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Fairness demands additional commons seats for Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta

By Ben Eisen
web posted June 20, 2011

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced that the number of seats in the House of Commons would be expanded through legislation, increasing the number of MPs from Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta. This legislation will help rectify an unfair allocation of seats that has disadvantaged Canada's fastest-growing provinces for many years, and it deserves the support of all Canadians.

Some politicians around the country have objected to the allocation of these new seats on the grounds that it will dilute the influence of their own province. Quebec Premier Jean Charest has been a prominent opponent of the government's plan.  Objections of this narrowly self-interested sort are disappointing, given that the government's legislation will help redress an imbalance in representation that has caused votes in some provinces to have less weight than votes in others.

For example, under the current system each MP in Saskatchewan represents approximately 75,000 residents. In each of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario each MP represents more than 124,000 residents. This is a gross violation of the "representation-by-population" principle, which holds that each province's share of the seats in the lower house should be similar to its share of the country's population. Under the current rules, a vote in Saskatchewan is worth approximately 40 per cent more than the national average, and over 50 percent more than a vote in any of the three underrepresented provinces. 

Saskatchewan is not an outlier. Residents of Manitoba and all four Atlantic provinces are significantly overrepresented in the House of Commons compared to their populations. Consider the fact that the combined populations of these provinces is almost identical to Alberta's. And yet Alberta has only 28 House of Commons seats, while these five provinces have a total of 46.

The current arrangements seem particularly unfair considering that visible minorities and new Canadians are disproportionately located in the major urban centres of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. Of course these groups are represented in all provinces, but their heavy concentration in the underrepresented provinces means visible minorities and new Canadians are particularly likely to be amongst those whose votes carry the least weight. An unintended consequence of the current system is that the votes of visible minorities and immigrants, on average, count for less than the votes of Canadians who are not members of these groups.

Canada's flagrant violations of the representation-by-population principle are anomalous by international standards. In a recent study, the Toronto-based Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation compared patterns of representation in national legislatures in five federal democratic countries. The analysts found that Canada stands out as "the worst violator of the rep-by-pop principle" in the group.  In fact, of the 113 sub-national jurisdictions examined in five countries, the Mowat researchers found that Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta ranked first, third and fifth respectively in terms of underrepresentation.

Constitutional rules, and some unique elements of the geographical distribution of Canada's population mean that perfect representation-by-population may be impossible. Prince Edward Island and the territories, for example, will probably be overrepresented for a long time due to their small populations. These sorts of small compromises are acceptable to most Canadians. However, there is no justification for the present situation that disadvantages specific provinces so severely.

A foundational principle of our democracy is that all voters should have a roughly equal influence. The current allocation of seats in the House of Commons violates this principle, disadvantaging Canada's fastest growing provinces. All Canadians benefit in the long-term from a fair system of representation that adapts to demographic change. Canadians from sea-to-sea should therefore applaud the government's decision to expand the number of parliamentary seats in Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta to more accurately reflect their populations. ESR

Ben Eisen is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.


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