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The Globe and Mail

Quebec denounces, Western premiers praise plan to enlarge House of Commons

Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises in the House of Commons after his government was defeated on a Liberal contempt of Parliament motion in Ottawa, Friday March 25, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Harper government's plan to enlarge the House of Commons has touched a raw nerve with Jean Charest's Quebec government, even as Western premiers praise the idea.

With Quebec marginalized within the federal Conservative caucus, and with the Quebec government also vowing to take the Conservatives' plans for Senate reform to the Supreme Court, the risk is increasing of French Canada becoming more estranged both from Ottawa and from provinces to its west.

The premiers are reacting to news that the Conservative government plans to introduce legislation this fall to increase the number of MPs from Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, so that their growing populations are properly reflected in the House of Commons. Previous similar legislation foundered on opposition from Quebec and from MPs representing Atlantic Canada and rural constituencies, whose influence would diminish.

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Enough of that, said Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach on Thursday.

"Our representation should reflect the size of our growing population – just as it should in any province," he said in a statement. "To not allow this is to tell Albertans they are not equal to other Canadian voters."

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark echoed the sentiment in a letter she sent to Mr. Harper Thursday.

"I am pleased to see that you and your government intend to move this initiative forward in order that the new seats are in place for the 2015 election," she wrote. The B.C. NDP supports the government's position.

But the new legislation could see Quebec's share of the total seats in the House of Commons drop below its current level of 24 per cent, which is slightly above the 23 per cent that is province's share of the national population.

"We are opposed to any decrease in Quebec's weight in federal institutions including the House of Commons," Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Pierre Moreau told The Globe and Mail Thursday night.

He noted that the proposed reforms follow on others that include electing senators to fixed terms. The province has warned that it could challenge the constitutionality of the proposed Senate reform before the Supreme Court.

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Mr. Moreau said Premier Jean Charest recently reiterated Quebec's position to Prime Minister Harper and was baffled by Ottawa's insistence on moving to revamp Parliament against Quebec's will.

The new legislation is expected to increase the size of the House from 308 to something like 338 members, with Ontario receiving 17 extra seats, B.C. seven and Alberta five, or thereabouts.

Veteran NDP MP Joe Comartin argued that any redistribution must ensure that Quebec receives a minimum 25 per cent of the seats in that House, its traditional share. The NDP is now the dominant party in Quebec at the federal level.

"We are going to push them to be as flexible as possible on that," he told the CBC. This would probably mean also giving Quebec more seats, something the Conservatives are said to be considering.

Some critics maintain taxpayers shouldn't be asked to pay for more MPs. But constitutional and legislative guarantees make it virtually impossible to strip provinces of seats they already have.

Mr. Stelmach criticized those who would "try to derail [the legislation]through the cost argument.

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"That does not wash for me," he said. "Representation by population is a fundamental right for all Canadians."

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