Democratization vs. Liberalism in Canada

Many North Americans (leaving aside Mexico), would likely not know that the official acronym for “North Korea” is “DPRK,” and if they did then fewer still might realize what it stands for: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. An even smaller minority, we can assume, would take North Korea’ self-designation as “democratic” seriously. If anything, college-educated Americans have an even more hostile view of North Korea than their supposedly less-educated compatriots—so it’s doubtful they would be willing to share democracy credentials with the DPRK, when so many in the US (and Canada) posture as if they somehow owned democracy.

While this essay is neither about the US nor the DPRK—it’s about Canada—it would be interesting to draw a comparison/contrast between Canada and the DPRK, by asking the following questions:

  1. Which of the two countries, Canada or the DPRK, allows citizens to choose their head of government, or head of state, through the electoral process?
  2. Which of the two countries, Canada or the DPRK, has a non-elected legislative body whose members are appointed for life?
  3. Which of the two countries, Canada or the DPRK, allows citizens to recall/fire an elected representative for failing to do what the person promised when campaigning for office?

The answers are not always simple, especially as news about the DPRK’s electoral process, filtered through our very biased media, paint a very selective and incomplete picture. But just to make matters easier, we’ll take everything they say at face value.

The answer to the first question is that neither Canada nor the DPRK allow a direct election for the national head of government. Both leaders are officially elected to parliament, and then elected to leadership by their peers. In Canada, a relatively small number of people, in Justin Trudeau’s riding in Montreal (Papineau), were allowed to decide if they would elect him to parliament—that is all they were allowed to decide, and no other Canadians outside the riding were allowed a say in the matter. Instead, the decision on whether Trudeau would become the prime minister was made by members of the Liberal Party of Canada, during their leadership convention. In other words, there are no direct elections for the job of PM in Canada, unlike the US where Americans cast ballots for their choice of president.

Canada also has a head of state, and in this case the situation is far removed from what most would understand to be democratic: our head of state is a monarch, who rules for life—and not even a Canadian monarch, but rather a foreigner residing in the United Kingdom (that person currently being Queen Elizabeth II). The head of state, in other words, is imposed on Canadians, following the rules of an ultra-elite, super wealthy dynasty.

Again unlike the DPRK, it is Canada which has a non-elected legislative body, whose members are appointed by political parties in parliament, and who serve for life. That body is known as the Senate. So we have a non-elected head of state, plus a non-elected Senate—and yet, strangely, we choose to call our system “democratic”. It’s not just us: the World Economic Forum, in spite of the evidence, decided to rank Canada among the world’s “strongest democracies”. One can subjectively invent make-believe statistics to defend any lie. “Post-truth” you say?

Neither Canada nor the DPRK allows a recall vote for those who broke their campaign promises—nor does the US for that matter. One of the few, if only, countries that allows such a vote is Venezuela.

If democracy is to be judged as set of procedures and methods, then Canada does not fare too well in a comparison with the DPRK, and in some cases it comes off worse from the comparison. One could—I would argue should—also analyze democracy in terms of outcomes, in terms of the benefits it produces for citizens, across the range of social and economic benefits. Here I will drop any further comparison between Canada and the DPRK, in part because I know so little about the DPRK, and in large part because it would be wrong to compare two such historically unequal cases when it comes to their power in the international system, the range of resources at their disposition, the legacy of major wars, and so on.

But that still leaves us with one big problem: Canada’s democracy problem.

In Contempt of the People: Withdrawing from Democracy in Canada

Little can express the death of liberalism more than the sight of Liberals, and liberal democrats, recoiling from liberal democracy. Their preference? A liberalism without democracy, like in early 19th-century Britain—one that was already rejected by the late 19th-century. To the extent that a commitment to liberal democracy has been a hallmark of modern liberalism, that association has now been terminated. By default, the dominant realignment is toward a combined dictatorship of corporations, monarchs, and technocrats.

The Liberal Party of Canada, led by Justin Trudeau, campaigned on a repeated promise of electoral reform. Canadians, we were told, would no longer suffer wasting their votes in a “first past the post” system that usually produced a majority of seats in parliament for a party elected only by a minority of voters—or even worse, where a minority government could be formed, based on an even smaller minority of the popular vote.

Losing the popular vote, and winning government, is a routine fact of Canadian politics. This also holds true for Trudeau’s Liberals: they won just 39.5% of the popular vote, yet ended up with 54% of the seats in parliament.

