When Justin Trudeau returns from his European travels, he will need to decide, and quickly, whether to prevent Quebec from losing a seat in the House of Commons.
Politically, all options are bad for the Prime Minister.
Back in 2011, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government moved to correct the problem of chronic underrepresentation in the House of Commons for the fast-growing provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. In the final version of the formula enshrined in the Fair Representation Act, Quebec was also awarded extra seats, to ensure its representation in the House fairly reflected its share of the national population.
As required by law and the Constitution, Elections Canada applied the 2011 formula for its latest calculation of the distribution of seats in Parliament. The results, released two weeks ago, show the House of Commons growing by four seats, from 338 to 342. Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario will receive additional seats. But Quebec will have one seat taken away, reducing its representation from 78 to 77.
Not surprisingly, the Bloc Québécois and the Quebec government are demanding that the province’s representation not diminish, on the grounds that its MPs have a special mandate in the House to speak for and protect Quebec’s culture and language.
The Liberal government has two options. The first is to do nothing and allow Elections Canada to proceed with redistribution by establishing electoral commissions for each province that will redraw riding boundaries based on the latest census data. That process is scheduled to begin in February.
The second option is to introduce a new redistribution formula through legislation. That formula could ensure that Quebec’s seat count does not fall below its current 78 seats, though the province’s relative weight would decline as the House expands in size.
As an alternative, the formula could guarantee that Quebec’s representation never drops below, say, 25 per cent of all seats in the House. That was a provision in the Charlottetown accord of 1992, which was defeated in a referendum.
Any legislation would need to be introduced soon, so that Elections Canada knows whether, when and how to proceed with redistribution. But moving to protect Quebec’s interests will prove contentious.
“There’s risk if he does do it and there’s risk if he doesn’t do it,” Professor Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, told me. Allowing the existing representation order to stand would anger Quebec voters, who would face a future of steadily weakening influence in Ottawa.
But moving to protect Quebec’s standing in the House would further anger Western voters who believe French Canada’s interests are protected while theirs are ignored.
This is especially true in the wake of the new cabinet announced last week, which weakened Prairie influence and emphasized the fight against climate change over oil-and-gas interests.
When asked how he would address the problem, Benjamin Forest, who researches the political representation of minorities at McGill University, said, “I would take the easy way out and add enough seats” so that Quebec once again has 78 seats in the House.
Many voters complain about sending more and more MPs to Ottawa. But Canada itself is growing, adding a million people every two or three years, mostly through immigration. The House should reflect that growth.
As well, previous federal governments at different times guaranteed smaller provinces a minimum number of seats, resulting in a House of Commons skewed in favour of rural interests. The riding of Cardigan, Prince Edward Island, has a population of just over 36,000; Cypress Hills—Grasslands in Saskatchewan has 68,000. But Vancouver East has 110,000 and the riding of Burlington, in Greater Toronto, has 121,000.
Adding more urban seats would make the House more democratic by diminishing the relative weight of the countryside, and increasing the importance of urban issues, such as transit, over rural, such as dairy supports.
Of course the best solution to Quebec’s declining demographic influence in the House would be for the province to increase its population through immigration. Instead, Premier François Legault has cut back on immigration. So long as that continues, the influence of Quebec must ultimately decline, however much politicians rejig the House of Commons to prevent it.
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