House of Commons becoming more reflective of diverse population

My latest in Policy Options:

How well does Canada integrate immigrants and visible minorities into political life? While the barriers to entering political life are significant, as the Samara Centre for Democracy study on nomination processes has shown, the recent election is cause for hope.

This article is based on an analysis of the 2019 election I undertook, using a dataset developed together with the Hill Times, Samara, and McGill University political scientist Jerome Black. We drew on a mix of official party biographies, media articles, social media, and name and photo analysis (we did not include Indigenous candidates and MPs). We also compared the 2019 results with those for the 2015 election and with visible minority representation in other countries’ legislatures. Our results show that in 2019 in Canada the visible minority composition of MPs elected is reasonably representative of the immigrant and visible minority populations in the country as a whole.


Source: House of Commons becoming more reflective of diverse population

Electoral candidates shouldn’t need white-collar backgrounds

Good piece by Mike Morden of Samara:

After the votes are counted tonight, 338 candidates will be headed to Ottawa to claim their seats as members of Parliament. The other 1500-plus candidates will be headed home. For some of them, that will mean coming to terms with a rough financial picture.

Running for office in a competitive campaign is very expensive. Serious candidates have to leave or quit their jobs, forgoing income for weeks or months. Some won’t have jobs to return to, if they weren’t fortunate in having flexible employers. The self-employed will have to make up for lost time and lost clients.

Drumming up sympathy for politicians is a difficult business. But it’s important to see the costs of standing for election, because those costs mean that few of us will ever be in a financial position to run — or to do so seriously. Our political class is drawn from those who have the means. The result is a form of underrepresentation in our national politics that often goes unnoticed or unchallenged. We need to find ways to make running for office more accessible.

The Samara Centre has been working with research partners and a team of volunteers to compile demographic profiles of all 2019 federal candidates in the major parties, based on information made public in candidates’ biographies. This data, which is not yet published, reveals the predicted underrepresentations — of women, Indigenous people and people of colour. But it also reflects class- and occupation-based underrepresentations. We can’t identify the income levels of candidates, of course, but we can make some inferences based on the information available to us.

For example, on the basis of publicly available information alone, it becomes clear that most candidates hold one or more university degrees; by comparison,  fewer than 30 percent of working-age Canadians have those credentials. Lawyers, entrepreneurs and private sector executives are well represented among candidates. So are office holders from other levels of government, and some middle-class professionals like teachers. But what about service workers in retail or hospitality? What about child care workers, or tradespeople? They’re largely absent from Canada’s political class.

None of this is remotely surprising. But it should bother us more than it does.

Education and income are strong predictors of Canadians’ attitudes toward political issues and of their general views of Canadian democracy. They are stronger predictors, in many cases, than the other identities we carry. There’s evidence that working-class politicians behave differently in office, that their life experiences inform different priorities. Our white-collar parties and Parliament make substantively different decisions than they would with a more economically diverse membership. And working-class Canadians don’t see themselves reflected in their leaders, strengthening the existing tendency toward greater political dissatisfaction and distrust.

These demographic absences are reflected in how politics is done, and for whom. Indeed, the lack of a lived experience of the working class is apparent in the political discourse today, which has become peculiarly conscious of just a single class: the middle class (whoever that is). It’s also reflected in the woolly notions held by political elites about what a working-class Canadian is in 2019 (it almost always involves a hard hat).

Much of the responsibility for recruiting a more diverse candidate slate falls to the parties. But fixing economic underrepresentation, deliberately and through policy, is not easy. It involves wrestling with social and economic structures that are pervasive and deeply entrenched — beyond the reach of most available political reforms.

Nevertheless, we can think creatively about policy avenues to make political candidacy more affordable and more accessible. We can start by replacing some of the income that is lost when someone seeks office. Employment insurance provides income support for people who are unexpectedly unemployed. But it is also a tool to replace income for people who have to step away from work temporarily, to do something that is personally costly but beneficial to society — like raising a baby or caring for a sick family member. This logic can be applied to political candidacy.

The federal government should consider a new carve-out in the Employment Insurance Act, to allow registered (non-incumbent) candidates for federal, provincial and municipal elections, if they are otherwise eligible for EI, to collect it for a limited period (say, for a maximum of 50 days, which is also the maximum length of a federal campaign). Right now, candidates aren’t formally disqualified from collecting EI. But they have to be available for work and job-searching in the usual ways while collecting the benefit. Anyone who is truly campaigning full-time, with the goal of actually winning and holding office, is essentially ruled out.

This should be changed. There would be some potential for abuse, but that’s no different from the conventional uses of EI. In fact, when it becomes necessary, distinguishing between real and fake candidates would be, relatively speaking, easier to adjudicate.

