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Referendums in Canada


Referendums in Canada

National referendums are seldom used in Canada. The first two referendums saw voters in Québec and the remainder of Canada take dramatically opposing stands, the third saw most of the voters take a stand dramatically opposed to that of the politicians in power.


  • National referendums 1
    • Referendum on prohibition 1.1
    • Plebiscite on conscription 1.2
    • Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord 1.3
    • Proposed referendums 1.4
  • Provincial referendums 2
    • British Columbia 2.1
    • Newfoundland and Labrador 2.2
    • New Brunswick 2.3
    • Nova Scotia 2.4
    • Ontario 2.5
    • Prince Edward Island 2.6
    • Quebec 2.7

National referendums

Referendum on prohibition

Results of the National Referendum on Prohibition (September 29, 1898)
Jurisdiction For Prohibition Percent For Against Prohibition Percent Against
Alberta and Saskatchewan 6,238 68.8 2,824 31.2 Yes
British Columbia 5,731 54.6 4,756 45.4 Yes
Manitoba 12,419 80.6 2,978 19.4 Yes
New Brunswick 26,919 72.2 9,575 27.7 Yes
Nova Scotia 34,368 87.2 5,370 12.8 Yes
Ontario 154,498 57.3 115,284 42.7 Yes
Prince Edward Island 9,461 89.2 1,146 10.8 Yes
Quebec 28,436 18.8 122,760 81.2 No
Canada 278,380 51.2 264,693 48.8 Yes

The majority in favour of Prohibition was so slight and turn-out so low that the government did not think it right to adopt the measure.

Plebiscite on conscription

The Question:

Are you in favour of releasing the Government from any obligations arising out of any past commitments restricting the methods of raising men for military service?
Canadian conscription plebiscite, 1942
Jurisdiction Yes No
Votes % Votes %
Alberta 186,624 71.1 75,880 28.9
British Columbia 253,844 80.4 62,033 19.6
Manitoba 218,093 80.3 53,651 19.7
New Brunswick 105,629 69.8 45,743 30.2
Nova Scotia 120,763 77.1 35,840 22.1
Ontario 1,202,953 84.0 229,847 16.0
Prince Edward Island 23,568 82.9 4,869 17.1
Quebec 375,650 27.9 971,925 72.1
Saskatchewan 183,617 73.1 67,654 26.9
Yukon 847 74.4 291 25.6
Total civilian vote 2,670,088 63.3 1,547,724 36.7
Military vote 251,118 80.5 60,885 19.5
Canada 2,921,206 64.5 1,608,609 35.5

Based on the result, the government adopted conscription but with a lightness of touch, it at first said that those conscripted would not be sent overseas to active fighting.

Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord

The Question:

Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992?
Results of the National Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord (October 26, 1992)
Jurisdiction Voted Yes Percent Yes Voted No Percent No
Alberta 483,275 39.8 731,975 60.2 No
British Columbia 525,188 31.8 1,126,761 68.2 No
Manitoba 198,230 38.0 322,971 62.0 No
New Brunswick 230,010 61.7 145,096 38.3 Yes
Newfoundland 133,193 63.1 77,881 36.9 Yes
Northwest Territories 14,750 61.0 9,416 39.0 Yes
Nova Scotia 218,618 48.7 230,182 51.3 No
Ontario 2,410,119 50.1 2,397,665 49.9 Yes
Prince Edward Island 48,687 74.0 17,124 26.0 Yes
Quebec 1,710,117 43.4 2,232,280 56.6 No
Saskatchewan 203,361 44.6 252,459 55.4 No
Yukon 5,354 43.6 6,922 56.4 No
Canada 6,185,902 45.0 7,550,732 55.0 No

Proposed referendums

During the Canadian Federal election of 2004, the NDP stated that it would require the federal government to hold a national referendum on electoral reform (specifically Proportional Representation) for support from the NDP should the Liberals win a minority government. The Liberals won a minority, and the NDP announced they would press for electoral reform through a referendum . The possibility of a national referendum on electoral reform was made more likely through the Throne speech that opened Parliament in October, 2004, in which former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin included electoral reform in his plan for the next Parliament. So far Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not made any moves towards reform of the electoral system.

