By JOHN COURTNEY
Thursday, March 14, 2002
Statistics Canada handed Parliament a hot potato this week. It is not the first of its kind. Similar potatoes have been tossed to MPs every decade since Confederation with the release of each census of Canada's population. But those of the past were smaller and less heated than this one.
The 2001 census confirms a postwar demographic trend. There is an increasing population gap between the three fastest-growing provinces -- Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia -- and the remaining seven. This has the potential to spark an explosive debate over the number of MPs for each province.
Provinces, voters, and parliamentarians may soon be pitted against one another as they push their own solution to parliamentary representation.
At its core, the issue of parliamentary representation seems disarmingly innocuous: To how many MPs is each province entitled? The decennial census provides us with the raw data needed to answer that question. Simply by determining where the population shifts have taken place over the previous 10 years, Parliament could reallocate the seats among the provinces in a straightforward fashion.
Unfortunately, parliamentary representation in Canada has never been that easily or cleanly resolved.
Since the 1870s, members of Parliament have made a fine art of crafting responses every 10 years to the population shifts of the previous decade. The cumulative effect of a long series of politically charged, but invariably shortsighted, reactions has been to violate the notion of relatively equal constituency populations across the country as a whole.
Two principles -- one constitutional, the other statutory -- lie at the root of the problem. A 1915 constitutional amendment guarantees that no province will have fewer MPs than it has Senators. A second guarantee, added through legislation in 1985, ensures a minimum "floor" for all provinces, based on the number of Commons seats they had at that time.
These two principles, known respectively as the "senatorial" and the "grandfather" clauses, will be applied to the boundary readjustment about to get under way. Their effect is to make the Commons larger than it would otherwise be. Nine additional seats result from the senatorial floor, and 18 from the grandfather guarantee.
Close to 10 per cent of the 308 members will owe their presence in the next Commons to one or the other of these guarantees.
The two clauses create winners and losers among the provinces and voters. The most familiar provincial beneficiary since the adoption of the 1915 constitutional amendment has been Prince Edward Island. Instead of sending one MP to Ottawa (to which its population would entitle it), voters in the province send four.
Increasingly, other provinces have played catchup with PEI. The guarantees have saved their parliamentary numbers, even as their share of Canada's total population has continued to slip. The 2001 population data show, for example, that Saskatchewan will elect 14 MPs instead of the nine to which it would otherwise be entitled, and that Quebec will now have seven more members than its population warrants.
The three fastest-growing provinces -- Ontario, Alberta, and B.C. -- are the big losers. Their growth continues to outpace the national average and neither of the two guarantees is of any use to them. Although it was announced yesterday that all three provinces will gain seats (three, two and two respectively), the existing floors still effectively discriminate against them as their seat entitlement on a per capita basis remains well below that of the other provinces. Therein lies the root of a potentially explosive issue.
A comparison of the constituency size across the country shows how widely varying the riding population figures are. They range from 33,825 in Prince Edward Island to an average of 107,478 in the three largest provinces. Seat size in the remaining provinces varies between 69,924 and 96,500.
The question of the "value" of one person's vote to that of another prompts a few simple comparisons. The votes of Canadians who live in the slow-growth provinces are clearly worth more than those who do not. The range in per seat populations means that it will take three times the number of voters in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario to elect an MP as in PEI, half again as many in Alberta as in neighbouring Saskatchewan, and close to 50 per cent more in Ontario than New Brunswick.
Two hurdles stand in the way of change. First, assuming the political will to do so (which is absent at the moment), the 1915 senatorial floor could be modified or abandoned. Entrenched in the Constitution, this provision can be changed only with the unanimous approval of all 10 legislatures and both houses of Parliament. Do not wager the farm on this possibility. It is not on.
Second, as statutory law, the 1985 grandfather clause could be amended by Parliament. However, the political risks of tampering even modestly with a province's current level of parliamentary representation are great.
The issue has considerable potential to aggravate voters, MPs, and governments in seven provinces, none more than Quebec. For the first time in Quebec's history, its share of House of Commons seats will fall to barely 24 per cent of the total -- and that is with its seven "grandfather" seats.
Our best hope for reform is for concerned voters in the growth provinces to take the initiative and, through a Charter challenge, throw the whole issue of parliamentary representation into the courts.
If they do, the judges might just be persuaded to step into an area where MPs have feared to tread and order that seats in the Commons be allotted more in accordance with each province's share of the total Canadian population.
John Courtney is a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan. His most recent book is Commissioned Ridings: Designing Canada's Electoral Districts.