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

By: The Hon. Dennis Dawson

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

He said: Honourable senators, I rose in the Senate yesterday to speak in support of government Bill C-14 and, in the 24 hours since, my opinion has not changed, so I will not repeat myself. I know senators will laugh when I say “I will be brief” — I’ll do my George Baker impression — but I rise today to deliver only a few remarks as sponsor of the bill.

I want to thank my colleagues who spoke yesterday, as well as those who will continue the debate today. Several senators asked questions about the structure of Canada’s representation system. Regional representation, no doubt, is something important to many of us — that’s why we exist as a Senate — and is one of Canada’s greatest strengths as a country. I am glad to see the passionate advocacy among parliamentarians.

For my part, I will do what I can to make inquiries and raise awareness with the government about this issue. In particular, I want to mention the observations raised by Senator Simons on the lopsided representation of Canadians here in the Senate. I want to emphasize that these are important discussions that contribute to the health of Canada’s democracy. However, let me be clear: These are serious issues, but they are beyond the scope of Bill C-14.

[Translation]

In short, this adjustment, an essential part of our democracy since 1871, includes a new calculation of the number of seats allocated to each province and a readjustment of electoral boundaries in each province to accommodate demographic changes and population changes throughout the country.

(1620)

The problem is that the minimum threshold, the baseline for representation, is outdated. It has to be updated to ensure that no province will ever have fewer seats than it had in the 43rd Parliament.

[English]

What Bill C-14 does not do is institute a particular method for determining the distribution in the House. Canada has always been, in principle and in practice, a modified representation by population. That has always been enshrined in our constitutional formula. To change the formula itself and change our modified representation system would undoubtedly trigger the general amending formula. It would require resolutions here at the Senate, the other place as well as by at least seven provinces totalling 50% of the population of Canada. That, honourable senators, is a tall order.

By contrast, Bill C-14 is a carefully considered bill. It is more modest in its proposal, and it is wholly consistent with Canada’s principles and practice of modified representation by population.

[Translation]

More specifically, it proposes a modest but significant update to the 1985 grandfather clause, which is in section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and guarantees that no province will have fewer seats than it did during the 43rd Parliament. Basically, the update pins the threshold to the year 2021.

This is not the first time we have protected Canadians’ representation this way. More recently, the grandfather clause was similarly amended in the Fair Representation Act of 2011. At the time, it did not trigger the general amending formula.

I believe now, as I did then, that the proposals in Bill C-14 are minor enough and consistent with our modified representation system to need nothing more than a resolution in both houses.

[English]

Colleagues, I promised to be brief, and I hope I have been so. The sooner we can pass this bill, the sooner the Quebec commission can proceed in their work. I urge all my dear colleagues to support the passage of Bill C-14.

Thank you.

Hon. Scott Tannas: Will Senator Dawson take a question?

Senator Dawson: With pleasure.

Senator Tannas: I have been following the questions and debate on this, and I just want to be clear. Nothing in this bill favours Quebec or any other province or changes the calculation for representation by population. If we use the example of Quebec, we are setting a floor of 78 seats. Right now, the population of Quebec relative to the population of Canada is about 22.5%. But it has fallen significantly over the last four decades. If we went forward, say, four decades, and it was 20%, all we would do is take the 78 seats for Quebec at, say, 20%, and true everybody else up to make this work. Is that your understanding?

Senator Dawson: It seems that you were listening to me quite closely, senator. Yes, it is my understanding. As we did for the Maritime provinces a few years ago, it is giving a floor. When that floor is established, it means that everybody else will have to go up.

That’s what we are doing now. In the case of Quebec, we were not part of that floor, and now we will be part of the floor.

And I hope the percentage doesn’t continue going down. I wouldn’t want to be as pessimistic as you are, but, that being said, it won’t change the balance of representation in the House of Commons.

Senator Tannas: One other question, just for the record. It is my understanding that the formula talked about here does not work out exactly right for representation by population — chronically — for Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. But it does work out more or less even for Quebec, and it is the other provinces — the Maritimes, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and, obviously, the territories — that on a representation-by-population basis are slightly overrepresented. So in other words, it is correct that Quebec has not enjoyed any kind of disproportionate favour over the formula discussed yesterday, which is not part of this bill.

Senator Dawson: Senator Tannas, it is not something that is creating a different imbalance. There are imbalances — and we mentioned them yesterday — but this only gives a floor for Quebec. It does not penalize other provinces.

Senator Tannas: Thank you.

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

Senator Dawson: Yes, Senator Dasko.

Senator Dasko: Senator Dawson, I may have missed this over the past few weeks when this bill was being discussed. Can you explain why this bill did not go to committee? Thank you.

Senator Dawson: That’s beyond my pay grade.

Senator Dasko: Do you have any explanation that somebody might have offered as to why this bill didn’t go to committee in the Senate?

Senator Dawson: You could put the question to somebody who would be in authority to give an answer. I’m not in authority to give an answer to that.

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