There had been discussion regarding a national referendum over the issue of same-sex marriage, which was a highly divisive issue in Canada. A national plebiscite had been suggested by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and some Conservatives and Liberal backbenchers. However, Paul Martin's Liberal government, with the support of the NDP and Bloc Québécois, passed the Civil Marriage Act, legalizing same-sex marriage through Parliament in July 2005 without holding a plebiscite. In December 2006, Stephen Harper's government introduced a motion to re-open the marriage debate, which lost. Notably, members of all parties, including some Conservative cabinet members, voted it down.

Provincial referendums

British Columbia

In British Columbia, a Treaty Referendum was held on First Nations treaty rights in 2002. The referendum proposed eight questions that voters were asked to either support or oppose. Critics claimed the phrasing was flawed or biased toward a predetermined response. Critics, especially First Nations and religious groups, called for a boycott of the referendum, and only about one third of ballots were returned, significantly less than the usual turnout in provincial general elections. The ballots that were returned showed enthusiastic support, with over 80 per cent of participating voters agreeing to all eight proposed principles.

A referendum on electoral reform on May 17, 2005 was held in conjunction with the provincial election that year. British Columbian voters were asked to approve a new electoral system based on the Single Transferable Vote called BC STV. It passed with the support of a majority of voters (57%), but failed to meet the required "supermajority" threshold of 60%. Premier Gordon Campbell announced due to the large support shown for electoral reform a second referendum would be held in correspondence with the British Columbia general election, 2009. This referendum would also have required approval by 60% of those voting.

The second referendum was held on May 12, 2009 in conjunction with the province election. The results were a "supermajority" of 60.92% voting for retaining the current "first past the post" electoral system and 39.8% voting for the proposed Single Transferable Vote.

A mail-in referendum was held from June 13 to August 5, 2011, on the fate of the province's harmonized sales tax. The government pledged to discontinue the tax if more than 50% of the voters opt to have the tax discontinued. It was passed, with 55% in favour.

Newfoundland and Labrador

The island of Newfoundland, then a British colony, held two referendums in 1948 to determine its future. An initial referendum was held on June 3, 1948, to decide between continuing with the British appointed Commission of Government that had ruled the island since the 1930s, revert to dominion status with responsible government, or join Canadian Confederation. The result was inconclusive, with 44.6% supporting the restoration of dominion status, 41.1% for confederation with Canada, and 14.3% for continuing the Commission of Government. A second referendum on July 22, 1948, which asked Newfoundlanders to choose between confederation and dominion status, was decided by a vote of 52% to 48% for confederation with Canada. Newfoundland joined Canada on March 31, 1949.

A referendum was held in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1995 that approved replacing the province's system of parochial schools with a largely public school system. In 1997, a second referendum to amend the Terms of Union to allow for the Catholic and Pentecostal school systems to be disbanded and brought into the public system.

New Brunswick

On May 14, 2001, New Brunswick held a referendum on whether to continue to permit Video Lottery Terminals to operate in the province. 53.1% of those who voted in favour of retaining the terminals.

Nova Scotia

In 2004, Nova Scotia held a plebiscite on whether to allow 'Sunday shopping'. The result was a slight victory for the No side although the government went ahead and legalized Sunday Shopping the following year after a court decision overturned the law.


On October 10, 2007, Ontario held a referendum on whether to adopt a Mixed Member Proportional system of elections. The proposed system failed with 63% voting for the status quo in favour of First-Past-the-Post. See Ontario electoral reform referendum, 2007 for more information. This was the first referendum in that province since 1924 when a referendum on prohibition was held.

Prince Edward Island

The small province of Prince Edward Island (under 150,000 people and therefore in scale more like a municipal government) has had several referendums in its past, although the correct terminology in the province is a plebiscite. The last provincial plebiscite was held to determine if Islanders were in favour of a fixed link to the mainland. It passed 60% to 40%. This allowed the provincial and federal governments to attract contractors to build what is now the Confederation Bridge. On November 28, 2005, Islanders were asked to vote by plebiscite whether or not they wanted mixed member proportional representation - partly "party list-based" - electoral system. Islanders decided, 64% to 36%, to keep the status quo first-past-the-post based electoral system that was already in place.


Three referendums were held in Quebec:

Officially though, there have been four, as the 1992 pancanadian referendum was organised by the DGEQ in Quebec, whereas Elections Canada organised it in the rest of Canada.

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