‘I’m voting on what now?’: Plebiscites, referendums and the Senate vote explained

Calgarians hitting the polls for the 2021 municipal election face many decisions.

In addition to casting ballots for mayor and ward councillors and school boards, Calgary residents are being asked to vote on a plebiscite and two referendum questions as well as select up to three nominees for the Senate.

If reading this far has prompted you to furrow your brow, you’re probably not alone.

Pollster and political commentator Janet Brown, who has conducted several municipal election focus groups for CBC Calgary, says between the federal election and COVID-19, these ballot extras have fallen off the radar for many. 

“They’re [also] just kind of finding them pretty confusing,” Brown said.

So, what are Calgarians being asked to vote on anyway? Let’s break it down.

What’s the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum?

We start with a couple definitions: the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. 

As Duane Bratt, a political scientist with Mount Royal University, puts it, the difference is whether a vote is binding or not. 

“A referendum is binding on the government, [so] that’s the big difference,” Bratt said.

As our very own CBC language guide has it, “a referendum invites people within a group (e.g., citizens of a country or a province, members of an organization) to decide if a specific law or constitutional measure should be passed. The matter is being ‘referred’ to them, and the authority calling for the vote must follow the results.”

(But in the upcoming Alberta vote on equalization, there’s a bit of a twist. More on that in a minute.)

When it comes to plebiscites, as Bratt puts it, they function as an advisory of public opinion, but do not bind government to action. 

Again, on this, the CBC language guide says a plebiscite “involves asking people for their views on an issue rather than on the specific wording of proposed legislation or a constitutional amendment. Such votes can give a governing body direction on forming policy.”

Still, Bratt says, governments usually do adhere to a plebiscite, as the vote reflects what most people want.

We’ve got that out of the way, now let’s look at the questions.

Plebiscite: Water fluoridation

Here’s the question as it appears on the City of Calgary’s ballot:

Question: Are you in favour of reintroducing fluoridation of the municipal water supply? 

Your answer choices: yes or no.


What does this mean?

Calgary has held many plebiscites on water fluoridation dating back to the 1950s.

In 1998 and 1989, Calgarians voted in favour of fluoridation. 

Calgary’s city council chose to stop adding fluoride to the city’s water supply in 2011. 

If you want to know more background about the issue, the City of Calgary website has more information and links you can check out here.

City council will make the final decision on water fluoridation. But it will likely make that decision informed by the vote outcome. (The Canadian Press)

Whatever the outcome of the plebiscite, the vote does not guarantee action. 

City council will make the final decision. But it will likely make that decision informed by the vote outcome.

And just a word to the wise, we’ve heard from some early voters that this particular question is located down near the bottom of the page on the municipal ballot and could be missed.

OK, that’s our upcoming plebiscite question. Now onto the referendum questions.

Referendum: Equalization

Here’s the first question on the provincial ballot:

Question 1: Should section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, Parliament and the government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments, be removed from the Constitution?

Your answer choices: yes or no.


What does this mean?

Elections Alberta explains that a “yes” vote on this referendum question means you support the removal of Section 36(2) from the Constitution Act, 1982, and ending the practice of equalization payments. 

A “no” vote means that you support keeping Section 36(2), and continuing the practice of equalization payments.

Just in case, like most folks, you’re not totally up on Section 26(2), there is a lot of background information on the constitution, equalization payments, and the equalization formula over at the Elections Alberta website.

The Government of Alberta’s website explains it a bit more simply, and outlines proposed actions saying:

“A ‘yes’ vote means that Albertans are calling upon the federal government and other provinces to enter into discussions on a potential amendment to the Constitution of Canada in respect of equalization.”

And…

“A ‘no’ vote means that Albertans are not calling upon the federal government and other provinces to enter into discussions on a potential amendment to the Constitution of Canada in respect of equalization.”

WATCH | If you need a refresher on how equalization payments work, watch this video:

How equalization payments work

2 years ago

A look at how Canada’s system of equalization payments work and why one common criticism isn’t true. 2:27

This means the Alberta government appears to have bound itself to take action on the outcome of the vote. 

Again, the provincial government website:

“If Albertans vote ‘yes’ to this question, the Alberta government would approach the federal government to initiate such discussions.”

Legal and economic experts have told CBC News there’s little chance Alberta’s planned referendum on equalization will result in changes to Canada’s Constitution.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, however, has said the goal of the referendum question is to prompt negotiations with the Government of Canada.

