When three of the remaining British colonies in North American federated in 1867-the same year Britain extended its suffrage to 10 percent of the electorate -the new Dominion of Canada naturally adopted British institutions of electoral democracy. Canada's founding fathers, in contrast with their Australian counterparts two generations later, failed to ask if the British First Past the Post (FPTP) system was suited to a federal country dispersed over far-flung regions. Though some local and provincial experimentation with different systems of election took place after the Western provinces entered confederation earlier this century, it proved short-lived. Today, not only are the 301 Members of Parliament elected through FPTP, but so are all members of the ten provincial legislatures and two territories. Indeed, over the years, the federal electoral system moved even more closely to the pure FPTP plurality model as the few two-member districts that existed were gradually eliminated.

That FPTP is appropriate for Canada has largely been taken for granted in part because Canadians' familiarity with electoral experiences outside its borders generally extends only to the US and UK. Yet, this does not fully explain how a country so much concerned with constitutional reform has not proven open to altering its electoral institutions-especially, as we shall see, given the anomalies they have produced. This is not to say that reform to a more proportional system has never been proposed; only that it has not made it to the political agenda. The Task Force on Canadian Unity (Pepin-Robarts Commission) in its 1979 Report included a recommendation for just over 20 percent of the seats in the House of Commons to be accorded to the parties proportional to their support and from those provinces in which there was underrepresentation. A slightly different proposal was submitted by the left-leaning New Democratic Party, the party most underrepresented under FPTP. Yet when the Trudeau government unceremoniously rejected the P pin-Robarts report, electoral reform of the House of Commons was also shelved.

The fact that the issue was off the political agenda became clear ten years later when Pierre Lortie, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing set up by the Mulroney government in 1990, made it clear that changing the electoral system as such was outside the Commission's mandate. Discussion of electoral reform of federal legislative institutions concentrated on a proposal supported by the Western provinces to turn the appointed upper chamber, the Senate, into an elected one. But when Senate reform died with the rejection of a Constitutional amendment proposal in a 1992 referendum, this possible avenue to electoral regimes other than FPTP was closed.

Ironically, the distorting effects of the FPTP electoral system on representation in the House of Commons-combined with Canadians' tendency to identify politically along regional lines-have probably never been greater than in the last two federal elections. In 1993, the voters repudiated the ruling Progressive Conservatives, but the electoral system almost decimated Canada's oldest party. Rather than electing the 46 members of 295 that a proportional system would have given them, the Tories managed to elect only two. In contrast, the two regionally-based parties, the Bloc Quebecois and Reform, with 13.5 and 19 percent of the popular vote respectively, elected 54 and 52 MPs.

In 1997, of the 301 seats in Parliament, the Liberals won 155, Reform 60, the Bloc Quebecois 44, the NDP 21 and the Tories 20. Had the seats been distributed according to the parties' popular support, the Conservatives would have placed third with 58 seats, just behind Reform's 59, with the NDP up and the Bloc Quebecois down to 33 each, leaving the Liberals with 118. Two thirds of the Liberals' seats came from Ontario, while Reform dominated the Western provinces, and the Bloc Quebecois Quebec-"quartering Canada" as The Economist put it, producing what Canadian pundits called a "Rainbow Parliament." Had the seat been distributed according to the popular support for the parties, Liberals, Conservatives, and NDPers would have won seats in all provinces or regions; Reformers in all but Quebec. And this, of course, is to leave out the fact that under PR the parties would have had an incentive to expend their efforts and resources beyond the regions where they do well: the Conservatives would have put far more effort into the West; the NDP and Reform would have worked much harder for support in Quebec. Indeed, there is good reason to assume that the low turnout of just over two-thirds of registered voters is linked to the fact that in most ridings only one or two of the parties were real contenders, with supporters of the others effectively disenfranchised.

Electoral reform toward a more proportional system was proposed by a number of columnists and editorialists in the wake of the two elections, and raised by the leaders of the Progressive Conservative Party, but only wistfully. And in November 1997, a private member's bill was submitted by a leading member of the NDP proposing Parliament endorse PR and appoint an all-party committee to conduct public consultation on the question and report back with a concrete proposal which would then be put to Canadians for their approval a national referendum. Yet, like other private members' bills, this one will die on the order paper. By and large, politicians view electoral reform as a non-starter in which they are unwilling to invest precious political capital.

While this is understandable it is also regrettable. While the FPTP system has produced some majority governments, the tendency of the system to polarize rather than promote compromise has not necessarily served Canada well. As a thought experiment, one can imagine the outcome if the one serious recent effort to bring electoral reform to a provincial political agenda had succeeded. This was in Quebec in the early 1980s when an investigatory commission advocated adoption of a regional-list system of PR, a recommendation endorsed by the Quebec cabinet but one that due to lack of support from the opposition, and even in the governing party caucus-was never presented to the legislature. Had it been adopted, the balance of power today would be held by parties representing the twenty-five percent of Quebeckers who want change but prefer a compromise short of the sovereignty favoured by the Parti Quebecois.

The only electoral reform efforts that made it to the political agenda were provisions adopted in certain Western provinces allowing for the recall of legislators. As far as electoral-system reform is concerned, the only real prospect might be for Canada to once again follow Britain's example. If Britain proves prepared seriously to consider changing the electoral system it bestowed upon Canada, Canadians might follow suit.

[case studies]