Second reading of Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (electoral representation)

By: The Hon. Dennis Dawson

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Parliament, Ottawa

Hon. Dennis Dawson moved second reading of Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (electoral representation).

He said: Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise in the chamber to speak in support of this government bill, Bill C-14, the Preserving Provincial Representation in the House of Commons Act. This bill will ensure that no province has fewer seats in the House of Commons than it did in 2021.

As we all know, our Constitution requires that representation in the House of Commons be readjusted every 10 years. This includes reviewing the number of seats allocated to each province and the electoral boundaries to reflect the changing demographics of our country.

Over the past 10 years, Canada’s population has grown by more than 3.5 million, from just over 33 million in 2011 to nearly 37 million today.

[English]

This growth in population has not been equally distributed across provinces, and it is essential that all citizens be factored into Canada’s federal electoral districts. I would like to take this opportunity to first talk to you about how provincial seats are allocated.

To begin, this process requires the Chief Electoral Officer to calculate the number of seats allocated to each province, using the population estimates provided by Statistics Canada. The calculation itself is a mathematical formula, prescribed in the Constitution Act of 1867, that follows a simple, four-step process and does not allow discretion on the part of the Chief Electoral Officer.

[Translation]

The first step in the formula is the initial allocation of seats to the provinces, which is obtained by dividing the population of each province by the electoral quotient.

The electoral quotient is obtained by multiplying the quotient of the last decennial redistribution, which was 111,166 electors per riding, by the average of the population growth rates of the 10 provinces over the last 10 years, or 9.65%.

The 2021 electoral quotient is 121,891. This number roughly corresponds to the average riding size across the provinces.

[English]

Second, there is the application of the Senate Clause and the Grandfather Clause, which set floors and ensure that each province has no fewer seats than it does in the Senate and no fewer seats than it had in 1985, respectively. These clauses continue to ensure that smaller provinces and those with declining populations continue to be well represented in the House of Commons.

[Translation]

The third step in the formula is the application of the representation rule, which ensures that a province whose population was overrepresented in the House of Commons relative to its share of the national population at the completion of the previous redistribution process remains overrepresented at the next redistribution process.

Once the special clauses and the representation rule are applied, the number of seats in each province is then determined.

[English]

Finally, three seats are allocated to the territories: one each for the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. This final step provides the total number of seats in the House.

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On October 15, 2021, the Chief Electoral Officer published the results of this calculation and announced that the new House of Commons seat allocation by province for the 2022 to 2032 decennial would increase the size of the House from 338 to 342 seats. While the new allocation provides the addition of one seat for British Columbia, three seats for Alberta and one seat for Ontario to reflect their faster growing population, it would also see a reduction of one seat for the province of Quebec. This loss of one seat for Quebec is concerning, which is why the government introduced Bill C-14, the “Preserving Provincial Representation in the House of Commons Act.”

[Translation]

Bill C-14 would amend section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which is about the readjustment of representation in the House of Commons. More specifically, it would ensure that Quebec keeps the seat it would have lost.

However, and this is very important, we must also keep all existing protections and allow for incremental seat increases in provinces with growing populations.

[English]

This means that the gains previously mentioned for British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario will obviously be kept under Bill C-14. Thus, the proposed approach strikes, in my view, an appropriate balance between ensuring effective regional representation and providing for representation by population as it has evolved in Canada. For better clarity on how to achieve this, Bill C-14 is proposing to update the existing grandfather clause found in Rule 2 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to ensure that no provinces are allocated fewer seats than what they had in 2021 during the Forty-third Parliament.

[Translation]

It would establish a new floor of seats in the House of Commons for all provinces and ensure that Quebec would continue to have at least 78 seats in the next electoral redistribution.

Given that no change is being made to the other steps in the seat distribution formula, its calculation and objectives remain the same: Provinces with a small or slow-growing population are protected, and Bill C-14 allows for incremental seat increases among provinces with growing populations.

If this bill is passed, the number of seats for the 2022 to 2032 decennial will be 343 rather than 342, and Quebec will keep 78 seats instead of losing one.

However, as many of you know, the redistribution of federal electoral districts is already under way, since the Chief Electoral Officer announced the new distribution of seats in October 2021. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to also speak about the readjustment of electoral boundaries that is currently under way and how it relates to Bill C-14.

