How Manitoba broke ground with a decades-long proportional representation experiment now 'faded from memory'

For a long but largely forgotten period of Manitoba's history, voters were represented by multi-member constituencies and voted by ranking their candidates in order of preference. But just as suddenly they adopted it, political leaders abandoned it. 

Manitoba led provinces in adopting new voting system after 1919 strike, only to see it abandoned in the 1950s

Roger E. Bray, one of the Winnipeg General Strike leaders, speaks to a crowd at Victoria Park on June 13, 1919. The Manitoba government would refer to the strike when it introduced legislation switching the province to a system of proportional representation. (L.B. Foote collection/Archives of Manitoba)

In the wake of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, Manitoba embarked on an experiment in democratic reform unlike anything previously seen on this continent.

It would see Manitoba become the first province or state in North America to adopt a system of proportional representation. This system lasted for decades and spread to other provinces in the west — but three decades later, political leaders abandoned it as suddenly they had adopted it.

The notion of proportional representation has surfaced again recently in Canada, with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promising electoral reform in the 2015 election campaign, a referendum in B.C. that rejected the idea last year, and, more recently, a campaign promise from Manitoba's Green Party to push for it.

The Manitoba Greens were shut out of the legislature in Tuesday's provincial election, but under a system of proportional representation, they could have been entitled to three or four seats. The third-place Manitoba Liberals, meanwhile, received nearly half the popular vote of the second-place NDP (14.5 per cent to 31.4 per cent), but only got three seats compared to the NDP's 18. 

That sort of disparity has driven calls for proportional representation systems, under which elected officials are chosen based on the percentage of votes parties receive. That's in contrast to the "first-past-the-post" system currently used, in which the candidate who receives the most votes wins.

In 1920, adoption of a proportional representation system in Manitoba was inspired by the Winnipeg General Strike — a fact referenced by the province's attorney general when he introduced a bill ushering in the new system.

The government was influenced by a royal commission "appointed to inquire the reasons for industrial unrest," Thomas Herman Johnson said in a March 24, 1920, article published in the Manitoba Free Press.

"Many giving evidence before [the commission] advocated proportional representation as a means, in some measure, of making the electorate more content," Johnson said.

It is surprising how quickly this period of electoral reform has faded from memory.- Harold Jansen, political science professor

Discontent with the current system is again driving calls for a proportional representation system from advocates and academics across Canada.

When they look for examples of proportional representation in practice, however, they usually point to other countries like Ireland, New Zealand, or Israel.

Few people know that in Manitoba, Alberta, and — for a brief time — British Columbia, voters were represented by multi-member constituencies which they elected by ranking candidates in order of preference.

"It is surprising how quickly this period of electoral reform has faded from memory," Harold Jansen, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge, wrote in his doctoral dissertation on the proportional representation systems. 

Part of the reason for that may be the fact recent attempts at reform have all ended in failure. 

In addition to B.C.'s latest referendum on proportional representation — its third in 13 years  — Prince Edward Island also rejected the idea in its most recent election

Justin Trudeau vowed to end the system of first-past-the-post voting during the 2015 federal election, but gave up on that promise nearly two years later. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals walked away from their promise that 2015 would be the last time Canadians voted under the old single-member plurality system.

Those recent setbacks haven't deterred advocates like Sheri Oberman, co-ordinator with Fair Vote Manitoba, who believes more Manitobans should know about their province's experience with proportional representation. 

The current first-past-the-post system, Oberman says, "brutalizes political minorities," because the only votes that count are the ones cast for the candidate who ultimately wins the seat.

"If you live in rural Manitoba and you want to [elect] a Liberal or a Green, [it's] pretty hard," she said. 

"On the other hand, if you live in Winnipeg in the core part of the city and you're not NDP, where is your representation then?"

Social unrest

In the post-First World War era, rising class consciousness provided the backdrop for a swath of reforms introduced by the Manitoba Liberal government of Tobias Norris. In addition to growing labour activism, farmers began organizing and a number of new political parties proliferated. 

"There was a lot of social unrest, especially from those two forces, that was causing us to look at how our political system was structured," the University of Lethbridge's Jansen said in an interview with CBC News.

