was about voting. How was the united province of Canada going to determine the ruling culture club? Proportional representation? Equal votes for each side, French and English? That clearly wouldn’t work.


The cry, from different culture clubs at different times, was for majority rule, or representation by population – rep by pop. Critical mass was the issue. In the earliest days, the French-speaking population was dominant. The French wanted rep by pop.

Then the English-speaking population grew. And the English wanted rep by pop.


Majority rule in a democracy works for you if your leaders are in charge of the hegemony (dominant culture club). If your leaders aren’t setting the manners of the critical mass, majority rule has pretty obvious drawbacks.


Not long ago, an atheist among a Christian majority could not speak freely.


In nineteenth-century Canada, the epithet heathen or pagan or savage was the height of insult – the epithet reflected the classic Christian European condescension toward Indigenous culture clubs, whose populations European diseases had decimated. First Nations, Inuit and Métis did not have the political clout to complain. Majority colonial rule was that tyrannical.


But to the settlers, after corrupt tinpot English governance, majority rule seemed the way to go. Writ large, the whole rep by pop controversy, 1841 – 1867, laid the ground for another deal, which, on paper, was designed to please at least two significant masses of stakeholders.


In 1867 the English got a province (jurisdiction) within a nation. The French got the same. Women got ignored. First Nations, in disarray, got shafted. But out of the confusion, and under the auspices of Queen Victoria, three British North American provinces turned themselves into a federation with responsible government and majority rule under the British North America Act. Welcome, the

Dominion of Canada. The Centre for Constitutional Studies Centre d’etudes constitutionelles at the University of Alberta has an excellent explanatory site, which includes definitions for key terms. In Canada voters elect seats. The leader of the party with the most seats is the prime minister – the tyranny of the majority. . . .Stay tuned for the rest of the story.


3A. Contemporary Canadian Tyrannies (the fragility of a federation).

Some Anglophone dissenters argue we have tyranny of the minority – the Francophone minority has too much say in national affairs.


But of course the Anglo tune about a minority culture club doesn’t play well everywhere. French-speaking communities, settling the northern part of the continent long before the Anglo-Americans arrived, explode at the effrontery. Many expletives point to the perfidy of les mauvais anglais and their critical mass of national voters.


That’s not all. As dependents (colonies) of the East, the West joined the Canadian federation (1905); Alberta and Saskatchewan didn’t gain full provincial status until 1929-1930. The prairies have always complained about having to bow to the tyranny of the much more populous East.


In its turn, central Canada can’t believe a haystack minority out West has enough resources to make a financial dent in the national scene. (The Maritimes are generally solid, thoughtful, university-loving folk, and no one quite understands British Columbia, but BC doesn’t care.)


Drilling further into tyrannies – provincial this time –, Alberta and Saskatchewan’s urban centres (where the predominant number of voters live) claim to be relentlessly blindsided by the too numerous legislative seats of the rural minority population. Rural MLAs punch above their mass. Of the genus lunkhead, Danielle Smith calls herself a “Wild-Rose Conservative.” Many Albertans – especially rural voters – will follow her lead simply to avoid voting for any urban governance that smacks of socialism. (Canadian socialism comes in the form of the taxpayers’ collective hand, reaching out to give temporary aid to those who need it. For instance, farmers get agricultural subsidies, but I digress.)


First Nations, Inuit and Métis are fed up with settlers and their two-founding-nations’ claptrap.

Yet they too have their own tyrannies to sort out. Should Indigenous communities have elected or inherited chiefs? Some citizens of Saskatchewan's Thunderchild Nation, for instance, believe chiefs should be elected. Tyranny versus tradition is not an easy a problem for Indigenous peoples to sort out, especially under the watchful eye of a national government.


In a whisk, a Martian observer can see this: every single voter in Canada, coast to coast to coast, and depending on where they live, will face off at election time with some sort of tyranny, either of the majority or the minority.


4. Federations are fragile constructions (alliances).

Full disclosure: I often agree with leftie Max Fawcett – just not on electoral reform. Fawcett wants Canada to have proportional representation. I hope that never happens. A plethora of new “identity” parties/voices could blow this country apart. We already cope with all kinds of tyrannies, be they majority or minority. No matter how a proportional voting system is conceived of, proportion rep. will create new voting blocs. Fracturing Canada into more voting blocs could blow our fragile federation into smithereens.