[English]

As is required by the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, 10 independent, non-partisan electoral boundary commissions — 1 for each province — were established on November 1, 2021. It is important to mention that the independence and non-partisan nature of these commissions are by design. This independence serves to limit political interference in the process and maintain integrity and transparency in our democratic system and institutions.

With the release of the final 2021 census data on February 9, 2022, the commission began their review of the boundaries. This review is given a period of 10 months, wherein the commissions will hold public hearings open to the Canadian public, including members of Parliament, and will culminate in one report from each commission. Once the commissions have completed their reports on the new electoral districts, they will be sent to the Speaker of the House through the Chief Electoral Officer.

These reports will be tabled and referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for study, and members of the House will have the opportunity to file written objections.

[Translation]

Once the study is complete, the reports will be returned to the commissions. Within 30 days of receiving the reports, which can contain objections and recommendations, each commission must decide whether to modify the boundaries or district names before submitting its final report. At that point, the Chief Electoral Officer will draft a representation order that describes the electoral districts established by the commissions and submit it to the relevant minister. Finally, the representation order will be proclaimed by the Governor in Council and published in the Canada Gazette.

Bill C-14 contains essential transitional measures so that this critical work can be done without interruption or political interference, while ensuring that the new distribution enables Quebec to keep its 78 seats.

[English]

First, once Bill C-14 comes into force, it will require the Chief Electoral Officer to recalculate the number of seats allocated to each province. As we have previously established, this would not change the number of seats of any other province but Quebec, and will allow the work done by those provincial commissions to go uninterrupted. However, for the Quebec commission, Bill C-14 will require that the process for the review of electoral boundaries restart under the new calculations provided by the Chief Electoral Officer.

[Translation]

That way, the Quebec commission will have time to do its work and will have a new time frame of 10 months to reconsider its boundary proposal based on the grandfather clause, as updated in 2021.

Since Quebec would be the only province affected by the passage of Bill C-14, that means that a new boundary proposal and separate representation order will be prepared, as required, for Quebec only.

In closing, Bill C-14 makes a minor change to the Constitution that would increase the seat floor and guarantee that no province is allocated fewer seats than in 2021. By so doing, the bill strikes the right balance for ensuring both strong regional representation and representation by population. The bill also sets out essential transitional measures to allow the commissions to work uninterrupted while also ensuring that Quebec keeps the same number of seats during the next electoral redistribution.

Thank you, honourable senators.

Hon. Julie Miville-Dechêne: Would Senator Dawson take a question?

Senator Dawson: Certainly.

Senator Miville-Dechêne: Senator Dawson, I want to thank you for sponsoring both this bill and Bill C-11. It must be a lot of work for you.

My question may be a thorny one. As a Quebecer, I will vote in favour of this bill. Everyone in Quebec agrees that it must not lose any seats. However, as someone who studied political science, I am particularly interested in the issue of representation and the somewhat equal number of constituents represented by one member of Parliament. Obviously, I know that Canada’s system isn’t perfect and that MPs from remote areas already represent fewer constituents than MPs from big cities.

Nevertheless, this bill would set a seat floor for provinces with the slowest-growing populations. Are you uncomfortable with this compromise — since this is essentially a compromise on the principles of representation — or, rather, would you say that a number of compromises have already been made in the past? I’m thinking of other provinces that have fewer constituents per MP.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, since I’ve been pondering these matters of principle myself.

Senator Dawson: Thank you for your question, senator.

I myself studied political science at Laval University and the University of Ottawa, and I agree with you about the inherent problems with representation. However, the bill has nothing to do with that kind of representation at all. That is not what this bill is about. It is about representation among the provinces and a grandfather clause to preserve 78 seats, similar to the one we created to protect the Maritime provinces a few years ago.

We could certainly debate this and even get deeper into issues of future electoral reform, but unfortunately this bill does not give me the latitude to address that.

[English]

Hon. Donna Dasko: Would Senator Dawson take another question?

Senator Dawson: Yes, madam.

