Forcing Choice

The Risky Reward of Referendums

Forcing Choice

Forcing Choice, by focusing on Canadian experience of citizens answering Yes or No to ballot questions on major policies, offers a realistic account of the risks and rewards of “direct democracy” as practised in our own country.

Unlike much other Canadian writing on referendums and the alleged “lessons” from foreign countries, Patrick Boyer draws on the reality of our own use of thousands of ballot questions at the national, provincial, territorial, First Nations, and municipal levels, experience stretching from before Confederation to the present day.

His approach is balanced. The former MP sees referendums as one instrument among many in Canada’s democratic toolbox, having a limited yet highly valuable function when exercised. Forcing Choice documents the rewards if used skillfully, the risks if conducted under poorly crafted laws by inexperienced leaders.

Placing ballot questions in their historical context, this book further demonstrates how referendums are integral to Canadian political democracy, and how they play an unrivalled role in formation of public policy – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Prince Edward Islanders voted in 2016 on changing the electoral system, British Columbians will do likewise in November 2018, and New Brunswickers after that.

Boyer exposes Canada’s troubles with the constitutional fiction of “electoral mandates” – especially when reinterpreted after an election by those winning power to mean something different than they promised when campaigning for votes. In such a context of weakening political legitimacy and parliamentary functions, direct votes by citizens on transcending issues may be part of a new path forward, offering a precise process for deciding a specific policy when that is needed.

This book refutes critics who allege that referendums create divisions, over-simplify issues, stir emotions, and are beyond the knowledge of people to understand. “By that standard,” Boyer says, “we should have abolished elections long ago.” Unlike the complexity of a general election, answering a single ballot question after weeks of education through focused debate on pros and cons “is like an open-book exam when you already know the question.”

In Forcing Choice Boyer draws on his decades of his engagement with democratic practices to make constructive suggestions about essential ingredients in referendum laws (such as umbrella committees and spending rules), the proper distance for political leaders to keep from the campaign, and the benefit of more Canadian jurisdictions following British Columbia’s lead by empowering citizens to initiate ballot questions themselves.

The author’s experience with referendums across Canada and around the world from Ukraine to Thailand includes drafting referendum laws, introducing and debating referendum bills in Parliament when an MP, writing three prior books on Canadian referendum law and practice, advising provincial and federal governments on referendum procedures, leading teams of monitors for foreign referendums, and campaigning on Canadian ballot questions for constitutional and electoral change.


“Patrick Boyer is without doubt the doyen of referendum scholars in Canada. No other Canadian has written so much and so thoughtfully on this subject. His work shows that referendums are woven into the fabric of our democratic life. Unlike so many critics of referendums, Boyer sees them not as an alternative to parliamentary democracy but as complementing parliamentary government.” — Professor Peter Russell, University of Toronto, 2017

“In Canada no one has given quite so much thought to that now-popular democratic instrument as former MP Patrick Boyer, who has written about referendums for a half century". — Jim Coyle, Toronto Star, 2016

“Patrick Boyer has earned a reputation as one of the most thoughtful members of the House of Commons.” — Maclean’s, 1992

“How Patrick Boyer finds the time and energy to be an active parliamentarian, an amateur historian, and a political theorist all at once escapes my understanding, but I am glad he does so.” — Patrick Watson, CBC broadcaster and author of The Struggle for Democracy, 1992

“Mr. Boyer has been carrying on his campaign to modernize our political system at a time when most of his colleagues, their consultants, and large chunks of our academic and media communities, were still imprisoned by the orthodoxies of the old politics.” — Professor Michael Bliss, University of Toronto, 1992

“Patrick Boyer is Canada’s resident expert on referendums and plebiscites. — John Godfrey,Financial Post, 1988

“Canadians involved in the working of democracy — and many beyond Canada — have reason to be grateful to Mr. Boyer.” — Professor David Butler, Oxford University, 1982


Publisher: Dundurn, 2017
Canadian politics, referendums, public policy, role of citizens
$24.99, Canada and U.S.A.
Paperback, 383 pages, 6 x 9 inches
Foreword by Peter Russell, index, bibliography, appendix recording all federal, provincial, and territorial referendums in Canada


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