Today, I want to tell you that it’s time for electoral reform. It’s well past time.
Today is an especially opportune date to honour an important woman from BC’s past – from almost exactly 100 years ago. Helena Gutteridge was a recent immigrant to BC – a tailor by training and practice – who played a leading role in the women’s suffrage movement here. From 1912 to 1916, she campaigned heavily for suffrage.
Similar campaigns took place across the country. And 100 years ago, in 1916, the other three western provinces all gave women the vote – all without a referendum.
In BC, our premier Richard McBride, who opposed suffrage, resigned in 1915 and William Bowser stepped in. To our lasting shame, he did not follow the example of the other provinces, but said that he would only grant suffrage following a referendum. Referendum as stalling tactic. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, the voters recognized the shifting tides and endorsed the change in September 1916, but to this day BC remains the only jurisdiction at the provincial or federal levels to have resorted to a referendum on this issue.
Even so, we were ahead of the game. Switzerland held a referendum on women’s suffrage in 1959, where it went down to defeat. It took until 1971 until there was another referendum that finally went in favour – many Conservative women opposed the proposed change.
But the important thing is not that these referenda eventually produced a good outcome. Rather, it’s that they were illegitimate from the beginning – society just didn’t understand that yet.
There’s been a similar situation in the US and the civil rights struggle there. Anyone who watched the movie ‘Selma’ last year will immediately recognize just how tightly entwined voting rights and racial justice are. Blacks in the US were clear that the voting system was stacked against them, no matter how much formal equality they had.
In the past 10 or 20 years, there have been a number of court cases brought in the US that have succeeded in striking down both discriminatory voting systems (the at-large block voting system) and gerry-mandered districts.
Here in Canada, the exclusion created by our voting system is neither so gendered as a century ago nor as racialized as in the US, but it exists nonetheless. Here, we systematically exclude minority perspectives at a regional level. Voters with Conservative views are excluded here on Vancouver Island, in the Maritimes and in Canada’s major cities. Liberal and NDP supporters are excluded across the Prairies and in suburban Ontario. Green supporters are excluded almost everywhere. This has to change!
But don’t think we’re new to the struggle. This year marks another important, but neglected, anniversary – the founding of the PR Society of Canada.
Although it’s long gone, the PRS led many struggles.
Ottawa had a referendum then – won by 5100 to 3900 (57% in favour), but the province turned them down. Ironically, BC had a referendum nearly a century later – also won by about the same amount (58%) – and again the provincial government declined to act. I think you can forgive us reform advocates for not being warm to the suggestion of another referendum.
We’ve had over a dozen official processes since, starting with the 1921 Ontario Committee on PR, that have recommended changing to PR.
And now we have a Charter. The charter gives us a right to effective representation. Like the old joke about gravity – it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law!
Many of you will recall how the 2002 referendum on treaty rights was widely regarded as a disgrace – how can rights be subject to a referendum? We have the same situation now with regard to elections.
We’ve discussed this issue long enough. No more stalling. No more referendums.
We’ve been too polite – I see the buttons and posters saying ‘Proportional Please’. But I say, no more ‘Proportional Please’ – let’s say ‘Proportional, Dammit!’