Reading the numbers on the Sunday Edition.

The complainant, Vivian Unger, objected to the phrasing of a question on the Sunday Edition regarding electoral reform in Canada. In an interview with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, host Michael Enright asked him why he championed electoral reform when people had rejected it. She said that was wrong because there have been cases when more than 50% voted in favour. Turns out, the math is more complicated than that.


You took issue with a reference Sunday Edition host Michael Enright made regarding support for electoral reform in Canada. In an interview with the leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, Mr. Enright asked him why he supported electoral reform in Canada since, in the referenda that have been held, people didn’t want it. You said the statement was false:

In 2005, 57.7% of voters in British Columbia voted for a proportional system called BC-STV, and in 2016, 52.4% of voters in Prince Edward Island voted for a proportional system called MMP. This in fact constitutes a majority of voters saying yes, we want that.

You contacted the Sunday Edition to point this out but there was no correction or acknowledgement. You think what he said was factually incorrect and this needed to be noted on air:

It doesn't matter that the statement was brief. It was still factually incorrect, and I think it's wrong that someone calling himself a journalist is using the power of his platform to disseminate false information. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, but then one has the responsibility to let people know the truth. Mr. Enright has made zero effort to do that. This not only disgraces him but it also damages the reputation of the CBC.

You thought he should have been much more precise in his question. Rather than saying “people have said no, we don’t want that”, he should have spelled out what happened - that a majority said yes, but the government determined that the turnout was too low to be binding.


The Executive Producer of the Sunday Edition, Susan Mahoney, replied to your concerns. She acknowledged the numbers you cited regarding the referenda in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island. She noted that in the 2005 referendum in B.C., 57.7% of those who voted, voted in favour, but the proposal required a 60% positive response. In the second vote, just over 60% voted against the reform. She explained what happened in Prince Edward Island in 2016:

Prince Edward Island's turnout for general elections usually hovers around 80%. Although 52.4% were in favour of electoral reform in the 2016 referendum, only 36.46% of the population voted, well below the norm. Premier Wade MacLauchlan said he was doubtful the result of the referendum "can be said to constitute a clear expression of the will of Prince Edward Islanders.” The Premier proposed they hold a second vote on electoral reform in conjunction with the next provincial election.


Your position is that complete accuracy is necessary and the formulation of this question leaves a false impression. As in many areas where there are strongly-held views, people support a narrative that reinforces their perspective - the reality is often more complex. You say that Mr. Enright misled the public. The fact is that the outcome of three different referenda yielded three rather different results. The first you cited did come close to the threshold needed to have passed the proposal, the second one defeated the proposal, and the third did achieve over 50% based on a 36% turnout. Effectively, it was rejected - which is what the question was alluding to in this context. While the phrasing of the question was not absolutely precise, I am trying to imagine what a lead-in to a question might have been to reflect that rather complex situation. It would have been more precise to say that three referenda in two provinces were not able to achieve the result, or the level of support was unclear. The reality is, though, effectively it was a “no” because no jurisdiction had been able to make changes. The background, which provided context, was not required in this case. This was not an interview about electoral reform or proportional representation, but rather a wide-ranging discussion about Jagmeet Singh’s “political goals, and his aspirations for the country,” as Mr. Enright put it in his introduction. It was not an analysis of electoral reform and the levels of support it might have in various parts of the country.

The context for the question was to probe why this was one of the issues Mr. Singh continued to champion. This was their actual exchange:

Why are you on the reform of electoral practices bandwagon because when there have been votes on question British Columbia comes to mind, I think, and other provinces, people said “no, we don’t want to change.”

I think there is some significant failures of the first-past-the-post system. If we had a proportional system, it provides for a diversity of opinion, it encourages working together in collaboration, it rids the specter and fear of strategic voting, it gets rid of false majorities.

But is the juice worth the squeeze? I mean I’ve been stopped on the street from people with clipboards trying to explain it to me, and it’s a very difficult thing to get across, and I’m supposed to be a journalist for my sins. How do you get that across during an election?

People deserve more power, people deserve more say, and this will give people more say.

I would imagine moving toward the 2019 federal election this issue will arise again. I would expect the Sunday Edition to deal with its history and challenges in precise detail at that time.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman