You might be aware that this coming fall, voters in BC will decide by referendum whether or not our voting system should change from the “First Past the Post” system to a Proportional Representation system.
Proportional Representation election systems are designed to make it easier for smaller parties to get seats in parliaments, in contrast to the current First Past the Post system where large dominant parties almost always get 100% of the power with less than 50% of the vote.
The referendum campaigns are already underway and the First Past the Post advocates have been making some rich claims. I will unpack the one that I find most offensive.
Former NDP strategist Bill Tieleman, former BC Liberal attorney general Suzanne Anton and former deputy minister Bob Plecas are calling themselves the ‘No B.C. Proportional Representation Society.’ They have publicly claimed that if BC were to adopt Proportional Representation, extreme-right groups would be allowed to win seats in BC’s Legislature. According to this trio, people promoting Proportional Representation don’t like to talk about this aspect.
This is most definitely untrue, as I love to talk about what Proportional Representation does in relationship to giving a wider variety of voices access to our provincial politics! However, before I do so, I want to say this: from an indigenous point of view, the extreme-right arrived when the first Europeans set foot on this continent.
The European colonizers took control by the use of extreme-right policies aimed at systematically exterminating the people and cultures they encountered here - and if that failed - their policies aimed to forcibly assimilate the Indigenous peoples into Canada’s colonial society. ‘Indians’ became ‘fair game’, treaties were made and broken, Indigenous peoples were forced to relocated to unfertile lands to make way for resource ‘extraction’, denied the right to hunt and fish. Alcohol was introduced to undermine communities.
In 1876 Canada’s infamous Indian Act was passed with its provisions to strip Indigenous people of any racial, linguistic, cultural or family identity. Against their will, Indigenous children were taken from their families and communities and brought to Canada’s infamous residential schools, or were taken in the ‘sixties scoop’ and placed in non-Indigenous homes. ‘Indian hospitals’ were opened not necessarily with the health of Indigenous people in mind, more so to have a population for medical experiments.
Many of us turned a blind eye while we felt a justification in our supremacy to allow mistreatment and discrimination to continue.
Over time, Canada as a society has become more diverse, more multi-cultural, but that change is only marginally reflected in our political system. The right to vote was initially restricted to white men with property assets of specific value, restrictions of this kind were not entirely eliminated until 1948. Women first got the right to vote in Canada in 1916 (but only in the western provinces, other provinces addressed this in later years and in Quebec, women were not allowed to vote until 1940.) Canadians of Japanese descent did not receive the right to vote until 1948, and Indigenous Canadians did not receive that right until 1960.
From the beginning of voting in Canada, the election system of First Past the Post was there to keep a check on access to power. Now in 2018, isn’t it about time we let go of that monopoly on power that large political parties have enjoyed for so long?
We know that here in BC, in 2018, there are people who hold ideas in line with extreme-right ideology. We still have the Indian Act limiting the rights of Indigenous peoples, and colonial policies are still in place enabling resources to be taken from un-ceded Indigenous territory.
I want these abhorrent views to stop finding their way into the current right wing parties. Changing our election system to Proportional Representation will help here: it will make people that still hang on these extreme-right ideas visible. And yes, they will be able to organize and get seats in our legislature, just like they did in the country of my origin, the Netherlands. Since early 2000s, an extreme-right anti-immigrant group has held seats in Dutch parliament, but their hold on power remains ineffective. Their platform at last year’s elections was half a page filled with anti-immigrant rants. The other political parties are unwilling to work with them.
Do we really have an extreme-right anti-immigrant problem in BC? No we don’t! It wouldn’t that be a bit odd in a place that pride itself to be an immigrant Nation. Indeed there are some white-supremacists groups, but not anywhere to the extent Tieleman, Anton and Plecas try to claim. Clearly First Past the Post is not the political firewall against such groups as the trio tries to argue, which becomes evident when we look south.
Canada is facing the process of Truth and Reconciliation. Some Canadians are supportive of this and some are not. As supporters, one of things we can do to help de-colonise Canada is to bury the colonial relic that is ‘First Past the Post’.
To help shape the referendum you can take the questionnaire at https://engage.gov.bc.ca/howwevote/
Voter Referendum basics
- Proportional representation: when the percentage of seats held by a party represents the percentage of voters who supported that party.
- First past the post: also known as a plurality voting method. The candidate with the highest number (but not necessarily the majority) of votes wins.
- B.C. voters turned down two previous referendums on electoral reform in 2005 and 2009.
- The mail-in vote will require a 50-percent-plus-one margin of support to be successful.