A few days ago one of my interlocutors asked, in response to one of my posts: “Is it realistic to dispute that under the current ‘first past the post’ electoral system in Canada the country is governed / controlled by the population centre in the ‘Windsor to Quebec City’ corridor? Even today the current minority Liberal Goverment only requires the support of the Bloc Québécois to govern as a majority. As the growing Canadian population gravitates to the already high density central Canada region will this distorted power base only increase? If the current minority Liberal Goverment truly speaks for all regions of Canada will the Prairies be forced to accept the unpopular ‘carbon tax’, without even discussing other, potentially more equitable alternatives? Can the current Liberal Government ever allow a pipeline to be constructed to tide water? Now that they have turned so many regions of the country against each other … [and] … Andrew Scheer won a clear majority of seats West of Winnipeg. It would appear that Canadians on the Prairies voted for the man, the policies, the party. If the current frenzy of self doubt, and a search for a new leader, within the Conservative party is the way forward is this another example of the irrelevance of the Prairie vote? The Conservative Party will continue to seek the ‘charismatic’ leader that can win in the high population region of central Canada.“
I guess that this graphic is the source of his worry. It shows that ½ of all Canadians live in a pretty tiny geographic area that stretches from Windsor to about Québec City, hugging the North shore of Lakes Erie and Ontario and the South shore of the St Lawrence River in Québec. The short answer to his first question is: Yes.
In 1832, 35 years before Canada was born, the British parliamentary system was reformed so that the old “rotten boroughs” (which allowed one Member of Parliament to represent less than 100 people) were disbanded and the principle of “one man, one vote” was enshrined into our Constitution, before we even had one. It’s in the unwritten bit that applies just as much as does the more familiar Charter because the preamble to the British North America Act of 1867 says that Canada is “One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.”
“One person, one vote” means that, in general, if half of Canadians live in that little red area then they ought to have about half the seats in the House of Commons, right? In the late 1780s our American friends didn’t quite agree, and in Article II, Section 1 of their Constitution they decreed that “one man, one vote” was not the right way to elect their president and they mandated a system that gave extra weight to voters in smaller states … which led us to the situation in 2016 where Mr Donald Trump, who received only 62,984,828 votes as opposed to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s 65,853,514 votes, was elected President because he won 304 Electoral College votes, which are the only ones that count, and she won only 227 because his vote was more “efficient” than hers ~ he won a lot of states by small margins, she won fewer, albeit bigger states but by large margins. The popular vote was close but “close,” as my friends in the Army always say, “only matters in horseshoes and hand-grenades.” Similarly, as I pointed out (first link at the very top) Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives won more of the popular vote in Canada’s 2019 election but Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won more seats but by narrow margins ~ that vote efficiency thing, again.
But, our system is far from a perfect example of “one person, one vote.” Consider these two estimable women:
Twenty-five-year old Mumilaaq Qaqqaq is the NDP MP representing Nunavut. Catherine McKenna is the (Liberal) MP who represents me here in Ottawa Centre. Ms Qaqqaq represents over 30,00 people who live in Nunavut (just over 18,00 were on the voters’ list in 2019, about half of them turned out to vote and she won with just under 4,000 votes) … but they are spread out over a whopping 2,093,190 square kilometres! Ms McKenna represents over 113,000 people in Ottawa Centre (almost 90,000 are on the voters’ list) and she won with almost 40,000 votes. But Ottawa Centre is only 35 square kilometres in area and if Ms McKenna wanted some exercise she could walk across it in a few hours ~ I know that for a fact because I have walked from near the bottom (Baseline Road) to very near the top (Laurier Ave West) and from near the West end (Island Park Drive to well past the East boundary (all the way to the Rideau River) ~ neither is too taxing for a 75+ years old man to do in less than two hours. Is it “fair” that Misses McKenna and Qaqqaq should each have one vote in our House of Commons? Well, yes … I guess. We recognize that the few people scattered across the huge rural and remote areas of Canada are entitled to representation but we also recognize that one person cannot, realistically, represent say all the people of the Yukon, the North West Territories and Nunavut and, say, Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou in Norther Québec, too. It would be unreasonable to ask one person to do that even though the populations of those four vast ridings are about equal to the population of Ottawa Centre.
