What does the CAQ's electoral reform promise hold for anglophones?

The day after the CAQ was elected, leader François Legault once again pledged to reform Quebec's electoral system. Depending on the form that takes, academics say it could affect how English-speaking Quebecers cast their ballot.

Depending on what form proportional representation takes, English-speaking Quebecers could get political clout

Quebec's incoming premier, François Legault, recommitted to introducing electoral reform Tuesday, the day after winning the provincial election. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The day after the CAQ was elected, party leader François Legault once again pledged to reform Quebec's electoral system. 

"We will table a bill within the first year," the incoming premier said Tuesday, reaffirming his commitment to move away from the first-past-the-post model of voting.

If he follows through, Quebec would become the first province to adopt proportional representation. (Residents of British Columbia are voting in a referendum on electoral reform later this month.)

The president of the Association for Canadian Studies, demographer Jack Jedwab, says the change could affect the way anglophone Quebecers cast their ballot.

"Depending on which mixed method is used in terms of proportional representation, that may enhance the extent to which [anglophones] think they have some impact," Jedwab said.

Graham Fraser, a former journalist and one-time federal commissioner of official languages, says if Quebec adopts proportional representation, it could see the return of other, older political parties, like the Anglo-rights Equality Party. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Although there are English-speaking Quebecers spread throughout the province, they tend to be concentrated on the western part of the island of Montreal.

Critics of the first-past-the-post system say that urban ridings tend to be more populated than rural ridings — meaning every vote in a less populous riding carries more weight than in an urban riding.  

If the new proportional representation system changed the way votes are weighed, West Island voters could end up with more of a voice in provincial politics, said Jedwab.

"Any change to the system would presumably enhance their ability to influence outcomes," he said.

Return of the Equality Party?

Graham Fraser, a former journalist and one-time federal commissioner of official languages, said governments with proportional representation tend to see a rise in smaller parties.

Robert Libman, seen here in 2015 early in his run for the federal Conservatives in Mount Royal riding, founded and led the Equality Party in 1989, taking four seats from the provincial Liberals. (CBC)

Fraser, a visiting professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said if Quebec adopts proportional representation, it could see the return of other, older political parties — in addition to some upstarts.

"This might lead to the return of the Equality Party," Fraser said.

The Equality Party was born in 1989 out of Anglo disillusionment over the the Liberal Bourassa government's decision to use the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Charter to keep English off commercial signs.

To everyone's surprise, the party, led by architect-turned-politician Robert Libman, won four seats in the provincial election that year. However, the party was never able to repeat its electoral success, and by the early 2000s, Equality faded from the scene.

But will Legault follow through?

Both Fraser and Jedwab say it's easy to make a promise — but actually changing the system is more complicated.

Other provincial governments, including that of Ontario and Prince Edward Island, have flirted with the idea of voting reform but never followed through.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also campaigned on electoral reform, but once elected, he went back on his promise, saying proportional representation was not in Canada's best interest.

"One of the things that inevitably happens is that proportional representation looks an awful lot better when you're in opposition than when you're in power," said Fraser.

"There's an inevitable tendency for parties once they've won to say, 'Oh, the first-past-the-post system isn't so bad — we've won!'"

About the Author

Kate McKenna

Kate McKenna is a reporter with CBC Montreal. Email her at kate.mckenna@cbc.ca

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