The Liberals withdrew their promise of reform, and tilted back towards the status quo they previously decried, a position which had undoubtedly won them electoral support. Their compliant media, particularly the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), a publicly funded broadcaster, faithfully echoed the Liberals’ concerns about too much democracy being a bad thing, producing one-sided articles that cast referenda in a negative light and cast voters in an even poorer light as dumb brutes not to be trusted to make their own decisions. The fear of the masses is now official doctrine in Canada, and this orthodox elitism is one that automatically renders itself as illegitimate, by definition. The ruling elites have the power to govern, but no authority.

After winning the general election in the autumn of 2015, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau committed itself to electoral reform in a Speech from the Throne stating “that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system”. But Trudeau, to be as bizarre and anti-factual as possible, soon after proclaimed unilaterally that Canadians had “lost interest” in electoral reform. Meanwhile, a national petition against Trudeau’s broken promise gained so much momentum that it immediately put the lie to Trudeau’s unsupported claims—as did the nationwide protests where people across Canada turned out in more than 20 cities to denounce Trudeau’s decision to cancel electoral reform. Then there was the Liberals’ “concern” about proportional representation, and the suddenly revealed distaste for a referendum. Trudeau reportedly told Italy’s former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, that referenda “give people a chance to lash out at institutions—and they might”. If the report is true, this was a powerful admission that, a) there is popular resentment and distrust of the dominant institutions, and, b) the only way to shore up the legitimacy of those institutions is by blocking expression of the popular will. The admission is therefore itself a nullification of the legitimate right to rule by Trudeau and his class. It is all about rule without the consent of the governed, a regime that is typically described as “dictatorship”.

In other words, in claiming to speak for Canadians, Trudeau wanted to hear nothing from Canadians. Trudeau’s supporters meanwhile are some of the same people who hypocritically bemoan “post-truth” and “threats to democracy,” such as Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump—once again manifesting their contempt for democratic processes, while underscoring the illegitimacy of their own position.

As late as December 2, 2016, when Trudeau met with the editorial board of the Toronto Star, he claimed that he heard “loudly and clearly” that “Canadians want a better system of governance, a better system of choosing our governments,” then adding, “I make promises because I believe in them”. Was Trudeau hearing imaginary voices in his head then, or did that problem come later?

Trudeau had promised at least 1,813 times to bring about electoral reform. Trudeau’s broken promise meant undoing “months of work by a special House of Commons committee, two separate public engagement and consultation exercises, numerous MP town hall meetings and one cross-country ministerial tour”. Trudeau’s government produced an evolving series of excuses (and lies) for the broken promise—that the House of Commons committee had failed to identify a suitable form of balloting (a task for which it was not appointed)…and then the real reason came out. Trudeau said he had shut down electoral reform “because it would be too divisive an issue for Canadians, particularly at a time when the forces of nationalism and populism are sowing instability in countries around the world”. Liberal insiders also told the media that Trudeau feared the rise of regional parties, and “alt-right” politics.

In other words, Trudeau’s move was a counterinsurgency strategy. It was implemented with the hope of saving the political fortunes not just of the elite political class (in academia and the media as well), but also the Liberals’ patrons in the transnational capitalist class, and especially the broader global capitalist interests which the government explicitly serves.

To a chorus of boos at a town hall, Trudeau arrogantly declared, “I felt that it was not in the best interest of our country or of our future that I turned my back on that promise”. Trudeau expressed there the core of “democratic elitism”—he, the technocrat, the expert, the manager, would single-handedly decide what was in the interest of millions of Canadians. (Trudeau’s persistent smugness has not escaped notice in parliament either, nor has he fared well in front of public audiences.) Not too long ago Trudeau was frank in confirming his admiration for dictatorship: “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China. Their basic dictatorship is actually allowing them to turn their economy around on a dime”. What happened to “diversity” and “inclusion”? Are those the hallmarks of “dictatorship”? It seems more likely that what we are facing is the intersection between paternalism, colonialism, and abduction.

The fact remains that more than half of Canadians are “represented” by someone for whom they did not vote—“inclusivity” is an official liberal fiction. Trudeau explicitly came out against proportional representation, because he did not want to hear what he considers “fringe” voices to be heard in parliament—again, so much for “inclusivity”. (Ironically—or simply because Trudeau is inarticulate and could not think of a good example—the “fringe voice” he named was that of a currently sitting parliamentarian, the lack of proportional representation not being sufficient to keep her out of Trudeau’s preferred parliament.) In Trudeau’s mendacious evolving “history” of his excuses, he erected the ranked-ballot system—which would effectively disenfranchise voters even more than now—against proportional representation, which is fairer and more open and that’s why it was problematic for Trudeau. The Green Party issued a communiqué that rightly perceived that Trudeau never had any interest in electoral reform, along with evidence supplied by expert testimonies as to why proportional representation is fairer than ranked-ballot systems, along with the social and economic outcomes that proportional representation produces.

When Trudeau dictates that we should fear “fringe” voices, what he really means is the voices of the masses. This becomes clear enough in his meeting with the editors of The Star and his comment to Matteo Renzi. Trudeau meant to clamp down on democratization in order to block nationalism, populism, and any challenge to Canada’s dominant institutions. Again, this is the heart of liberal authoritarianism, a return to Canada’s long tradition of encrusted elites defending their entrenched privilege—preposterously in the name of “openness” and “fairness,” asking the rest of us to mistake the elite’s special interests for our own.

Too Much Democracy is a Bad Thing for the Power Elites
The contempt for the masses shows up in the mainstream Canadian media, including the CBC, as well as in statements by officials other than Trudeau. After a community in Quebec dared to take matters into its own hands by collectively voting on an issue that mattered to them—whether or not to locate a Muslim burial ground in their district (they voted against it)—the CBC, the mayor of the town in question, and a suitably selected professor whose opinion aligned with that of the CBC, all spoke out against allowing referenda because they are “divisive” (even if the community in question was mostly united, which is why they won the referendum). Presumably then, only having performative “public consultations” that take power out of citizens’ hands somehow unites people—the question is not even broached, deliberately of course. Leave alone the fact that one of the key reasons why the elite prefers consultations is that they can be ignored—just as Trudeau ignored consultations on electoral reform (see above).

To make matters worse, Régis Labeaume, the mayor of Quebec City, ironically condemned a group of citizens for “meddling” in the referendum—ironic because the mayor does not represent the town in question, Saint-Apollinaire, and his own remarks could thus constitute “meddling” in their own right. The group in question is called La Meute, which the CBC inexplicably persists in calling a “secret Facebook group”—it’s a real life group, whose members parade in the streets, and there is nothing secret about it also having a Facebook page. La Meute was accused, without any evidence supplied, of campaigning in the referendum—not a crime. Even if it had been accurate, what is the problem with citizens getting involved in discussions about matters affecting citizens, by simply sharing their opinions? Since when did this basic, routine, and totally inevitable reality become “meddling”? And why is this exceptionally puerile word, “meddling,” always advanced without any semblance of a political definition, and is always held beyond any questioning?

The refusal to respect voters’ choices is at the base of the contempt for referenda. This also ties in with the Liberals’ rejection of a Canadian referendum on alternative balloting systems. Instead, what the Liberal government opted for was a bizarre, widely derided electoral reform survey that did not mention one word about alternative balloting systems. Instead the survey designers chose to engage in pop-psychology by asking survey respondents to produce a demographic profile of themselves that would slot them into one of the following vapid categories: “Guardians, Challengers, Pragmatists, Cooperators or Innovators”. The survey, in line with Trudeau, would just assume in advance that Canadians had no interest in alternative balloting systems, and thus asked them nothing about it. The democratic reform critic for the opposition New Democratic Party offered the ruling Liberals some free advice: “The first rule of engagement the Liberals should learn is not to treat Canadians like they are stupid”.

Even more troubling is the open way in which the ruling elite tries to manufacture public disinterest in elections. The move would seem to be designed to deliberately promote apathy. Later, whenever it’s convenient, Canadians who choose not to participate in elections where their votes for the most part do not count, will be blamed for their “laziness”—adding insult to injury. Canada already has a consistent and high level of electoral non-participation, which has steadily increased over the years. It is also interesting to note the extreme degree of desperation of the power elites, so openly displaying the fact that they have given up on any pretence of legitimacy. It’s now just an open grab for power, and a suppression of dissent. This makes the ruling elite a dangerous threat, and their removal becomes imperative if one is to democratize Canada.

Democratization: How to Solve Canada’s Democracy Problem?

In “The Real World of Democracy (and Anthropology),” adapting the work of Canadian political scientist C.B. Macpherson, I essentially identified the concern with methods and procedures of democratization—balloting systems, for example—as a possibly elitist concern, one that is superficial and inadequate for understanding the structural impediments to citizens’ political participation, rooted in real problems of material inequality, compared with the excessive wealth of others that allows them to effectively “vote” thousands if not millions of times by purchasing influence, or even purchasing political candidates. This is one of the conundrums of democratization: do we first address structural inequality that has so distorted the political system in the first place, or do we create the opportunities and forms of greater political participation in advance of social change?

In response to those Canadian socialists who think proportional representation, in the end, does not matter because capitalism is allowed to continue, one can see that they are taking the position of first addressing social and economic inequality, through revolution. They usually discount the value of incremental, gradual reforms. They also see elections as being generally a safe way to preserve the status quo—even if contemporary evidence would suggest something different. On the other hand, no socialist revolution is happening, and one of the many reasons is likely to be that the revolutionaries have next to no regular political communication with the Canadian public, and generally remain unknown. A system of proportional representation would likely ensure that at least several members of the Communist Party of Canada, to name one example, would finally be seated in the House of Commons, which would likely be a stirring departure from the past. Imagine if on every issue up for debate, one consistently heard the Communist perspective—it’s simply unheard of Canada.

Therefore it seems useful to at least consider a range of tools that could promote democratization in Canada, aside from the removal from power of the current elite, and with the understanding that by themselves such tools will be insufficient for maximizing political participation and overcoming alienation. Clearly, we cannot rely on our “elected” politicians to do our thinking for us (or to even think for themselves), nor should we wait for them to discuss and decide how to foster democratization—especially when it would likely threaten their personal and party interests. In reality, the prospects for reasoned change seem less than dim, which is why it is more likely that voters, out of disgust, will eventually choose such a disastrously extreme and reckless force, whose very acquisition of power could bring about a necessary crisis in the current system and help to delegitimize and break down dominant/dominating institutions. Either that, or the weight of transformations in the international system will impel change. I suspect that most Anglophone Canadians who give it a thought are waiting for the latter to happen, while Quebecois voters are more likely to effect change themselves and their choices tend to be less predictable.

It is in that vein that I offer just a few options which, either alone or grouped together, could offer an important departure from the present. The emphasis is on tools, methods, and procedures, with all of the flaws of such an approach. They are not presented in any particular order of importance, and no option is explored in sufficient depth here.

  • Republican status: no foreign monarch as the head of state. The very office is an antithesis of democracy. We could opt either for a system where the head of state is still separate from the head of government (for example, a president appointed by the prime minister or parliament), or simply combine the two as in the case of the US and allow for direct election of the president. That Barbados (a.k.a. “Little England”) should be the revolutionary, becoming a republic while Canada languishes under the Queen of England, shows just how stuck in the status quo we have allowed ourselves to become.
  • Choosing our leaders: there should be direct elections for the person who will occupy the highest position of power in the country.
  • Recalling our leaders: one of the greatest and gravest violations of democratic principles is manifested in the recurring tendency of elected representatives who flagrantly violate the promises made when campaigning. Such delegates, whose election should be understood as a legal contract with voters, should be held to account. In a system where delegates are elected, recall votes should be institutionalized and be made available as a remedy. No representative has a right to any office, especially when it is held in contempt of the expressed will of voters.
  • Proportional representation: the tyranny of the minority, as instituted by the first past the post system, needs to be stopped. All votes should count. If three percent of Canadian voters nationwide vote for a given party, then three percent of the seats in parliament should go to that party. Anything less is a refusal to recognize voters’ choices, which is tantamount to disenfranchising voters. One of the problems with proportional representation that would need to be addressed is how to ensure that winning candidates are responsive to a local constituency. Otherwise the problem is that locales would become disenfranchised, in favour of the interests of parties.
  • No political parties: another system would involve the abolition of political parties, as narrow, hierarchical, special interest groups that usually answer to their leaders than to the broad mass of citizens. Democracy does not imply the existence of parties, nor do parties necessarily advance democracy. Parties choose their leaders, which they then place in front of voters. They do so using the unrealistic, almost sarcastic argument that, technically, all Canadians could join the party and select the party leader at the national convention. Personally, I know of no actual persons with the time, money, and energy to join and become active in every single party in Canada, in order to have a chance of picking the leaders. If parties were abolished, then proportional representation would be irrelevant. A representative should be answerable to voters alone, not to voters and a especially the party. In a system without parties, all candidates would by definition be “independents,” chosen on the basis of their ideas, their ability to listen, their track records, and their commitment—but nothing would prohibit them from forming voting blocs in an assembly, joining like-minded delegates in temporary coalitions formed around specific issues.
  • Reserved seats in parliament for key social institutions: regardless of whether parties exist or not, regardless of the balloting system, an argument could be made that all social institutions of national importance should be pre-allocated a fixed number of seats, which they can fill as they see fit. Such national social institutions would include trade unions, churches, voluntary organizations, and so forth. This is to ensure that, regardless of the politics of the moment, all key sectors in Canadian society are permanently represented in parliament.
  • Neighbourhood committees: organizing neighbours to supervise, administer, and implement particular policies that affect all of them on an immediate and everyday basis, can be an excellent way to reduce alienation, improve emotional wellbeing, increase the safety of districts, and possibly improve the daily quality of life.
  • Direct e-democracy & referenda: one of the most common excuses offered against direct democracy in Canada used to be that it was too impractical and too costly to have “a referendum every day,” at the national or provincial level. Yet, we already have electronic petitions for the House of Commons (one example discussed in the previous section). Even now, Canadians can submit their taxes online, apply for passports online, do banking online, shop online, apply for employment online, apply for a mortgage online, and so on—yet they are denied the possibility of directly voting on issues that matter to them. It would seem that the logistical argument used to deny regular popular referenda largely does not apply any longer. With direct e-democracy, citizens would not just have to wait for parliament to decide if and when and about what there would be a need for a referendum—citizens would be facilitated in fostering movements to support a particular position on an issue of their choice, through secure, publicly-controlled online fora. The role of parliament might then be restricted to discussion of how to best implement the results of a citizen-generated referendum, or to debate its legality or constitutionality (see the next point), or to produce a detailed assessment of a given measure’s budgetary impacts and decide whether a measure is fiscally feasible. The advantage of this system is that areas of political decision-making that have been largely closed off to citizens—such as debates about taxation, foreign policy, or immigration—could now be democratized and subject to popular deliberation.
  • Revisit secrecy: secrecy constitutes an old and ongoing threat to popular democracy, if anything increasing in recent years in terms of the severity of the threat that it poses. However, clearly not everything can be made public at every instant. At the very least, there needs to be broad public education and discussion about the role of secrecy in government, to be followed by a series of constitutional revisions if desired, as decided by national referenda.
  • A living constitution: the law is supposed to be a living expression of the will of the people. It certainly cannot be that when it is only the expression of a long passed people, imposed on the heads of the living. One fact of life is that citizens in our country never have a chance of deciding on the constitution that governs them. Citizens in other countries—Venezuela, for example—have instead been called upon to form local assemblies to revise and rewrite their constitution. The constitution that results is less of an alien, seemingly outmoded imposition by past generations, and by powerful minority interests within those generations. Nations change, and so should their constitutions.