And, lest we forget, there is the common Canadian manner. Canadians have been reared to want good government. Delightful, polite souls, we’re too “frugal” to enjoy endless elections, which proportional democracies appear to foster. Nor do we warm up to minority governments (you don’t have a majority and so what gives you the right to do . . . whatever it is you want to do). Diehard left-leaning ideologues don’t like coalitions and agreements with centrists. What part of your platform are you selling off to join in with the other?


To top it off, by definition a federation is more fragile than a unitary state.


Take the European Union. A recent federation. Considering the history of the twentieth century, the EU is a remarkable achievement. And then take Brexit. For English communities like Stoke-on-Trent, cultural/regional differences among federated European states seemed just too much to bear. The potters voted to leave the EU without so much as a backward glance at the Sorbonne or Stuttgart. The UK got what it wanted (or what the employers of Cambridge Analytica wanted. That’s another story.) And Brexit has turned out to be what many predicted it would be: a bad idea.


Sub-national twenty-first-century culture clubs tend to be nativist and separatist – not always, but often. WEXIT (the Maverick Party's western Canadian separatist movement) is naïve but tantalizing to the disaffected. For Canada, proportional rep would be counterproductive (even more naïve), because WEXITers would gain a legitimate voice in parliament. We have the Bloc Québécois. That's quite enough.


What matters is the general fairness of the game in a federal system.



Boris Johnson, Brexit cartoon, credit: Marian Kamensky

How can Canada mitigate majority rule without fragmenting the country into pieces? How can we have strong leadership and yet heed sub-national identities and culture clubs.


5. Learning to love the Canadian Senate, and senators (and Canada).

The Role of the Senate

Thanks to the “Fathers” of Confederation, Canada has a Senate. Too many of us diss the Senate – dissing everything Canadian is rather a painful cultural habit. Spending money on “useless” appointed toffs raises our collective hackles. The genius Hannah Arendt can be our guide. Arendt believed the the body politic would not (and should not) put up with useless wealthy people. Highly paid Canadian senators better have a purpose! And a good one!


They do.


If proportional representation and inclusion appeal to you, you ought to value what the Senate does, what it’s supposed to do, and what it can do in levelling the playing field without, one believes, adding more confusion to governance by electing the senators. (The country would not benefit from having opposition parties controlling Senate and House. Two relentlessly quarrelling elected bodies, cum US, is a cautionary tale.) To have a place for sober second thought, guidance, ear-to-the-ground awareness, and policy oversight – well, that seems inclusive.

There is and always has been purpose in an appointed senate. [The Canadian Senate was] “created to counterbalance representation by population in the House of Commons.” These days “the Senate has evolved from defending regional interests to [also] giving voice to underrepresented groups.”


To face the trials of the day (affordances), flexible governance goes head-to-head with political stability. Canada wants both: flexibility and stability.


For all its raucousness, the House of Commons gives us stability. The Senate of Canada serves our need for flexibility.


Evolution of the Senate to reach the state of quiet independence (removing itself from rabid, partisan party politics) has been slow, but recently sweet. In the twenty-first century, newly appointed senators have no noted political affiliation. "All new Senators [2021] were recommended by the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments, and chosen using the merit-based process open to all Canadians. This process ensures Senators are independent, reflect Canada’s diversity, and are able to tackle the broad range of challenges and opportunities facing the country." Quite the grand mission. How sobering is that?


What might come next? Of course, I would prefer the committee to appoint a senator for two four-year terms, instead of making a senator retire at age seventy-five, which smacks of ageism. Our current ambassador to the United Nations is seventy four, and he’s going strong.


Should the Canadian Constitution guarantee one appointed Indigenous senator from each province and territory, adding thirteen new members to the prestigious red chamber, that might be a form of proportional representation one could put one’s back into. The rightness of Indigenous inclusion versus expense of adding senators would make for a very Canadian debate.


But, for goodness sakes, let us save ourselves from the likes of Max Fawcett and his view on electoral reform and his advocacy of proportional representation. We have tyrannies aplenty in this country. We don't need more. Senate oversight (current system) rather than electoral reform offers Canada a better solution for handling our increasing diversity.


Let us give our nod of appreciation to the Senators who occupy the Red Chamber.



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