The Perversity of the Canadian House of Commons

Obviously there are many many things which make the Canadian House of Commons perverse.  But I want to focus on one of the most common myths about the Canadian House of Commons and dispell it for once and for all.

We’re all taught in schools that the the House of Commons is based on population (which is patently false!).

This is false on two levels:

Level #1

Here’s the current breakdown of the House of Commons:

Province

MPs

ON

106

QC

75

BC

36

AB

28

MB

14

SK

14

NS

11

NB

10

NL

7

PE

4

NT

1

YT

1

NU

1

So what’s the matter with this picture?  Well lets try this:  let’s distribute the seats in the house purely by population and see how it would look if what we’re taught in schools was actually true.  Just to make it easier, we’ll put the current seat distribution right next to it.

Province

pop.

% of pop.

Actual

 

Current

ON

12,686,952

38.9%

119

 

106

QC

7,651,531

23.5%

72

 

75

BC

4,310,452

13.2%

40

 

36

AB

3,375,763

10.3%

32

 

28

MB

1,177,765

3.6%

11

 

14

SK

985,386

3.0%

9

 

14

NS

934,405

2.9%

9

 

11

NB

749,168

2.3%

7

 

10

NL

509,677

1.6%

5

 

7

PE

138,519

0.4%

1

 

4

NT

41,861

0.1%

1

 

1

YT

31,229

0.1%

1

 

1

NU

30,782

0.1%

1

 

1

Totals:

32,623,490

100.0%

308

 

308

See the difference?

If we go by fairness and we still want PEI to have 4 seats, then the House of Commons would have to have 825 MPs and Ontario would have 320 of them (instead of 106)!  But PEI isn’t the only province horribly over-represented in the House.   Saskatchewan is horribly over-represented, as is Nova Scotia and over half of the other provinces too.

Why is this the case?  Well, in all their wisdom, the Fathers of Confederation decided that the constitution should specify in it the minimum number of seats each province should be entitled to.  To make matters worse, Pierre Trudeau later went on to increase this minimum number of so-called “Grandfather Clause” seats.  So now, regardless of how few people live in PEI, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and the other smaller provinces, they can’t get fewer than a certain number of seats.  For instance, PEI can’t get fewer than 4 seats, New Brunswick can’t go below 10, Nova Scotia can’t get fewer than 11, Saskatchewan (which has almost exactly the same population as Nova Scotia) can’t get lower than 14 seats.  Quebec can’t get fewer than 75 seats and Newfoundland can’t go below 7. 

 Level #2

Okay, so we know that a Prince Edward Islander’s vote is worth 4 Ontarians’ votes, but that’s the extent of the perversity…. right?  Well, I’m still writing so obviously there’s something else.

Within the United States and virtually any other developed country, there are laws in place so that when geographical ridings are drawn within a state or province, they must be distrubted equally so that each riding has roughly the same number of people in it.  There’s no such law in Canada.

Case and point:

Number of people living in the Ontario riding of Kenora:  approx. 66,000

Number of people living in the Ontario riding of Davenport:  approx. 111,700

That’s right, one Davenport voter (like my cousin Rob) is only worth 1/2 of a Kenoran.  Like I said, in virtually any other country on the planet, intentionally drawing boundaries in such a fashion is illegal.  But even in the very few other countries that do allow a disparity in this sense (like England) even they don’t allow a nearly 50% population differential to happen.

My proposal

Firstly, pass a law saying that each riding has to have approximately the same number of people in it (+/- 5%).  

Secondly, either a) amend the constitution to remove grandfather and Senatorial clauses altogether (and then, to make-up for the loss in seats by the smaller provinces, make the Senate more equally-distributed).  Or b) greatly increase the number of members of the House of Commons so that the grandfather clause effect is much much less.  This option would have the added benefit of making smaller ridings with MPs closer to the district than they currently are. 

Here’s what the House would look like if we increased the number of MPs to 400 both with and without the current grandfather seats.

Province

No Grandfather

With grandfather

ON

155

152

QC

94

92

BC

53

52

AB

41

40

MB

14

15

SK

12

14

NS

11

11

NB

9

10

NL

6

7

PE

2

4

NT

1

1

YT

1

1

NU

1

1

Totals:

400

400

Either option is better than what we currently have.  But more importantly, then we could actually teach kids that we have a fair and equal House of Commons where everybody’s vote matters approximately the same amount.

———————————————————————————————————

Follow-up:  For further discussion on this topic and more commentary, see the following post:

What to do with the House of Commons?

3 Responses to “The Perversity of the Canadian House of Commons”


  1. 1 The Jurist 22 December, 2006 at 10:28 pm

    Note that the question of what types of variation actually violate equal voting rights has been considered by the Supreme Court of Canada in a case based on Saskatchewan’s provincial electoral boundaries. Per McLachlin J. (as she then was) for the majority:

    “In the final analysis, the values and principles animating a free and democratic society are arguably best served by a definition that places effective representation at the heart of the right to vote. The concerns which Dickson C.J. in Oakes associated with a free and democratic society — respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, commitment to social justice and equality, respect for cultural and group identity, and faith in social and political institutions which enhance the participation of individuals in society — are better met by an electoral system that focuses on effective representation than by one that focuses on mathematical parity. Respect for individual dignity and social equality mandate that citizen’s (sic) votes not be unduly debased or diluted. But the need to recognize cultural and group identity and to enhance the participation of individuals in the electoral process and society requires that other concerns also be accommodated.”

    Based on the allowances for other factors, the majority held that variations of 47% from one urban riding to the one adjacent to it could be justified:

    “(T)he evidence supplied by the province is sufficient to justify the existing electoral boundaries. In general, the discrepancies between urban and rural ridings is small, no more than one might expect given the greater difficulties associated with representing rural ridings. And discrepancies between particular ridings appear to be justified on the basis of factors such as geography, community interests and population growth patterns. It was not seriously suggested that the northern boundaries are inappropriate, given the sparse population and the difficulty of communication in the area. I conclude that a violation of s. 3 of the Charter has not been established.”

    It’s certainly fair to argue that a system based more on population parity would be more fair, and that any education about Canada’s electoral system should acknowledge that different factors besides population are taken into account. But from a legal standpoint at least, there’s binding precedent to the effect that explained variations in population among electoral districts don’t infringe against individual voting rights.

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