It’s really important that good people put their hands up to run in our elections. It’s really important that those people aren’t only the relatively wealthy. Replacing candidates’ income is a small change. Obviously, it wouldn’t be enough to overcome the huge structural obstacles facing working-class Canadians: precarious employment, lack of time and a want of political resources like personal access and fundraising networks, to name a few. The take-up would likely be small. And it may prove that more targeted measures are needed to move the needle on working-class representation.

But it’s a simple policy step to help relieve the immediate financial costs of candidacy. It would also send a message to some of the people who most need to hear it: that whatever the political class looks like today, it’s supposed to be of you, and for you — and, in fact, it needs you.

Source: Electoral candidates shouldn’t need white-collar backgrounds

Nomination process for federal election candidates ‘uncompetitive’ and ‘biased’: report

Another interesting and relevant report by Samara. Found the observation that appointed candidates less likely to be visible minority or Indigenous than contested nominations, but this may reflect in part whether or not the riding was deemed competitive or not:

Just a small portion of federal candidates go through competitive nomination contests, according to a new report from the Samara Centre for Democracy which describes the nomination process as “a weak point in our democratic infrastructure.”

Wednesday’s report — entitled ‘Party Favours: How federal election candidates are chosen’ — looked at the more than 6,600 candidates who ran to represent one of Canada’s five major political parties during the last five federal elections.

It found that just 17 per cent of those candidates competed in nomination races.

Parties directly appointed more than 2,700 candidates — and out of the 3,900 nomination contests monitored by the centre, more than 70 per cent saw just one person run.

“Nomination contests remain too short, uncompetitive, unpredictable, untransparent and exclusionary,” concludes the report.

Michael Morden, the centre’s research director, said he was stunned by the results.

“It’s kind of crazy … some of those competitive races are themselves skewed to favour one candidate. So it’s an even smaller number than that, likely,” he said.

“The fact that so few are real contests suggests fairly shallow democracy in these parties.”

Nomination contests remain too short, uncompetitive, unpredictable, untransparent and exclusionary– Samara Centre for Democracy

While in theory nearly any adult Canadian can run for office, few make it to the House of Commons without the backing of a party. Less than half of one per cent of those elected to Parliament since 1993 won as independents, notes the report.

“In recent decades, these contests have increasingly come under the control of the central party, and many cases have emerged where nomination meetings appeared to be biased in favour of one candidate or another,” the report says.

Push for more transparency

The two largest parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, held more nomination contestants than the NDP, Bloc Québécois or Greens, according to the data.

Just over a quarter of nomination contestants are women, says the report; the Conservative Party had the lowest percentage of women contestants, while the NDP recorded the most.

The report also suggests appointed candidates were less likely to come from a visible minority or Indigenous background than those chosen through nominations.

“Parliament can only ever be as diverse as the pool of candidates that run for it. Nominations designed primarily for insiders, those already plugged into the party and political system, are a major obstacle to achieving a more diverse political class,” said the report.

The report recommends that the parties establish new standards for their nomination processes by setting opening and closing dates for nomination contests, reporting how many members cast ballots in each contest and how many votes each contestant received, and releasing the total number of people the parties “vet out” — or prevent from running — in each election cycle.

“The public has stakes in how parties choose who ends up on the ballot,” said Morden.

“It’s the first link in a chain of democratic processes that lead to how we elect a Parliament. I think the general public should care about how parties are approaching these processes and whether or not parties are meeting Canadians’ expectations of what a good democratic process looks like.”

The Samara Centre said it compiled nomination meeting reports filed with Elections Canada between 2003 and September 2015 and combined them with existing datasets on federal election candidates and candidate ethnicity.

It also said it asked the major parties to report the number of contestants they rejected during the run-up to the 2015 election.

“Only the Green Party replied to our request, indicating that they vetted out seven per cent of the applicants they received in 2015, and five per cent of those received so far in the run-up to the 2019 election,” said the centre.

Source: Nomination process for federal election candidates ‘uncompetitive’ and ‘biased’: report

Glavin: Some say anti-elitist populism is sweeping Canada. Don’t believe them.

Glavin’s provides perspective on populism and on the latest from Samara (2019 Democracy 360 seriesDon’t Blame “The People”: The Rise of Elite-led Populism in Canada). Great closing line:

It’s a question that has perplexed political scientists, the punditry and quite a few politicians. What is it about Canada that has allowed this country to dodge the populist waves engulfing the United States, the United Kingdom and no small swathe of the European continent? The question commonly arises in tandem with warnings, or threats, that the spectre of populist mobilization is on the near horizon, or that it’s already upon us.

Well, hold on a minute.

For starters, it’s helpful to recall that we’ve already been there and done that. A populist wave swept Canada back in the early 1990s, and it crashed on the rocks of a broken Progressive Conservative Party, failed to breach Ontario and Quebec, and spent its power in schism, factionalism and failed image makeovers. Eventually the movement dribbled back into the reconstructed Conservative Party of Canada, in 2003, and it had withered enough by 2006 to clear the way for Stephen Harper to win his first minority Conservative government.

