By Michael Dufresne
From partisanship to professionalism
2020 is the 100th anniversary of Elections Canada and its founding legislation, the Dominion Elections Act (DEA). The DEA contained significant changes that brought lasting and positive impacts to the Canadian electoral system. Since 1867, according to the dean of electoral studies, political scientist John C. Courtney, our system has developed “from partisanship to professionalism.” It has experienced multiple changes over the years, but Courtney says, “without doubt the greatest single improvement in the administration of elections in Canada came with the establishment of the offices of our various chief electoral officers.”
As of July 1, 1920, the DEA centralized the administration of federal elections and created the new role of General Electoral Officer, now called the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO). Not only did the Act drastically change the administration of federal elections, but Parliament also used the DEA as a springboard to enact more reforms. To militate against the partisan manipulation of elections, the CEO became an Officer of Parliament, with an independent role; the incumbent could not be removed from office by the government without just cause.
“That Canada be not disgraced”: the 1917 Military Voters Act and War-time Elections Act
The DEA followed two earlier Acts of Parliament that were part of a rather obvious two-pronged electoral strategy to ensure the re-election of Prime Minister Robert Borden and his Unionist government. Borden had become prime minister in 1911 and was not defeated until the end of the First World War.
Visiting the Western Front, Borden was reportedly “shaken” by the magnitude of the loss of life; he was convinced that conscription was the only way to contribute more soldiers. “Our first duty is to win at any cost,” Borden confided to his diary, “so that we may continue to do our part in winning the war and that Canada be not disgraced.”
Passed in September 1917, in time for its application in the December federal election, the Military Voters Act (MVA) enfranchised British subjects in the Canadian Armed Forces, regardless of active or retired status, age, ethnicity, or gender, as well as British subjects ordinarily resident in Canada on active duty in Europe in an allied army. The MVA also empowered the party of the military voter’s choice to apply that vote to any riding if the voter had not selected a riding. These votes, overwhelmingly in favour of the government, were assigned 31 days after the election to ridings where they helped government candidates win.
The War-time Elections Act (WEA) was the MVA’s civilian counterpart. Also passed in the fall of 1917, the WEA enfranchised women who were spouses, widows, mothers, sisters or daughters of anyone, male or female, living or dead, in the Canadian military, as long as these female voters met certain requirements, including age, nationality and residency. The WEA also disenfranchised conscientious objectors and others. These included British subjects born in countries with whom Canada was at war who were naturalized after March 31, 1902, as well as those naturalized after that date whose first language was that of an enemy country.
Broadening the franchise
In the wake of the 1917 federal election, the opposition Liberals largely supported the 1920 legislation that saw the enfranchisement of most women. The bill was criticized, though, for not removing an old instrument of partisan politics: patronage appointments. The government did not forgo the power to appoint revision officers, now called returning officers. This kept the ability to hand out “possibly the greatest instrument of political patronage at the local level” in the hands of the government of the day, says Courtney. This oft-criticized feature of Canadian federal election law remained on the books until 2006, when the Federal Accountability Act ended the practice. Another significant issue, gerrymandering, was also left untouched by the DEA; this is where the boundaries of a riding are manipulated to favour one candidate over another. The means to end the practice, the use of non-partisan electoral boundary commissions, did not become a regular part of the political landscape until the 1960s.
The enfranchisement of women and the elimination of property restrictions effectively doubled the size of the electorate in one stroke. But problems remained. As Courtney maintains, “The most serious deficiencies” involved the “exclusion from the franchise of specific groups for racial, religious or economic reasons.”
The DEA did, however, grant women the right to become candidates in federal elections. The first woman to become a Member of Parliament was elected to the House of Commons in the December 1921 election: Agnes Macphail, a teacher who ran for the Progressives in the rural Ontario riding of Grey South East. Not everyone agreed with this broadening of the federal franchise. MP J.J. Denis, for example, held that a women’s place was “not amid the strife of the political arena, but in her home.” Henri Bourassa, an early advocate of a new nationality of Canadians embracing both French and English, voiced a position that probably echoed that of others in the province of Quebec. He predicted that granting the vote to women would “reduce the birth rate, undermine parental authority, and eventually destroy the family as an institution.”
If the fears of its opponents were never realized, the impact of the broadening of the franchise did not always meet the expectations of its proponents. Some expected the enfranchisement of women to have a significant impact on the composition of Parliament and the kinds of laws and programs that would result. There was little of this impact in evidence.
Also, the possibility that women would vote as a bloc overestimated the significance of their identity as women in the voting booth. “Instead of voting en bloc, as feminists had urged and as politicians had feared, women divided their votes among Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, and Labour candidates in almost the same proportions men did. Rather than voting according to sex, women voted as members of a class, region, or ethnic group,” Courtney writes.
An ongoing conversation
A significant benefit from the 1920 DEA is the provision obliging the CEO to prepare a post-election report for Parliament. As a result, the CEO takes a critical look at the most recent election, identifies its problems and challenges, and proposes remedies for the next one. This encourages an ongoing conversation about our electoral system. Following the 1921 federal election, the first CEO, Oliver Mowat Biggar, reported that those entitled to vote had trouble doing so because their names were left off the list of voters. Others, he said, were not able to vote because of the day on which the election was held. Biggar recommended that more revision officers be used when compiling the voters list to ensure its accuracy; to make it more convenient to vote, he also recommended that more advanced polls be established. Both of these solutions were accepted by Parliament.
Even today, from a worldwide perspective, “the creation of Elections Canada is heralded as a key contribution to the development of neutral electoral practices,” writes Courtney, one that “distanced the general supervision of the electoral process from the government of the day.” The 1920 DEA (renamed the Canada Elections Act in 1951) was less of a beginning and more of an important development in an ongoing conversation about the nature, character and limits of Canadian parliamentary democracy. To be sure, the advent of an independent office administering a mechanism so crucial to the legitimate exercise of power is a significant and noteworthy event in Canadian electoral history.
For images of elections from our collection, visit the Flickr album.
David J. Bercuson and J.L. Granatstein, Dictionary of Canadian Military History, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1992
John C. Courtney, Elections, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2004
Dominion Elections Act, from the Canadian Museum of History’s online Chronicle: a spotlight on 1920–1997
The Electoral System of Canada, 4th edition
A History of the Vote in Canada (2007)
Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (also referred to as the Lortie Commission)
John Herd Thompson and Allen Seager, Canada, 1922–1939: Decades of Discord, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1985
Michael Dufresne was the archivist responsible for Elections Canada and is now an access archivist in the ATIP division at Library and Archives Canada.