New legislation changing the way the seats in the House of Commons are allocated could be introduced this week. The reported result of the changes would be more seats for Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec in order to correct the under-representation these provinces currently have in the House of Commons – or would have without the new legislation.
However, voters in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia will continue to be worth less than their counterparts on the Prairies and in Atlantic Canada.
Seat allocation in Canada is based on the idea of representation by population, giving more populous provinces more seats in the House of Commons. This is different from the situation in the Canadian Senate, for example, where the number of seats is not tied to population.
When seats were first assigned at Confederation, they were based on the population per riding that Quebec had in the Province of Canada’s pre-Confederation legislature. Though the seats given to new provinces were considered negotiable, until after the Second World War seats were generally allocated according to the per-riding population of Quebec.
Changes have since been made to the law to ensure that provinces do not have fewer seats in the House of Commons than they do in the Senate, as well as to prevent them from losing seats. For example, Prince Edward Island’s four Senate seats ensure the tiny province also has four seats in the House of Commons – despite having the population to warrant less than two.
The three provinces slated to receive the most seats with the new legislation have been, for some time, the most under-represented provinces in the country. Ontario has had a higher per-riding population than the Canadian average for more than 60 years, while British Columbia has been under-represented since shortly after the First World War. Alberta has been even worse off, being under-represented since the re-distribution of 1914.
Though the current situation gives British Columbia and Alberta some of the lowest levels of representation in their respective histories, it has been worse. In 1975, British Columbia’s average per-riding population was 17 per cent higher than the Canadian average, while in 1981 Alberta’s average per-riding population was 23 per cent higher. Based on Statistics Canada’s most recent population estimates, those percentages are now 14 and 21, respectively. The new legislation will drop that down to about 8 per cent for each province, with about 8,000 more people per riding than the Canadian average.
That British Columbia was over-represented for the first thirty years of its history as a province should come as little consolation. Every province has been both over- and under-represented at some point.
Ontario, however, is currently at its lowest level of representation in its history. At more than 126,000 people per riding based on the latest population estimates, Ontario is more than 14,000 over the Canadian average. Ontario currently has about 39 per cent of Canada’s population, but only 34 per cent of its seats.
It is in comparison to other provinces that the inequality is most apparent. While the vote of a British Columbian, Albertan, and, to a lesser extent, a Quebecker has had about the same weight as that of an Ontarian, voters in smaller provinces are given much more importance.
A Manitoban’s vote is worth 1.4 times that of an Ontarian, while the vote of a resident of Saskatchewan is worth 1.7 times. That is the highest it has ever been in Saskatchewan since its first few years as a province, while the vote of a Manitoban has never had so much weight relative to Ontario since 1886.
It is a similar situation in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Votes there have between 1.5 and 1.7 times the weight of a ballot cast in Ontario, the highest in their histories. (For some of the time before the Second World War, however, these votes were less valuable.)
The worst culprit is Prince Edward Island, where a vote there is worth 3.5 times that of an Ontarian’s. That is, again, the highest in the province’s history. For the first 50 years after Confederation, the two were about even.
Quebec will likely get two new seats to keep its proportion of the House of Commons similar to its proportion of the population: 23 per cent, based on the latest estimates.
Quebec has been, for the most part, fairly represented in the House of Commons, being within a few percentage points of the Canadian average since Confederation. As it currently stands, Quebec is a little over-represented but the proposed changes will bring it back into line. Without giving Quebec the two seats, however, the province would be under-represented again, as it was for most of its history between 1873 and 1991 (though only by a small degree).
The reported changes of the new legislation to be introduced will make things fairer. Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta will continue to be under-represented but better represented than they have been in 20 years. Quebec will have the number of seats its population warrants. Keeping the seat distributions in the Prairies and Atlantic Canada static while the other provinces grow will lower their level of over-representation. It will not prevent, however, the vote of a Prince Edward Island still being worth more than three times that of an Ontarian.
For Ontario, it will bring its representation to within two percentage points of its proportion of the country’s population, while British Columbia and Alberta will be within one percentage point. The margin has not been that close in some time, so the legislation is a step towards better representation – though the House of Commons will still be far more imbalanced than it was for most of its history.
But perfect representation may not be desirable. On the one hand, to get every province to an average of about 112,000 people per riding in a 308-seat House of Commons would mean dropping PEI to only one and forcing the three territories to share another.
On the other hand, increasing the size of the House of Commons to the PEI standard of 36,000 people per riding would mean finding room for almost 1,000 MPs on Parliament Hill.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com