Senator Dasko: Thank you. Senator Dawson, listening to your presentation, I think I heard one mention of the principle of representation by population. I wonder whether that principle is becoming eroded more and more. My province of Ontario is under-represented in terms of seats. If I do the math on the total number of seats that you have, 343, the province of Ontario should be getting 137 seats out of this, given that we have 40% of the population.

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But how many seats are we actually getting under this? Is it 122? We currently have 121. If you do the math and add 1, it’s 122. To me, that shows clearly that there is not representation by population. Perhaps we’re moving even further away from this principle, and I worry about that.

We in the Senate know that we are unequally — or some might say unfairly — represented. Ontario only has 24 seats; it should have something like 42, proportionally speaking, but it doesn’t. But that’s the Senate; the House of Commons is supposed to employ representation by population.

Are you worried that we are moving further away from the principle as we go forward in time? Thank you.

Senator Dawson: As I mentioned to your colleague, I totally agree. I think this issue should be looked into. One of the reasons there is a commission is so that we don’t get into political constraints of having parliamentarians from each province fundamentally wanting to defend their rights. But when we talk about grandfathering the Maritimes and Quebec, it means there is an inherent imbalance in the system.

That being said, there is certainly a lot of room to have a debate on the issue. Unfortunately, this is not the issue that is being debated here today. We do not interfere in the process of determination. What we are doing is determining that there is minimum representation, as we did many times in the past when we grandfathered Prince Edward Island with the four senators and when we grandfathered the Maritimes in 2010 or 2011.

This is a subject that deserves to be debated, but I think that is not the objective of the bill. One of the reasons they drafted it as simply as they could is that if we want to get into that debate, we all know that reform of Parliament will take a bit longer than reform of one more seat for Quebec.

Senator Dasko: Will you take a supplementary question, senator?

Senator Dawson: Yes, Senator Dasko.

Senator Dasko: Thank you, senator. I understand the grandfathering. As you articulated, there are principles of grandfathering in the bill and in the way we distribute seats. However, the solution to grandfathering would be to increase the size of the House of Commons such that we could accommodate fairly the provinces that are larger and that are not fairly represented. Those provinces would be Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. That would be the solution if we’re truly moving toward — or if we had — a representation-by-population system. That is what we would be doing. I wonder if you could comment on that.

Senator Dawson: I think the Speaker pro tempore could tell you, having served in the other place, that this debate occurs every time we talk about the electoral map and its challenges.

Sometimes I repeat myself. When I arrived here 45 years ago this month, there were 285 seats. If we had grown Parliament at the same rate that Canada grew, we would probably have 375 seats. However, one of the decisions that was taken was that if you try to moderate, the distinction between the bigger provinces and the smaller provinces would only grow. Again, it is not the objective of the bill, but I would certainly support any motion in that respect. However, we don’t play that game. They’re playing it over there.

If the elected parliamentarians wanted to change the electoral system for their chamber, I would let them do it, and I would hope they will let us do the same when we want to reform things here.

Hon. Paula Simons: Would the senator accept another question?

Senator Dawson: Yes.

Senator Simons: Inspired by Senator Dasko’s question, I wanted to ask you this: Albertans have a bad habit of nurturing a sense of grievance, growing it like a hothouse flower. However, in this instance, our concerns are legitimate. British Columbia and Alberta are two of the fastest-growing provinces in Confederation; British Columbia has a little more than 5 million people, Alberta a little less than 5 million people. Each of these provinces gets only six Senate seats, which is interesting when you consider the smaller provinces in Atlantic Canada, which have so many more seats than Alberta and British Columbia.

When I see something like this, I certainly don’t begrudge my fellow Canadians in Quebec their concerns about representation, but I am concerned that the continual grandfathering of the smaller provinces will perpetuate not only the inequalities that Senator Dasko mentioned but the even more acute inequalities, one might argue, of British Columbia and Alberta — which are continuing to grow, and will never reasonably expect proper representation in the Senate and need the House as their only opportunity to have their voices heard equally.

Senator Dawson: That is a good comment and quite justified, but this is not the forum for me to debate it in relation to Bill C-14. To be frank, I do believe, having served in the other place, that it is the right forum to debate the issue. They should debate it; I agree with you. I tried to go back and I wasn’t welcome, so I came here instead.

Hon. Senators: Oh, oh!

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