Tag Archives: Canadian politics

Canada at the Polls 2019: A New Mandate?

With the Canadian federal election coming up in October, our forthcoming political science title is certainly well-timed. Set to publish this August, Absent Mandate develops the crucial concept of policy mandates – distinguished from other interpretations of election outcomes – and addresses the disconnect between election issues and government actions. In this post, the authors discuss the upcoming election: what we can expect to see? Has anything really changed since elections back in 1965? And are Canadian electoral politics now following a new, or even unfamiliar, path?


By Harold D. Clarke, Jane Jenson, Lawrence LeDuc, and Jon H. Pammett

The 2019 federal election will soon be upon us. The period leading up to the vote has seen the current government lagging in the polls, but there has also been no clarity as to the public’s preference for the alternatives. Negative campaigning is already well underway, and polls reveal a considerable amount of public discontent with the political process in general. Big issues, like environmental protection, the energy supply, the state of the economy, and national unity are the subjects of media commentary. The party leaders have been unveiling policy announcements keyed to their forthcoming campaigns, and trying to showcase their strengths at dealing with today’s problems.

Does anything in these patterns suggest that Canadian electoral politics is following a new road or even an unfamiliar path? Not really, as we show in our new book, Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections.

This book has its roots in several previous books bearing similar titles that we published more than twenty years ago. Those books addressed two key questions that have always engaged students of elections and voting, namely “how do voters decide?” and “what decides elections?” The national election studies since 1965 that have provided the data for our analyses consistently reveal that Canadian voters hold flexible partisan attachments, that election campaigns are often volatile, that the bases of party support are weak and unstable over time, and that public discontent with politics and politicians is high. We documented these patterns since then, as have numerous other scholars.

The Absent Mandate books, however, introduced a third question that was less common than those associated with voting behaviour and election outcomes. That question – “what do elections decide?” – spoke to the linkages between elections and public policy, thus addressing one of the key issues of democratic governance and its normative foundations. If the electoral process, as it generally unfolds in Canadian federal politics, does not produce a mandate for the subsequent direction of public policy, then what can we reasonably expect elections to accomplish beyond a rearrangement of the actors?

The third of the Absent Mandate volumes, published in 1996 and subtitled Canadian Electoral Politics in an Era of Restructuring, concluded that despite all of the political and economic changes that had taken place in the federation during the first half of the 1990s, there were substantial continuities with the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, including the absence of policy mandates. Among those continuities was the widespread feeling that parties could not be trusted to offer real choices among policy alternatives in elections. Indeed, by the 1990s, all parties had accepted the broad outlines of a neoliberal policy agenda. They framed policy discussions around issues on which there was substantial agreement, and focused their campaigns on the attributes of the party leaders, promising better performance in government as they shaped their appeals to the electorate.

Indeed, a two-way process of learning was underway throughout these decades, sustaining what we have labelled the brokerage mould. Parties had learned that their electoral coalitions are fragile creations that require constant renewal, and voters had learned that elections are vehicles for the expression of discontent with few consequences for substantive policy change. The electoral system has also played a role in this process because it limits the choices available to voters to the candidates in a single constituency. Turnout in federal elections began a steep decline in 1993, partly for these reasons but also reflecting generational changes.

The first two decades of the twenty-first century saw many changes – in the party system, in styles of leadership, in the social and economic issues confronting Canada, and in the technology of election campaigns, to mention only a few. The reunification of the Conservative party under the leadership of Stephen Harper in 2003 ended a period of party fragmentation on the right and positioned the Conservatives to return to power with a minority government in 2006. Harper seemed to be a different type of conservative – coming from the West, more ideologically driven, and (according to some) harbouring a “hidden agenda.” Yet, even under a leader such as Harper, electoral politics continued to operate within a brokerage mould. The Harper years, including a majority government in 2011, failed to deliver the type of sea change in federal politics that many had expected. Following the Conservatives’ defeat in the 2015 federal election by the resurgent Liberals led by Justin Trudeau, an observer could easily conclude that the political landscape looked increasingly familiar. The “two-and-a-half” federal party system, long described as the norm in older Canadian political science textbooks, seemed to have reappeared. Indeed, a simple macro comparison between the year of the first Canadian Election Study and the 2015 outcome documents remarkable similarities.

