Fast-growing suburbs in Ontario and British Columbia are losing some of their promised new voices in Ottawa as the Harper government adjusts the plan to alter the regional balance of seats in the Commons.
The new formula for adding electoral districts in the most populous areas of the country may reflect more up-to-date population data. But it also appears to respond to Quebec's complaints about the previous redistribution plan, which was introduced but failed to pass during the previous minority government, while giving more clout to the Prime Minister's home province of Alberta.
Government sources report that in legislation soon to be introduced by Tim Uppal, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Ontario’s seat count will increase by 13 from its current allotment of 106. This is down from the 18 seats it was to have received in the previous legislation.
British Columbia would receive five seats, down from its original allotment of seven. Alberta would increase its count by six, which is up from its original five. Quebec would receive two seats, to keep its representation in the House from dropping below its 23-per-cent share of the population.
With its delayed and altered seat-distribution bill, the Conservative government appears to be struggling with how to reward the growing and more dynamic areas of the country without alienating Quebeckers. The tensions thus produced could escalate if Quebec fails to win one of two enormous shipbuilding contracts that could be announced as early as Wednesday.
The final numbers could still change, as the Conservative government seeks to balance the principle of representation by population with complaints that the House of Commons hardly needs more politicians. The bill could be officially unveiled next week.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty acknowledged Tuesday that his province might end up with fewer new seats in the altered bill. The difference, he said, would be tied to figures from Statistics Canada that show that the population of the province has declined.
“I think in fairness we’ve got to wait for the feds to come forward with a specific proposal, with a bill and with some reliable data from Stats Canada so that we can then make an assessment as to whether or not Ontario is being treated fairly,” Mr. McGuinty told reporters.
“Here’s the good news: There’s a broad consensus on Parliament Hill that we are being shortchanged as, by the way, is B.C. and Alberta. We need to address that.”
John Les, parliamentary secretary to B.C. Premier Christy Clark, told reporters in Victoria the redistribution is good news for B.C. “In one go, we get five more seats,” he said Tuesday. “The majority of the provinces are standing still, we are gaining. And that’s only right. Because our population is growing disproportionately to the rest of Canada. … I’m pleased the federal government is finally recognizing that.”
Mr. McGuinty said that he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper discussed the issue privately last Friday, after an event at the airport in Peterborough.
Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta are all seriously underrepresented in the current House of Commons. Constitutional and legislative guarantees ensure that the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan cannot be stripped of seats, leaving them with seat counts higher than their current populations warrant.
As a result, large urban centres have ridings with populations several times those of ridings found in places such as Prince Edward Island.
To bring the House closer to meeting the principle of representation by population, a bill introduced by the Conservatives in the last Parliament would have grown the House of Commons by 30 seats.
But that formula would have seen Quebec, with 23 per cent of Canada’s population, reduced to having 22 per cent of the seats in the Commons, which prompted fierce protests from Quebec politicians. NDP MP Dave Christopherson said Tuesday the House had already recognized the Québécois as a nation within Canada and that the province’s interests had to be taken into account.
A formula proposed by the Mowat Centre, an Ontario think tank, would have redressed the problem by giving Quebec four additional seats. But the new formula being proposed by the Conservatives would appear to give Quebec its proper representation – while minimizing the increase in the number of MPs overall by paring back the increases of the two largest provinces in English Canada.
With a file from Justine Hunter