As for a rejuvenated Canadian populism arising as an echo of Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again histrionics, or as a replication of the English nativism that reduced Britain to the shambles of Brexit, or as a copycat craze inspired by the gilets jaunes upheavals in France or the oddball populist poll victories in Italy, Hungary and most recently in Spain—don’t count on it. At least don’t count on it arising organically from an alienated and fed-up populace.

That’s the takeaway point in the Samara Centre for Democracy’s latest number-crunching from its extensive 2019 Democracy 360 series, a project Samara undertakes every two years to analyze the way Canadians communicate, participate, and lead in politics. As it turns out, populism is not on the rise in Canada—except perhaps as a stalking horse for politicians. Samara’s new report, titled “Don’t Blame ‘the People’: The Rise of Elite-Led Populism in Canada,” finds that the usual indices for populist alienation have been in steady decline since the Reform Party heyday of the 1990s. Politicians and some journalists are speaking the language of populism again, but by and large, the public isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Back in the mid-1990s, the Canadian Election Survey found that roughly 75 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement, “I don’t think the government cares much what people like me think.” Samara’s finding, based on its survey of more than 4,000 Canadians earlier this year, finds that fewer than 60 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement.

It may or may not be disturbing that 63 per cent of the survey respondents agreed that “those elected to Parliament soon lose touch with the people,” and those respondents may or may not be right. But that’s down from the 77 per cent who agreed with the statement in 2004, and way down from the 85 per cent who agreed in 1993.

It should be disturbing to anyone who values the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that four in 10 Canadians agree that “the will of the majority should always prevail, even over the rights of minorities.” But the upside is that fewer Canadians hold to that view than in 2011 (six in 10) or in 2001 (seven in 10).

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has given voice to the concern that public anxieties about “the elites” could rattle the western consensus that the rules-based liberal world order needs to be defended. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper has written a book about the growing trend in populism and how to harness it, from a conservative standpoint, for the public good. Former New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent warns that “the elites” are standing in the way of necessary economic and political redistribution. Since the 2015 election of the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau, “the elites” have come up in Parliament in 13 per cent of its sitting days. That’s up from three per cent during Harper’s term in power.

People who bang on about the elites also tend to whinge a great deal about “the mainstream media,” but in Canada, most people aren’t so inclined. The latest annual Edelman Trust Barometer, an opinion survey of 33,000 people in 26 countries, finds that Canadians are not losing faith in the news media, and Canadians show a higher rate of trust in journalism than respondents in just about every other country surveyed.

The Samara Centre defines populism as a style of doing politics and a set of attitudes and beliefs about politics and society. Populist leaders imagine politics as a conflict between two groups, usually “the elites” wielding largely unaccountable power over “the real people.” This can be fatal to democratic institutions, and populists who win elections quickly develop the habit of using people-power as a mere pretext to use the instruments of the state to go after judges, academics, journalists, political adversaries—anyone who stands in their way. And populism is by no means solely a phenomenon of right-wing politics, Michael Morden, research director at the Samara Centre, told me.

The anti-capitalist “left” mobilized hundreds of thousands of people during the 1990s to huge demonstrations against “the elites” of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other anchors of the liberal world order. But popular antipathy to those institutions ended up being harnessed most successfully in the U.S. by Donald Trump.

“Populism has been used to give licence to different kinds of radicalism. I think blame should be apportioned across the spectrum,” Morden said. “If you want to create more racists, then you generate a narrative that there’s more racists in society than there really are.”

Exaggerating the extent of populism is playing with matches, in other words, while populism is playing with fire.

Source: Some say anti-elitist populism is sweeping Canada. Don’t believe them.

Samara’s 2017 Democracy 360 Second Report Card on How Canadians Communicate, Participate and Lead in Politics – Visible Minority Methodology Issues

While I have great respect for the work Samara does and continues to do, as exemplified in their latest report, I would be remiss in not pointing out some serious methodological mistakes made with respect to visible minority representation.

Their diversity numbers:

While our current Cabinet was selected to be more reflective of the Canadian population, Parliament generally, with 74% men, still has a long way to go. Women represent half of Canada’s population, but they are only 26% of its MPs. Visible minorities are better represented—they make up 17% of MPs and 19% of the population. Indigenous MPs make up 3% of the House and 4% of the population. In terms of representation of the youngest cohort of voters Canadians, representation has lost ground since 2015. Only 4% of MPs in the 41st Parliament are aged 18 to 30, a cohort that comprises 17% of the Canadian population.