Party vote percentages, 2015 and 1965
2015 1965
Liberal 39.5% 40.2%
Conservative 31.9% 32.4%
NDP 19.7% 17.9%
Other 9.1% 9.5%

Of course, some things are different. Election campaigns, building on new technologies and social media, can increasingly channel the negative feelings of voters, as “attack ads” have become a staple of partisan politics. Yet leaders, and their strengths and weaknesses, remain the focus of much political debate, and parties’ issue agendas are limited to performance appeals such as “growing the economy” or “sustaining health care.” Such valence issues are ones on which there is widespread consensus, and political debate focuses on “how to do the job” and who is most capable of doing it. More specific policy commitments are sometimes offered, but these tend to be small programs targeted to specific groups and co-exist well within the framework of a broad neoliberal policy consensus. All of the parties participate in political marketing utilizing the new technologies available. But these strategies appear remarkably similar to those associated with the brokerage mould that had characterized the earlier periods. If there was a “shift to the right” as some had forecast with the rise of Harper, multiple parties appear to have participated in varying degrees in a movement in that direction. For example, it is telling that all of the current parties support the recently negotiated USMCA, the successor agreement to NAFTA. As we began to write Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections, we were more struck by the continuities that existed in the shape and style of Canadian electoral politics than by the many changes that had taken place over the past two decades.

Now, with a federal election only a few months away, would we venture to make predictions, based on over 50 years of data and four books on this subject? We know enough about the fundamental elements of Canadian politics to realize that election outcomes are inherently unpredictable. Nonetheless, we can readily predict some things. The forthcoming campaign will be a volatile one. This will be because flexible partisan attachments coupled with widespread discontent facilitate, indeed foster, substantial movement by voters between the parties or movement into or out of the electorate. In each of the last two federal elections (2011 and 2015) there was considerable volatility in the polls over the last few weeks of the campaign. We would also expect to see parties concentrating on one or more valence issues such as the government’s economic performance and environmental protection, as well as efforts to highlight the attributes of party leaders and the shortcomings of their opponents. And given these entrenched characteristics of Canadian electoral politics, we can also predict that any meaningful policy mandate emanating from such a campaign will continue to be absent.


Want to learn more from Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections?

  • Pre-order your copy of the book.
  • Read an exclusive chapter.
  • Email us at requests@utorontopress.com to request exam or desk copies of this or any other UTP title. Please be sure to include the course name and number, start date, and estimated enrollment.

Harold D. Clarke is the Ashbel Smith Professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Jane Jenson is a professor emerita in the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal.

Lawrence LeDuc is a professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Jon H. Pammett is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.

Beneath the Surface: Finding Common Ground in Canada’s Most Distinctive Province

To the outside world, Quebec is Canada’s most distinctive province. To many Canadians, it has sometimes seemed the most troublesome. But, over the last quarter century, quietly but steadily, it has wrestled successfully with two of the West’s most daunting challenges: protecting national values in the face of mass immigration and striking a proper balance between economic efficiency and a sound social safety net.

In this post, Robert Calderisi, author of Quebec in a Global Light, and former director of The World Bank, discusses some of the issues that face Quebec, and why these challenges should be analysed in a wider, global context. 


Books about politics and society can be timely and revealing, but they can also be complicated, as current affairs do not always stay current. Quebec in a Global Light discusses trends and challenges that transcend the day-to-day, but – like all findings – they need to sifted through the sands of new developments. A good example is the remarkable progress made since the 1970s in protecting the French language. Some would prefer that an extra half percentage point of people be fluent in French, but 94.5 percent of Quebeckers can already conduct a conversation in the language. Diehards can worry more about decimals than decades. How will the next census affect their thinking?

Since the book was first written, some details – including the political party in power – have changed but the most important conclusions remain intact. Even under a conservative government, Quebec is the only social democracy in North America. Employment, growth, and investment are still strong. The province continues to reduce its notorious debt burden; in fact, Quebec now has a better credit rating than Ontario. The gap between rich and poor is the lowest on the planet – except for Scandinavia, which is an admirable set of countries to be lagging behind. And Quebec has set a very positive example in flighting climate change.

But one big thing has changed. Apparently out of the blue, Quebec has once again puzzled outsiders by its decision to ban the wearing of religious symbols by certain government employees. Even under a highly divisive US President, none of the other fifty-nine jurisdictions in North America has talked about doing that. And the hospitality and common sense of Quebeckers is being seriously questioned.

Yet Quebeckers have evolved profoundly over the last thirty years. In 1982, a number of Haitian taxi drivers in Montreal were fired because some white clients refused to ride with them. As a result, the Quebec Human Rights Commission held its first-ever public hearings. Many people today – including many Quebeckers – will find that hard to believe, not because racism has been magically exorcised from their society but rather because Quebec has become so diverse that differences of one kind or another – especially in Montreal – have become almost the norm. A third of Montreal’s taxi drivers are now Haitian and the city has the highest proportion of immigrants in that job (84 percent) in all of Canada.

In a society which some regard as under siege, most people are comfortable with diversity. According to a 2015 Quebec Human Rights Commission survey, Quebeckers had positive attitudes to the handicapped (92 percent), people of colour (88 percent), homosexuals (84 percent), citizens of other ethnic origins (76 percent), and followers of other religions (68 percent). This openness to others is sometimes attributed to the dominant role of women and feminine values in the society. Others see centuries of intermarriage and contact with Quebec’s First Peoples as the source of such community and consensus.

On the surface, other provinces have an even greater challenge making newcomers feel at home. While almost 40 percent of Montreal’s population were born in another country or to parents who immigrated to Canada, that number is much higher in Toronto (76 percent) and Vancouver (68 percent). But absorbing such a large number of people in Quebec, which is so determined to protect its language and culture, is particularly difficult.

Despite the proposed law, the common sense and humanity of Quebeckers remain obvious. In Montreal, teachers and students have surrounded schools in human chains promising to disobey the law. The city council has passed a rare unanimous resolution opposing the legislation. The two authors of the original idea that such symbols should be banned – the philosopher Charles Taylor and the sociologist Gérard Bouchard – have both come out against the bill. Behind closed doors, the governing party itself was highly divided on the subject. And the second largest opposition party (Québec Solidaire) has revised its own policy in the opposite direction. Instead of backing a compromise, they have now decided that any legislation on personal dress is a violation of individual freedom and an invitation to more general discrimination against minorities. It is just possible that the legislation will collapse under its own contradictions. No one has been able to explain how it will be enforced and no penalties are proposed under the law. In the meantime, the history of the issue – set out in Quebec in a Global Light – remains as relevant as ever.


If you want to find out more about Quebec in a Global Light, click here to view the table of contents and read an exclusive excerpt from the book.


Robert Calderisi was a Quebec Rhodes Scholar and is a former director of The World Bank. He is the author of The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working (2006) and Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development (2013). He splits the year between Montreal, New York, and Paris.

The Politics of Policymaking in Canada

The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada, written by Alex Marland and Jared J. Wesley, is a concise primer on the inner workings of government in Canada. As former public servants themselves, these authors know the difficulties in understanding how modern government operates, and how hard it can be to find your place within it. In this post, Jared J. Wesley discusses his own experience of working as a public servant, and how The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada came to fruition.


The longest day of my public servant career featured a layover in the Regina airport.  At a national meeting of government executives, I had spent the better part of the afternoon advising a provincial government minister against appearing before a House of Commons parliamentary committee to support a piece of federal legislation.  “Think of the profile it would give us,” he told his political chief of staff.  “And think of the road trip,” replied the staffer.  “With respect,” I interrupted, “it’s not customary for provincial ministers to testify in parliamentary hearings.  In fact,” I frantically consulted my notes, “Alberta has only sent one minister before a federal committee in the past twenty years.  And you’d need approval from the Premier’s Office.” “We’re anything but customary,” I could read on the minister’s face. “It actually lowers your status,” I went on.  “You should engage your federal counterparts on a government to government basis.  It preserves your authority – your government’s authority – as opposed to being treated like just another federal stakeholder.”

The last line felt almost rehearsed; I had written a briefing note on it just a day before.  I was told to stand down, as the minister placed a call to the Premier’s Office.  I placed a call of my own, to my executive director.  Within a few hours, the Ottawa trip had been shelved.  I found that out while sitting in the Regina airport, listening to the minister tell insensitive jokes to his staff within earshot of a dozen other travellers.  I tried my best to ignore it, and pretended to be on my phone to avoid eye contact. The situation worsened when we arrived back in Calgary to find that our connecting flight to Edmonton had been canceled due to a blizzard.  While I was on my blackberry booking a hotel for the night, the minister grabbed my phone.  He told me that taxpayers wouldn’t stand for it, and ushered me into a waiting minivan he’d rented.  Over the course of the five-hour, stormy, midnight drive, he regaled us with even more offensive commentary, mostly directed at his political opponents.  I arrived home in time to change clothes for work.  I didn’t tell anyone the story until the minister left office years later, and even then, concealed his name and framed it as a cautionary tale.

At the time, I had spent my entire adult life studying politics. I’d written a few books and a few more journal articles about party politics and policymaking. But none of it had prepared me for the day-to-day interactions like those just described. While they may not have the privilege of working directly with elected officials, new public servants confront similar knowledge gaps in their first weeks on the job. If they are like me, they quickly realize that government is more complex, yet somehow more informal, than their textbooks and professors described. While useful, theories of democracy, frameworks of public administration, and historical knowledge fit uneasily with the fast-paced, evolving nature of public service in Canada. Core concepts like accountability take on entirely new meanings. Beyond the public sector bargain that dictates you must provide “fearless advice and loyal implementation,” bureaucrats realize they have multiple responsibilities, are accountable to a whole host of people, and are subject to a wide range of forces seldom covered in assigned readings and seminar discussions. Relationships with elected officials, supervisors, deputy ministers, colleagues in other organizations, friends and family, and the general public are all at play in a public servant’s work. Fortunately, ethical dilemmas like the ones I encountered are few and far between. Yet navigating these various modes of accountability can be challenging nonetheless.

As former public servants, Alex Marland and I know this first-hand.  Learning new subject matter can be difficult enough when you join a new department or unit.  On-the-job training seldom covers the “small-p politics” involved in public service work, leaving you to read between the lines on various organization charts to figure out where you fit into the broader government structure.  This can be vexing for interns and new public servants, and even some long-time bureaucrats lack a firm understanding of how government actually works.  That is why we wrote The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada.

At around 100 pages, it is a short, practical primer about how modern government operates. The book offers an insider’s perspective on how public service sits at the nexus of theory and practice, politics and professionalism. It is written in an accessible style suitable for anyone seeking to learn more about the Canadian system of government. The book contains a summary of core concepts about government and working in the public service. In it, we explain the linkages between politics, public administration, and public policy, dispelling many myths about how public servants should remain a-political in their day-to-day work. For new or would-be public servants, the Guide offers advice about life in public administration – what to expect and what to do to reach your full potential. We have included tips from bureaucratic colleagues for improving your performance and carving your career path.

The Guide wouldn’t have provided letter-for-letter advice on how to deal with the minister in the Regina airport, or on that snowy ride home to Edmonton.  But it would have given me a better sense of my own role in the situation.  If you are looking for a concise overview about government in Canada, and your place within it, The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada is written for you.


If you want to find out more about The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada, click here to view the table of contents and read an exclusive excerpt from the book.


Jared J. Wesley is a pracademic—a practicing political scientist and former public servant—whose career path to the University of Alberta’s Department of Political Science has included senior management positions in provincial public services. While in the bureaucracy, he gained valuable experience in the development of public policy and intergovernmental strategy. He also served as Director of Learning and Development, establishing policies and curriculum to train provincial public servants. As an Associate Professor of Political Science, he studies and teaches the politics of bureaucracy and the bureaucracy of politics.

Alex Marland is a professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John’s and a former public servant in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Alex’s interest in the practical side of governance is grounded in his discreet research interviews with politicians, political staff, and public servants. His book Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (UBC Press 2016) won the Donner Prize for Best Public Policy Book by a Canadian.

Thinking Government

Author David Johnson introduces the fourth edition of his bestselling public administration textbook, Thinking Government, and explains how a knowledge of the federal government and its public service is necessary for understanding current political, social, and economic issues.

Who says Canadian politics and government is boring? As we enter 2017, the federal Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has a lot on its plate: promoting the development of oil pipelines to the United States and to the Pacific tidewater all the while seeking to meet Canada’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a way to address global climate change; trying to kick-start a sluggish economy through infrastructure spending and corresponding deficit-financing while also working to show fiscal prudence; and trying to improve the quality of Canadian healthcare programming while keeping costs down, patients content, and provincial premiers not up in arms. Throw in a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, initiatives to legalize marijuana, electoral reform, a new Canadian peacekeeping mission to Africa, the purchase of new military jets and ships, and you get the picture.

But there’s more. There’s always more. The American presidential election last November just made Prime Minister Trudeau’s life a whole lot more difficult. Rather than having to deal with a more ideological soul-mate in Hillary Clinton, Trudeau now has to work with Donald Trump. We can’t help but wonder what those meetings will be like. Does the new American President know that over a billion dollars in trade goods moves across the Canadian-American border every day? He’ll soon find out, with Trudeau and his diplomats working to educate the President and his White House staff on the importance of the Canadian-American relationship.

And closer to home our prime minister has simmering problems of his own making. The Cash-for-Access issue has the potential to become a running sore for his government if he doesn’t take corrective action. Once again, a Liberal government is facing pointed questions about how ethical and accountable it is for its method of raising party finances and its policy-making function.

Thinking GovernmentSo there couldn’t be a better time for the arrival of the fourth edition of Thinking Government: Public Administration and Politics in Canada. This book, now a staple in public administration and public sector management courses across this country, has been fully revised and updated to take account of the demise of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in 2015 and the rise to power of Justin Trudeau and his team. In the election of that year, Trudeau repeatedly said that “in Canada, better is always possible.” We now get to assess how well he and his government can match campaign rhetoric with policy reality.

All the core attributes that made Thinking Government the “go-to book” on Canadian public administration have been preserved in this latest edition. The introduction and the first chapter set the stage for what’s to come, giving readers a compelling look at the major social and economic issues that all federal governments are called upon to deal with as they strive to govern this country well. The second chapter takes readers into the world of ideas and ideologies and how they shape the way leaders, governments, and we as citizens think about power and politics and policies, and what the role of governments should be in this society. If anyone ever questioned the worth of studying ideology as a means to understanding governmental behaviour, the Harper years drove home the truth that all leaders and governments are ideological and they seek power to achieve ideological ends. After nine years of conservative rule we are back to a liberally-minded government. But how liberal will Trudeau be? Thinking Government poses some questions and offers yardsticks by which we can measure this.

Central chapters in the book provide deep background to the structures of the federal government and its public service and the power relations between elected ministers and senior public servants. The fundamentals of organizational theory are covered in Chapter 5 while individual chapters give students in-depth coverage of both financial and human relations management. Latter chapters address issues dealing with on-going concerns about management reform, ethics, accountability, and the nature and quality of political and governmental leadership.

The Thinking Government website contains loads of additional information and material for each chapter. You’ll find relevant historical analysis, case studies, extension pieces, study questions, quizzes, and downloadable extras. The website has been thoroughly updated and refreshed by Alana Lawrence and she has made sure that it’s relevant, approachable, and student-friendly.

We will both be providing regular blog posts dealing with the life and times of the federal government, while also issuing Strategic Reports on federal politics every four months or so. Alana is also the Thinking Government website’s resident New Professional and she will be providing a wealth of information and insight on everything from New Professionalism theory and institutional initiatives to advice on landing that first public sector job and launching your career.

We hope you enjoy reading Thinking Government and experiencing the website and our blog posts. You are the reason all of this exists and we wish you well as you get into thinking government.

David Johnson is Professor of Political Science at Cape Breton University and author of Thinking Government, Fourth Edition.

Alana Lawrence is a graduate of Cape Breton University and provided updates to the Thinking Government, Fourth Edition website.

Teaching Canadian Politics: Reflections on Student Interest and Course Feedback

Andrea Lawlor, Department of Political Science, King’s University College, Western University and Erin Crandall, Department of Politics, Acadia University

Courses on Canadian politics are not always the first pick for university students interested in political science. It may be that American politics, with its sensational headlines, or the pluralistic and conflict-driven nature of international politics, attract students as they become more aware of their own place in the world. But there are important reasons why students can benefit from an understanding of the political institutions, processes, and people that make up the Canadian regime. As professors who teach Canadian politics, our goal is not only to educate our students about these topics, but also to show them why Canadian politics matters, particularly as it applies to their own roles as citizens and residents of Canada. And while there are undoubtedly many different paths to this goal, it is helpful to reflect on what works, what doesn’t, and why. With that in mind, we’d like to briefly share our own experiences teaching introductory Canadian politics, as well as the results of a student survey we ran at the beginning and end of our courses.

Canadian Regime 6e

Though we teach at different universities (King’s University College at Western University and Acadia University), the similarities between our courses—second-year, small class size, over a full year—and our shared interest in teaching Canadian politics, prompted us to collaborate on our course design for the 2015-16 academic year. We used the same texts, The Canadian Regime and Canadian Politics (from University of Toronto Press), and also collaborated on the design of two in-class simulations.

Discussing how we might retool our existing courses to energize the learning environment, we decided to eliminate both term-end exams in favour of smaller quizzes throughout the year to give students a more consistent barometer of how they were performing in the class. We also added a practicum component—in our case, two two-week simulations of the Canadian political environment to help students put what they learned into practice and to work on both their written and verbal communication skills.