Growing class consciousness among farmers and workers led to a proliferation of new political parties in the early 20th century. (University of Manitoba/Archives of Manitoba)

Publications like the Grain Growers' Guide, a major publication aimed at farmers that usually focused on tips for growing better crops, included articles on direct democracy, plebiscites, and electoral reform.

One system in particular, called single transferable vote, would produce fairer results, the publication argued.

It's not something foreign to Canada. It's something we've used and that worked reasonably well for a long period of time.- Harold Jansen

This is the system under which voters in Winnipeg elected their MLAs for the next 35 years. Soon after Manitoba, Alberta adopted it for their major cities. 

Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary all became single constituencies represented in their legislatures by multiple candidates, who were elected according to a system of ranked ballots.

Winnipeg was represented by 10 members. Voters could choose from a list of dozens of candidates, ranking as many of them as they wanted in order of preference.

Using a calculation that involved dividing the total number of votes cast in the election by the number of seats available, the system determined a threshold of votes that candidates needed to reach in order to be elected. 

This is the equation used for calculating the threshold, or quota, that a candidate needed to reach in order to win election under Manitoba's proportional representation system. (Brooke Schreiber/CBC)

If a voter's first choice didn't win on the first round of counting, their vote would go to their second choice, and so on until all the seats were filled. 

"You can imagine how long it would take," Jansen said, adding the process could take up to a week. "Especially in the 1920s, when we don't have access to things like computers or even ready access to things like calculators."

Political calculations

Within a few years, Manitoba and Alberta switched rural constituencies over to a form of ranked alternative voting, which mirrored the systems in place in the cities, with one crucial difference — each rural constituency would elect only one member.

This decision would prove to be the undoing of proportional representation in Manitoba and Alberta — but multiple factors motivated political leaders to go this route at the time.

Some argued that rural constituencies were too sparsely populated to need multiple representatives. 

Political calculations, however, also played a role.

Former Manitoba Liberal leader Tobias Norris's government was defeated by the United Farmers of Manitoba in the 1922 election. (Archives of Manitoba)

The United Farmers of Manitoba had taken over government from the Liberals in 1922. The UFM's support base was concentrated in the country, giving them an edge in a winner-takes-all system.

Although the party was committed to proportional representation, Jansen argues in his dissertation the advantages of the alternative rural voting system "appear to have been too great a temptation."

Under this new system, political parties started focusing their campaigning efforts more in rural areas, where swing votes could have a greater impact and flip seats more easily than in the city.

"Let's say your party has three seats and you work really, really hard and you get your vote up, say, 10 per cent," Jansen said.

"That might give you one extra seat [in Winnipeg] whereas in the rural areas if you could get your first-preference vote up 10 per cent, that might reward you with 20 seats."

'A hodge podge of representation'

Adding to the dissatisfaction of Winnipeg voters was the fact that the percentage of seats given to the city was vastly lower than what it would have been entitled to based on its population, Jansen said. Gerrymandering — the practice of redrawing political boundaries for partisan advantage — was also common.

Growing voter frustration led the government in the mid-1950s to introduce legislation creating Manitoba's independent electoral commission, in charge of redrawing the province's electoral map every 10 years. The 1955 legislation also did away with preferential balloting in Manitoba.

An editorial in the Winnipeg Free Press on April 1, 1955, said multi-member constituencies were meant "to provide some of the advantages of proportional representation" but the results hadn't lived up to expectations.

"Differences between country and city have been heightened by different electoral systems, and the city's voice has been dissipated in a hodge podge of representation," the editorial said.

Soon after Manitoba scrapped the system, Alberta followed suit.

Although nothing like the experiments with proportional representation has been undertaken in Canada in the years since, there are lessons to be learned, Jansen said.

"It's not something foreign to Canada. It's something we've used and that worked reasonably well for a long period of time," he said.

Anyone seeking to return to proportional representation would need to ensure the same system applies across the whole province, he said, "so you [don't] have people campaigning one way in rural areas one way in urban areas.

"I think that's a recipe for disaster."


Cameron MacLean is a journalist for CBC Manitoba living in Winnipeg, where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience reporting in the city and across Manitoba, covering a wide range of topics, including courts, politics, housing, arts, health and breaking news. Email story tips to

With files from Jacques Marcoux


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