The two mistakes are:

  • Using the wrong baseline for visible minority representation. Samara uses the overall population of visible minorities (19 percent) rather than the correct baseline of 15 percent, those visible minorities who are also Canadian citizens and thus able to vote. This is the second time that this incorrect baseline has been used and should be corrected for future reports; and,
  • Their count of the number of visible minority MPs is wrong. The correct count is 47, not the 53 indicated in the chart below.

The corrected numbers show visible minorities forming 14 percent of the House of Commons (2015 election), compared to 15 percent of the visible minority voting population. A good result.

Samara and I have shared our respective data sets and discussed these concerns and they have been forthcoming on the reasons for the discrepancies. Their count of visible minorities included some Indigenous MPs and Alexandra Mendès (but not Pablo Rodriguez) and they used the overall visible minority population to be consistent with their earlier report.

For future reports, my main recommendations:

  • for women, foreign-born and Indigenous MPs, use the authoritative parlinfo biographical information which would avoid mis-categorization of Indigenous as visible minority MPs;
  • use existing analysis rather than re-inventing the wheel. Erin Tolley, Kai Chan and I all came up with the 47 number (Erin and I compared notes to ensure that neither of us missed anything, Kai did his work independently; and,
  • use the population of visible minorities who are also Canadian citizens as the baseline, not the total visible minority population.

Their numbers for foreign-born, women and Indigenous MPs are correct, taken from the site (however the graphics are not – 40 versus the correct figure of 41 foreign-born, 81 versus 88 women, 9 versus 11 Indigenous peoples).

Source: 2017 Democracy 360

Samara initiative to increase political engagement of new Canadians

Another good and interesting initiative:

What happens when you ask newcomers to Canada what they care about, add a question about democracy, and then give everyone some playdough? 

They talk, discuss, collaborate, and create. Ultimately, they build confidence in their democratic voice.

For the last year, that is exactly what has been happening in one of the most diverse regions of Canada. North York Community House (NYCH) and Samara, with the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, have undertaken a major initiative to strengthen democratic engagement by training almost 50 staff members and engaging over 600 community members. 

NYCH_Collage_1.jpgServing newcomers and residents of northwest Toronto for over 25 years, NYCH has come to recognize that improving democratic engagement is essential to helping build strong, healthy communities. By helping participants of all ages and backgrounds find and develop their political voice, Samara’s Democracy Talks has proven an effective tool for engaging and empowering NYCH’s diverse membership.

Democracy Talks takes a different approach than many civic education programs. Instead of inviting participants to a class to learn about Canada’s political system, Democracy Talks activities are integrated into a wide range of existing programs – English conversation circles, citizenship classes, youth programs, and even cooking classes.


As a result, in North York alone, the program has engaged participants from over 34 different countries and ages 13 to 65. Many participants reported that, prior to this initiative, they had no opportunities to discuss issues they care about in a non-partisan and safe environment. What participants learned was simple but profound. In the words of two participants:

“It’s not just the Prime Minister that has the power, we have the power too.” 

“I learned that things can change.”

Most heartening of all, we have begun to witness a shift in culture such that both NYCH staff and community members value democratic life and have confidence in their political voice. Illustrating this shift on a beautiful evening in May, over one hundred community members packed into the Change Fair, hosted by NYCH and Samara, to talk with each other, share what they had learned, and make sure their political voice was heard. (For more on the event, check out our blog.)

Visible Minority and Indigenous Members of Parliament: Tolley

Really good and timely e-book from Samara and UBC Press (Canadian Election Analysis: Communication, strategy, and democracy, free download).

Wide range of articles, my particular interest was in Erin Tolley’s on visible minorities and indigenous members (we have shared our respective data sets to ensure consistency):

42nd Parliament will include 47 visible minority Members of Parliament and 10 Indigenous MPs, record highs for both groups. The Liberals elected the most MPs of colour—83% of visible minority and Indigenous MPs will sit in the government caucus—followed by the Conservatives and the New Democrats.

The diversity of the 42nd Parliament dramatically outpaces the high-water mark reached in the previous Parliament when 28 visible minority and seven Indigenous candidates were elected. Following the 2011 election, MPs of colour made up 11% of the House of Commons, compared to 17% following the 2015 election, an increase of 54%.

…When political parties make an effort to recruit and nominate diverse candidates and do so in ridings where the party is competitive, those candidates can—and do—win. We should celebrate the inclusion of diverse faces in the House of Commons, but remain conscious of the ways in which their pathways to politics can be obstructed. Although it is beyond the scope of this analysis, we should also examine the positions that MPs of colour occupy on committees, within caucus, and in Cabinet. Presence is important, but influence matters most. Above all, in spite of the representational gains that have been made, they are in some cases small, meaning we still have some way to go to achieve a truly representative democracy.

For my analysis of the Cabinet, see The New Cabinet: Diversity, inclusion and achieving parity.

Political Communication in Canada – UBC Press