BICKERTON-GAGNON_CP

In order to better understand students’ knowledge and interest in Canadian politics, we designed a two-part survey for students to comment on their existing familiarity with the subject matter and their preferred modes of learning.* Our goal here was to measure how our students felt about the study of politics (Canadian and otherwise), their study habits, and what they wanted out of a second-year course in Canadian politics. The endline quiz also measured what they thought of the course components. Of course, we can hardly generalize from the changes we observe in our limited data, but the results, descriptive though they may be, were encouraging.

Starting with students’ interest in and knowledge of Canadian politics, we observed that both increased from the start of term in September to the completion of the course in April. We measured their increase in knowledge in two ways: how knowledgeable they believed themselves to be (self-reporting) and how well they were able to answer a battery of questions about material related to Canadian politics. Over 95% of students reported that they felt very or somewhat knowledgeable in April, compared with only 34% the previous September. We also saw a slight increase in the number of questions answered correctly in a short quiz on Canadian politics embedded in both surveys.

While the increase in self-reported Canadian political knowledge may simply signal that (a) we’re doing our jobs and (b) students are doing theirs, we take heart at the self-reported increase in interest in Canadian politics (from 43% in September to 76% in April). These results are particularly encouraging if we consider that, in September, 78% of students reported taking the class because it was required for their degree (compared with only 67% who reported taking the course because it sounded interesting and 25% who reported feeling guilty about knowing little about Canadian politics).

CdnPols_Knowledge of Canadian Politics

CdnPols_Reasons for Taking Canadian Politics

CdnPols_Interest in Canadian PoliticsWe also sought to measure whether participation in the course may have encouraged civic participation—namely voting (though voting is far from the only mode of civic participation discussed in our classes). We know from Elections Canada’s statistics on voting in the 2015 federal election that participation amongst voters aged 18 to 24 increased an impressive 18.3 percentage points to 57.1% (from 38.8% in 2011). This national uptick was even more apparent in our classes where nearly 95% of eligible students voted (33% of those surveyed were international students and therefore not eligible to vote and 5% had not reached the voting age by the time of the election).

Regarding the teaching tools used in the course, over 80% of students rated The Canadian Regime and Canadian Politics as useful. We selected these texts because we believe that they balance coverage of key concepts, issues and institutions, with their brevity and easy-to-read style. Because the course was redesigned with these texts in mind, we were pleased to find that 83% of students reported that they enjoyed the topics selected for study.

The most significant change to our courses was the institution of the two-week simulations. We think that these simulations in particular proved to be an engaging and effective learning tool. In the first semester, we ran a model Canadian Parliament, which had students divided into federal political parties. Each party was responsible for researching and drafting a bill that they would then introduce and attempt to pass through the model House of Commons. Students had to tackle the legislative process in a minority government situation, requiring them to apply the rules of responsible government that they had learned earlier in the semester, while also navigating the more partisan challenges of coalition building and political negotiation.

The second simulation was a First Ministers’ Conference, which had the students divided between federal and provincial governments, and the Assembly of First Nations. The conference was convened for the purpose of drafting a new health care accord, but governments were assigned competing objectives and varying budgets to simulate the political and fiscal challenges that governments face when working on major social policy initiatives. Here students were tasked with researching and completing policy briefs for their government, while again navigating the unique challenges associated with political negotiation. While students’ enthusiasm for these simulations was fairly evident in class, this was confirmed in the year-end survey where nearly 94% of students who responded reported that they were a useful, hands-on activity.

Undertaking these surveys at the beginning and end of our courses proved a helpful tool to better understand students’ interest, knowledge, and approaches to studying Canadian politics and provided us with a better, subject-specific barometer of students’ goals and opinions than standard teaching evaluations. While the survey confirmed our impression that students often begin Canadian politics courses with a relatively limited interest in the topic, it also showed that a course that provides modes of learning outside of the general evaluation metrics can help to increase student interest. In particular, the popularity of the simulations suggest that interactive class activities may contribute to stimulating this interest and we plan to continue to use simulations in lieu of exams in our courses going forward.

Ultimately, there are many different ways for instructors to reflect on the successes and failures of each course they teach. A pre-/post-survey is one such method, and has particular utility when trying out new pedagogical techniques. Our own findings helped us triangulate the courses’ strengths and areas for improvement through gauging students’ preferences, behaviours, and outcomes at two different time points. The results are helping us improve our approaches to teaching and our students’ learning experiences in Canadian politics.

__________
*We collaborated with Erin Tolley (University of Toronto, Mississauga) in the design of the two-part survey.