But what about Prince Edward Island?
Prince Edward Island has a total population of less than 150,000, just a few thousand more than the riding of Brantford—Brant just West of Toronto. Is it “fair” that PEI gets four seats in the House of Commons while Brantford—Brant (population 132,000+) and North Okanagan—Shuswap in BC (population 121,000+) and Red Deer-Lacombe in Alberta (population 113,000+) get only one each? Fair or not, it is one of the Constitutional issues (§22 applies) that makes Canada what it is. In 1867 it was agreed that no province should have fewer MPs than it had senators and, in 1867 Ontario and Québec were allocated 24 senators each while New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, both much smaller provinces, had 12 each. In 1873 when PEI joined Confederation NB and NS both gave up two sats each and PEI was allocated four, preserving the “balance” between the large and small provinces and a new, really small province.
If we wanted to get to something like “one person, one vote” while agreeing that Nunavut (2 million+ square km) gets one MP for its 30,000+ people we would need a House of Commons with over 1,000 seats. In that situation, Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s current riding of Toronto Centre (6 square kilometres) would need to be subdivided into three tiny ridings each of about 15 by 20 square city blocks. As far as I can tell, no one in their right mind thinks Canada needs 1,000+ Members of Parliament to represent 37+ million people.
I have done something just a step or two above a “back of the envelope” calculation and I guesstimate that we need to grow the House of Commons to about 403 seats to achieve something close to balance for nine of the provinces. In my model, PEI and the three territories are still overrepresented by significant margins but I started with the principle that no province or territory should be asked to “give up” any seats (and was done in 1873) and then MB, SK and the four Atlantic provinces stayed the same while BC, AB, ON and QC all gained seats and Québec’s share of seats is just slightly higher than its share of the population:
It is a geopolitical fact that each of the cities of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa is bigger, in population than the entire province of New Brunswick and, probably, bigger than both NB and PEI combined. That the people who live in our large cities get more votes just makes democratic sense. It also makes geographic and political sense to give Nunavut one MP just because she has to represent people scattered over 2+ million square kilometres. Democracy isn’t perfect; it has to be made to fit the geopolitical realities (and history) of the people it serves.
As Canada continues to grow the main centres of growth will be (if we believe, as I do, the 20 years old prediction made by the late Profesor Michael Bliss, and the latest available data) in what Professor Bliss dubbed ‘New Canada,” Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, because that’s where most new Canadians want to go for a mix of social and economic reasons. The economic, social and political balance of Canada is changing. Saskatoon will, likely, overtake Halifax and Chilliwack, BC will surpass Chicoutimi–Jonquière, QC in terms of population before the year 2100 if Canada adopts an aggressive immigration policy. Our political structure will change with it. Calgary, Edmonton and Greater Vancouver will likely surpass Montreal in size and importance. The balance of electoral power will shift (slightly) Westwards. Right now, using Professor Bliss’ terms, ‘Old Canada‘ (QC, NB, PEI, NS and NL) has 110 seats and ‘New Canada‘ (ON, MB, SK, AB and BC and the three territories) has 228. In my proposal or something like which could (should) happen in the next 20 years, ‘Old Canada‘ would have 126 seats while ‘New Canada‘ would have 277 ~ a slight shift in balance. By the year 2100, if we have an aggressive immigration strategy, the balance will have shifted further because ‘new Canadians’ do not settle 2:1 in New vs Old Canada; they settle in New Canada at rates more like 5:1 or higher. Perhaps an aggressive immigration strategy, aiming for a population of 100 million by the year 2100, will solve my interlocutor’s problem with the apparent political isolation of the prairie provinces.