The Harper government and the opposition parties have agreed to quietly sink legislation that would have given Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta more seats in the House of Commons. As a result, urban and visible-minority voters will continue to be discriminated against in Parliament.
Conservative, Liberal and New Democratic MPs and party strategists, speaking on condition that they not be named, stated this week that the bill has no chance of passage. Although all three national parties remain committed to the principle of equal representation for all Canadians in the House of Commons, in practice, the legislation that would advance that cause has virtually no hope of becoming law.
In April, the Conservatives announced with great fanfare Bill C-12, which would add 30 seats to the House of Commons, taking it to 338 from 308, to address severe underrepresentation among Canada's fastest-growing provinces.
Under the legislation, Ontario would have received 18 new seats, British Columbia seven, and Alberta five, bringing all three provinces up to the level of representation in the House warranted by their populations.
The need for the bill was manifest in Monday's by-elections. In the exurban Toronto riding of Vaughan, 120,864 voters were entitled to cast ballots. But Winnipeg North has only 51,198 electors, making a vote in Greater Toronto worth less than half the value of a vote in Winnipeg.
Constitutional and legislative provisions heavily favour smaller provinces and rural ridings at the expense of large cities in growing provinces.
"Politicians are very aware that the people who are most underrepresented in the current electoral map are new Canadians, visible minorities, concentrated in Canada's largest cities," said Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Mowat Centre, a think tank dedicated to Ontario issues. "If political parties choose to not move forward and pass legislation to correct voting inequalities, they're doing it with their eyes open."
Sources report that the Conservative, Liberal and NDP leadership encountered strong resistance to the bill among Quebec and Maritime MPs, who correctly argued that their regions would have relatively less influence in the House. The Bloc Québécois opposed the legislation from the start.
The Liberals and Conservatives especially feared that passing the bill could harm the electoral prospects of their Quebec MPs.
Facing caucus revolts and potential electoral losses, the government shelved the bill.
Minister of State for Democratic Reform Steven Fletcher's office said the minister was not available to be interviewed. However "our government is moving forward with the Democratic Representation Act," said spokesperson Jessica Georgakopoulos. She added that "it is anticipated" that the bill will be brought forward for debate next year.
That supposition, however, is contradicted by higher officials within the government.
Liberal Democratic Reform critic Carolyn Bennett, from Toronto, said her party was not ready to support the bill "without robust consultation with the provinces."
"This is no way to run a federation," she said. "Where is the consultation? Where is the first ministers' meeting? Where is any understanding of how this country is supposed to work?"
When asked whether she was concerned about the underrepresentation of visible minorities, Dr. Bennett said it is equally important to "make the rest of Canada more inclusive for people choosing to come to Canada."
Although NDP sources said the party was split over the bill, David Christopherson, critic for Democratic Reform, predicted his party would ultimately have voted for it.
"We were prepared to support C-12," he said in an interview. "And if [the Conservatives]are not going to move on C-12, they should bloody well bring forward something that deals with this." Mr. Christopherson's seat is in Hamilton, another underrepresented Ontario city.