Jeffrey Simpson provides an opinion piece on the way other countries have modified their electoral systems to allow for more minority representation, often through a version of proportional representation. Although he sees a need for reform, he offers suggestions as to why Canada retains a “first-past-the-post” system.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, history, current events

Key Question(s) to Explore:

  • How do models from other democracies support the idea that some version of proportional representation could improve the way Canadian elections form governments?

New Terminology:

First-past-the-post, PR, coalition, ultra-orthodox, dalliance, Knesset

Materials Needed:

Globe article, minimal use of Internet.

Time required:

15 minutes of class-time and a homework assignment

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

Canadian voters are regularly told that we are led by a majority government that was not elected by the majority of voters. This is not only the case with the current government; it was also true of majority governments in the past. Our system, which is called “first-past-the-post,” elects to Parliament the candidate who gets the most votes in any given riding, even if he or she gets less than 50%. Since, in Canada, at least, there are usually four or five major federal parties, the winning party could achieve a majority with as little as 40% of the overall vote as the remaining votes are spread among the losing parties.

Indeed, this was the outcome of the last federal election, where more voters voted for the losing parties than for the Conservatives, who were still able to win a majority and thus override any opposition during their term of office. In this system, it could be argued, everyone who voted for the NDP, the Liberals, the Bloc Quebecois or the Green Party will not be represented in the government that is formed. Instead they fill the opposition benches where their vote is not needed for the government to pass legislation, nor can their vote stop any legislation.

As Jeffrey Simpson explains in his article, there exist models of proportional representation (PR) that offer what some consider more equitable outcomes and he takes a strong stance in favour of changing our system. Student can learn about the pros and cons of first-past-the-post vs PR, as well as sharpening their critical-thinking skills by critiquing and commenting on selected passages from Mr. Simpson’s column.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Ask students what they think is meant by first-past-the-post electoral systems. Ensure that they understand this before moving on. Most will know that a federal election is scheduled for October of this year. Find out if they intend to vote—assuming they are old enough – or would if they could. Offer this saying as a discussion point, “My party always loses so my vote is always wasted. So, why bother?” This will set up the lesson.

Ask students to work in pairs or small groups for about 20 minutes to respond to the questions or prompts under each of the following italicized excerpts from Mr. Simpson’s article. When they’ve finished, discuss the assignment again, asking for their opinions about PR. For homework, they will write a short piece in favour of, neutral, or against implementing some kind of proportional representation in Canada.


Read the article by Jeffrey Simpson aloud in your group. Ask your teacher to explain any parts that you have difficulty understanding. Then complete the following assignment. Read each passage and respond to the questions or prompts that follow it:

NOTE: For more information about PR, you can refer to the following website:

PR systems of any kind mean checks and balances, because parties have to negotiate with each other to form a government.

  • Why might it be a good thing that parties have to negotiate with each other? Wouldn’t it be better for one Party to govern without compromising its own principles?

The Israeli system invites people to vote narrowly, because that way their party might bargain its way into some power. That’s one downside of PR: People think only of their ethnic or religious group or region or ideology, and not of a bigger national canvas.

  • How does the Israeli system invite people to vote narrowly? Explain this using the paragraph that precedes the above excerpt in the article as evidence.

In contrast to many other systems, the Canadian provides very few checks and balances on a prime minister with a majority. The unelected Senate is a wet noodle; the government backbenchers are yes-men; the cabinet members are appointed by the top dog. With a couple of exceptions, none would dare stand up to such a domineering leader and his controlling staff.

  • How do you understand these terms: wet noodle, yes-men, top dog? What are some of the other systems that are contrasted to Canada? (They are listed earlier in the article)

It might be argued that previous prime ministers with a majority always got their way. True, but none did so in such a bruising, crushingly partisan, controlling way as the current Prime Minister. All the very worst characteristics of majority government in the first-past-the-post system have been on display daily under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

  • How do you understand the term “crushingly partisan”? How does the way Mr. Simpson characterizes Mr. Harper shape the way you think about the article, if at all?

Across the aisle, the New Democrats and Liberals are terrified even to talk to each other about postelection scenarios that might force them to work together to form a government. This kind of discussion would be common in PR systems, but not in Canada.

  • Why would this kind of discussion be common in PR systems? How would PR require, for example, that the NDP and Liberals talk to each other? Do you think this would be a constructive development?

Worse, because of the amateurish attempt by previous leaders of the Liberals (Stéphane Dion), New Democrats (Jack Layton) and Bloc Québécois (Gilles Duceppe) to unseat Mr. Harper after the 2008 election, any hint of pre-election discussion will be condemned by the Conservatives as anti-democratic plotting. What might be normal in other systems is considered verboten in Canada’s.

  • Do some brief online research to learn about the failed attempt of the NDP, BQ and the Liberals to take power in 2008. What does ‘verboten’ mean and why might a writer use this term in a column?

In 1996, the future prime minister and friend Tom Flanagan (they have since fallen out) penned a paper arguing that PR might allow “conservative” forces to get a share of power and therefore nudge forward their agenda.

  • If the prime minister was for PR in 1996, why would he not be in favour of it today? Is this a reasonable reason to oppose PR, in your view?

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Oral presentations of groups reports at the end of the class.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students are able to explain, in general terms, the meaning of PR and compare and contrast it with first-past-the-post electoral policies.

Confirming Activity:

  • Ask students if the assignment changed their views on Canada’s existing system. Look for reasoned answers.