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Globe editorial

Two reforms for the price of one Add to ...

If the federal government works harder to move toward an elected Senate, in which senators with popular mandates would really represent their provinces, that will facilitate a closer approximation to representation by population in the House of Commons. That is, it will attenuate a previously legitimate concern for trying to reflect Canada's regions in the distribution of seats in the Commons.

The increasing deviation from the representation-by-population principle has been well expounded in a paper by Andrew Sancton, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario, published this week by the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation.

The upshot is that only Quebec is proportionately represented, while the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are overrepresented, and British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario are underrepresented. As a result, moreover, of the favouring of rural over urban areas, the distribution of House of Common seats works to the disadvantage of immigrants and does not adequately express Canada's ethnic diversity.

Representation by population began to go off the rails with a constitutional amendment enacted in 1914, which says that every province has a right "to a number of members in the House of Commons not less than the number of senators by which the province is entitled to be represented." But the distortion started to be severe in the 1960s.

That 1914 amendment itself - quaintly known as "the senatorial floor" - can only be changed by the unanimous consent of all provincial legislatures, as well as Parliament, and it would be unrealistic to expect the politicians of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick to be so selflessly co-operative.

In any case, every province and territory ought to have at least one member of House of Commons; nor should any one MP have to visit constituents across an area the size of a small continent.

Professor Sancton persuasively concludes that the best way forward would be a rule that no province's share of seats should fall below the number it had in 1976.

His paper is accompanied by a note by Matthew Mendelsohn, the Mowat Centre's director, who compares Canada with four other liberal democracies in its parliamentary representation of states, provinces, etc. Canada comes out worst, and the United States best, though it is worth remembering that many of the boundaries of congressional districts within states have been scandalously twisted into bizarre shapes to favour one or other of the two major American parties.

The Harper government has promised to reform both the Senate and representation in the Commons, in more than one Speech from the Throne. If it clearly grasps and articulates the regional principle for one house and the rep-by-pop principle for the other, and the complementarity between the two, it can and should accomplish both.

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