Positionality statement: My name is Rachel Howlett and my pronouns are she/her. I am from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, which is the traditional land of the Mi’kmaq known as Mi’kmaki in the region of Sipekni’katik. I am speaking from a position of privilege as a white settler and I want to acknowledge that intersectionality is essential in every topic in order to fully address the injustices of the world we live in. This post was written to educate others on past minority governments so that the political history of present-day Canada is more accessible to others.
On August 17th, 2020, the government of New Brunswick issued the election writ for a provincial general election to be held on September 14th, 2020 (1). During the previous provincial election held on September 24th, 2018, the Progressive Conservatives under Blaine Higgs were elected with the first minority government in the province since 1920 (1). New Brunswick’s election during COVID-19 was declared after the opposition party, the Liberal party, declined to support the Higgs minority government until the proposed date of September 2022 (2).
Minority governments occur when a party wins the most amount of seats in an election but does not win the majority of them. The duration of minority governments, both provincially and federally, are variable. Generally, minority governments do not last as long as majority governments since they need support from other parties or independents in order to pass legislature (3). Minority governments are not uncommon among provinces although Alberta has never elected one (3). While the Yukon Territory has elected a minority government, Northwest Territories and Nunavut are governed by consensus governments and so do not have political parties (3). The federal government has seen thirteen minority governments since the first one was elected in 1921 (3). On average, federal minority governments last just under two years. It is worth mentioning that our electoral system, the “single-member plurality” system or more commonly referred to as the “first-past-the-post” system, does not require an absolute majority for a candidate to be elected (4). As a result, even if the popular vote is spread out between parties, one party can win a plurality of seats and win a majority government. This electoral system produces more majorities compared to a mixed-member proportional representation model, which takes into account the popular vote in addition to elected candidates (5).
There is an assumption that minority governments are ineffective and unstable given their shorter lifespan (6). While this can be the case, the Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s minority government in 1966 supported by the New Democratic Party introduced the bill on universal coverage of hospitalization and medicare (7). Additionally, bills on student loans, bilingualism and to create the Canada Pension plan were all passed by his two back-to-back minority governments from 1963 to 1968 (8).
There are various models of cooperation for minority governments that are seen in different countries, ranging from formal agreements that lead to coalitions to ad hoc majorities on each issue (9). There has never been a formal agreement on cooperation or official coalitions between federal parties in Canada (9). The only informal understanding was from 1972 to 1974 between the Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau and the New Democratic Party (9). Notably, this government created Petro-Canada (10).
Currently, we have a minority federal government led by Justin Trudeau as the Liberal party won 157 of the 338-seat House of Commons during the 2019 October election (11). We are approaching the one year mark of this government. It is important to note that as of September 29th, 2020, the party standings in the House of Commons are 154 Liberal seats, 121 Conservative seats, 32 Bloc Québecois seats, 24 NDP seats, 3 Green seats, 2 Independent seats and 2 vacant seats (11). In order for an election to happen, Trudeau would have to initiate a snap election by resigning as Prime Minister or there would have to be a vote of non-confidence in the government by the opposition parties. The latter would require the support of the Conservative Party, the Bloc Québecois and either the NDP or the Green Party.
The COVID-19 pandemic adds an extra element to the already unpredictable nature of a minority government. There is an urgency to ensure that the government is doing its utmost to protect the health of its citizens, which might lead to an earlier election date. However, it should be noted that additional safety precautions need to be considered if an election is called. We will no doubt see many more elections during this pandemic. After three years in government, John Horgan’s minority NDP government in British Columbia called an election to be held on October 24th, 2020 and Saskatchewan is heading into a fixed election date on October 26th, 2020 (12,13).