“The point of it is to get leverage for constitutional negotiations with the federal government about reform of the entire system of fiscal federalism,” Kenney said at an Oct. 5 press conference.

But there are doubts from some legal experts — including the University of Waterloo’s Emmett Macfarlane and the University of Alberta’s Eric M. Adams — about whether the federal government would be required to engage the provincial government.

So, that’s the equalization question.

The second provincial referendum question is asking Albertans what time it is.

Referendum: Daylight saving time

Here’s the second question on the provincial ballot:

Question 2: Do you want Alberta to adopt year-round Daylight-Saving Time, which is summer hours, eliminating the need to change our clocks twice a year? 

Your answer choices: yes or no.


What does this mean?

OK. This is one to wrap your head around.

Right now, Alberta is on standard time for part of the year, and on daylight saving for the rest.

As the Elections Alberta website has it: 

“Currently, Alberta changes clocks twice a year. We ‘spring forward’ one hour on the second Sunday in March and ‘fall back’ one hour on the first Sunday in November. This changes the time we experience sunrise and sunset.”

If you’re really into this, you can check out the Daylight Saving Time Act here.

Now to the question. We are being asked if we want to adopt year-round daylight saving time. 

Not, we should note, stay permanently on standard time. 

A “yes” vote would mean a permanent adoption of the daylight saving time that, as the province says, runs from the second Sunday in March until the first Sunday in November. 

So, Albertans would no longer turn clocks forward in March and backward in November.

A “no” vote means Albertans will continue changing their clocks twice a year, and the province says no steps will be taken by the government.

You can see this nifty chart that shows how this change would impact the timing of sunrises and sunsets in the province at Elections Alberta.

In northern Alberta, for example, the change would mean sunrise would occur around 10:15 a.m. in winter.

If Albertans voted to implement daylight saving time permanently, the province says, any decision to change would not come into effect before the fall of 2022.

With only one more question on the ballot to explain, we’re in the homestretch.

The Senate election

Voters will select 3 nominees for the Senate of Canada. Nominees may be appointed when vacancies occur.


What does this mean?

There is currently a vacancy in the Senate for Alberta, and there will be another at the end of October, when Sen. Doug Black will retire.

On your ballot you are going to be asked to vote for up to three individuals to be Senators-in-Waiting for Alberta.

But this does not mean that these people will end up in the Canadian Senate.

Because senators in Canada are not elected.

There are 105 senators that make up the upper house in parliament.

And as the government of Canada website has it: “Under the Canadian Constitution, the governor general appoints individuals to the Senate. By convention, senators are appointed on the advice of the prime minister.”

But various Alberta governments have long advocated for an elected Senate. Premier Kenney spoke about why back in June, when he announced Alberta’s 2021 Senate election.

“Elected senators, who have a direct line of accountability to Alberta voters, are much more likely to vote to defend our vital strategic and economic interests,” he said.

In keeping, Alberta has set up its own Senate Elections Act. It will hold Senate elections on Oct. 18. 

Four Alberta Senate elections have previously occurred in 1989, 1998, 2004 and 2012.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Doug Black, pictured, and Scott Tannas after they won the province’s most recent Senate contest in 2012. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Who can run? Well, there is a full list of eligibility criteria here. But part of it includes being an Alberta resident, collecting support signatures from 500 electors in Alberta, and filing a $4,000 candidate nomination deposit.

Thirteen people are running for Senate this time around, some as independent candidates and some who are aligned with a federal political party. You can find their names, and links to their individual websites, on this Elections Alberta page.

But, as Mount Royal political scientist Duane Bratt says, it’s important to note the Senate election does not mean Albertans are electing a senator, Bratt says.

Rather, they are recommending nominees for the Senate — who may or may not then be appointed. by the federal government.

As Premier Kenney said in June, “We can’t compel a prime minister to appoint our preferred candidate to the Senate.”

“But,” he said, “we can certainly submit a list of people who have been chosen by Alberta voters and then basically challenge a prime minister to ignore democracy.”

Still, Bratt says appointments based on Alberta’s Senate nominees have happened — under conservative federal governments, historically.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, appointed Doug Black and Scott Tannas after they won the province’s most recent Senate contest in 2012.

The big day

So. Many. Decisions!

We hope that everything above is a bit of a help on election day. 

And for the city council races, don’t forget to check out all our CBC Calgary pages for mayor and ward candidate profiles and for some in-depth mayoral candidate profiles.

Phew. That’s it, that’s all-ish, folks.

Happy voting!

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