On the other hand, I can see why in some cases it might be desirable to not permit public elections—for example, in the selection of judges. Where judges are appointed by elected politicians, they are usually chosen for their loyalty to a party’s interests, resulting in partisan judgments that can meet with wide public disapproval, while entrenching the power of the then ruling party. Where judges are directly elected by local constituents, this creates a dependency on fundraising, on currying favour with particular voters, and justly upholding the law becomes a secondary consideration. Judgments are made with an eye on re-election. In the case of the judiciary then, one might see how the best way to ensure its independence and loyalty to the law, would be to allow judges alone to elect new holders of judicial offices—thus officially distancing judicial selections from party politics, local power brokers, campaign fundraising, and so forth. Clearly, this would not prevent all possible external influence on the judiciary. A system similar to this already exists in academia: professors are not elected by the public, nor are they appointed by government ministers, instead they are chosen by fellow academics.

As mentioned before, none of the options above—alone or together (when logically compatible)—will guarantee deeper participation in politics by the broadest possible public and immediately end “apathy”. Beyond that, we need to debate what the ends of politics ought to be. Is politics about mobilization and activism, about making people busier or more passionate about public affairs? Or is it about ensuring that people can attain happiness with their lives, achieve good health, and gain peace of mind? (For some, apathy offers the quickest route to peace of mind.)

How do you know what is freedom? Is democracy a fact of everyday life? For most Canadians, their waking hours are primarily spent working for a boss, or a group of bosses. In actuality, all or a majority of the hours they are awake in any day, are hours devoid of any democratic exercise over their own lives, over their own work. What most Canadians experience on an everyday basis, in fact, are some of the most absolute forms of authoritarianism and paternalism ever invented. This is the famous “five second democracy,” where the quotidian reality of dictatorship is supposedly mitigated by five seconds spent every few years in casting a ballot (usually for a candidate approved and paid for by the bosses). One way to democratize production is to limit if not end the dominance of private corporations in economic life. State-run enterprises, however, are often no more democratic than private corporations—they can be “owned by workers” in name only, but they may also be essential when it comes to public utilities, critical natural resources, and providing large-scale social services. Otherwise, the most democratic production options would appear to be cooperatives, where workers both own and control production, and make all the decisions among themselves and, obviously, self-employment since it can also counter alienation in production. That we have any cooperatives in Canada is already amazing, but we need to make them a pervasive part of economic life in as many domains of production and circulation as possible.


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