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(PAUL DARROW/Reuters)
(PAUL DARROW/Reuters)

Unequal votes threatening Canadian democracy, study finds Add to ...

The votes that Canadians cast in federal elections are more unequal than at any time in the country's history. The House of Commons is more unrepresentative than other federations in the developed world.

In the Throne Speech, the Conservative government promised legislation to address the under-representation of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta in the House of Commons. It can't come too soon.

“The situation as it now stands is seriously undermining the principle that all citizens should have an equal say in choosing their government,” concludes a report by the Mowat Centre, a think tank dedicated to issues concerning Ontario.

A copy of the report, which is to be released Tuesday, was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Not only is the current makeup of the House of Commons undemocratic, the report maintains, it has “the unintended effect of undermining the voting power and equality rights of minorities and newcomers to the country.”

The effort to give smaller and rural parts of the country a voice in the House of Commons – they will remain overrepresented even after the proposed rebalancing – has muffled Canada's growing multicultural reality. Without legislative change, Parliament will increasingly speak for a Canada that no longer exists.







A founding principle of the Canadian Constitution is Representation by Population, or rep-by-pop, which holds that every citizen's vote should have equal weight.

In practice, Canadians have accepted that some parts of the country should be entitled to representation above what their numbers warrant – that, for example, each of the territories should be represented by a Member of Parliament, despite their slender populations.

But constitutional provisions and various promises and laws have skewed the House to the point where Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta are seriously underrepresented in the House of Commons. Quebec is appropriately represented, and all other provinces are overrepresented, some egregiously.

How bad is the skew? The average riding in Alberta is now three times the size of the average riding in PEI.

Comparing Canada to other first-world countries with a federal system of government reveals that Canada's House of Commons is less representative than the U.S. House of Representatives and of the comparable legislatures in Germany, Australia or Switzerland.

And the Mowat Centre's analysis revealed that the House is more unrepresentative now than at any other time since Confederation.

“The relative weight of a single vote … has never been more unequal among the provinces,” concluded Andrew Sancton, a political scientist who analyzed rep-by-pop historically for the Mowat Centre.

According to the study, if Ontario was properly represented in the House, it would have 117 seats, rather than the current 106. British Columbia would increase from 36 to 40, while Alberta would have 31 rather than 28.

A spokesperson for Steven Fletcher, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, could not say when the government intends to introduce legislation to rebalance the House. But in principle, the Liberals are inclined to support the bill.

“We recognize there needs to be better representation of the three provinces,” said Marlene Jennings, critic for Democratic Reform. “We'll look at it with an open mind.”

NDP Leader Jack Layton would not commit his party to supporting the legislation. He said Sunday that the NDP preferred to see a package that also tackled Senate reform and electing members through proportional representation, “rather than tinkering around the edges.”

Politically, rebalancing the House is a potential nightmare. Increasing the size of the House contradicts the Tory mantra of supporting smaller government. But reducing the number of seats to lessen the skew would provoke howls from provinces that lost seats.

And giving Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta the seats their populations warrant would lessen the relative influence of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Atlantic Canada, whose populations are stagnant or in decline.

“In some ways, Canada is becoming lopsided,” observes Henry Srebrnick, a political scientist at University of Prince Edward Island. Ideally, he says, reform of the House should be accompanied by Senate reform, making the upper house an effective voice for the regions.

Still, he favours giving Ontario, B.C. and Alberta more seats, even though the relative influence of Atlantic Canada would decline, simply because “it's the right thing to do.”

Because of the rural/regional skew, the House of Commons has a disproportionate number of MPs from parts of the country where there are few visible minorities, at the expense of the growing and ever-more-diverse major cities.

“No one intended that to happen, but that is the result,” says Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Mowat Centre. “We need to confront that result and ask if it needs addressing, and I think it does.”

Full rep-by-pop in the House is impossible. Because Prince Edward Island is guaranteed four seats under the Constitution, the House would have to grow to 890 members to eliminate that province's present electoral advantage.

But by lessening the distortions, our House would reflect the dynamic, diverse, urban nation that Canada has become and is still becoming. It would make our government more like us. And it would force political parties that wanted to form governments into becoming more like us, too.

“The quality and nature of the debate would change,” Mr. Mendelsohn believes. “Would it improve? I think it would.”

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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