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Jeffrey Simpson

The fine line between Ontario, Quebec and representation Add to ...

Canadian history did not begin at Confederation. Everyone knows this elementary fact.

Or do they? In a country where flag-waving is all the rage (see the Olympics), can we be sure that people know about Canada East (today's Quebec) and Canada West (today's Ontario), and the squabbles they had before 1867?

The two political entities were united all right, but uneasily so: Canada East, Catholic and French with a strong Protestant and British minority, and a smaller Irish minority; Canada West, Protestant and British, with Irish Catholic minorities. Both entities had the same representation in the joint assembly.

As the years went on, Canada West's population grew relative to that of Canada East. The cry gathered momentum in Canada West for "representation by population," a cry resisted in Canada East. There, the political arrangement between the two involved equality of status for French and English; Catholic and Protestant, whereas in Canada West the gap between its growing population and that of Canada East became intolerable.

Confederation, read in one way, attempted to get the two from each other's hair by devolving power to Canada East and Canada West, so they could control things in their own territory regardless of population. It was disengagement in some areas, while retaining engagement in others.

History never repeats, but patterns sometimes do, which is why what the Harper government proposes today has long historical antecedents.

Population is growing much faster in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia than elsewhere. By any reading of "representation by population," they deserve more seats in the House of Commons. Atlantic Canadians might bemoan this demographic fact, but their provinces are already overrepresented in the Commons through arrangements made decades ago.

But by the Canada East, now Quebec, standard of analysis, Canada is a union of "peoples" or "nations," within which one, francophone Quebec, should not lose ground.

A few years ago, when the Harper Conservatives were courting Quebec - before the disappointments of the last election and the betrayals from the Charest government - they tried to walk a fine line between the aspirations of the growing provinces for more and the disinclination of Quebec to accept relatively less.

The Conservatives therefore presented a formula for Commons representation that was a tortured compromise. The operative minister of the day, Peter Van Loan, an Ontario minister, turned himself into a pretzel trying to explain a proposal whereby Alberta and B.C. would get what they deserved, whereas Ontario would not.

Ontario was upset. So was Quebec, since gain anywhere else at its expense was unacceptable. The Quebec National Assembly passed one of its unanimous motions defending Quebec's interests by deploring the Harper plan.

Alas for Quebec, it had a weak case. Redistribution of the Commons had already been delayed. Population is, roughly speaking, the rule of thumb in lower houses in democratic countries. As long as Quebec chooses to stay in Canada, it has to accept representation by population. Even if it ever decided to leave Canada, an independent Quebec would be denied equality of representation on any joint board with a larger, more powerful rest of Canada.

If the Conservatives had made any progress in Quebec, perhaps they might have tried to stick with the indefensible Van Loan formula. But the formula's own lack of logic, coupled with the party's disappointment in Quebec, has changed the formula to the one now on offer that would give Alberta five new seats, B.C. seven and Ontario 18. The number of Commons seats will rise to 338 from 308, but Quebec's will remain at 75.

Quebec for the past six elections has chosen to marginalize itself from Canadian politics by electing the Bloc Québécois MPs in the majority. The result has substantially reduced Quebec's weight in Canadian governments. Quebeckers are obviously content with this form of association without responsibility, but that choice is theirs, about which the rest of Canada can do little but get on with business.

The new seats are in provinces where the Conservatives dominate (Alberta) or do well (B.C. and Ontario). If the Conservatives can do better in the new ridings of urban B.C. and Ontario - and they are making inroads in the ethnic communities in both areas - redistribution will push them closer to majority government territory.

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