Early this month the House of Commons voted in favour of a Bloc Québécois motion that, in the words of Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet, rejected “any scenario for redrawing the federal electoral map that would result in Quebec losing one or more electoral districts or that would reduce Quebec’s political weight in the House of Commons.” The Bloc, the NDP and the Greens all voted unanimously for the motion, as did the Liberals apart from Toronto MP John McKay.
The Conservative caucus was largely divided by region: the yea votes came overwhelmingly from MPs representing constituencies in Laurentian Canada while the nays came mostly from the West. Prominent among the eastern yeas were former leader Erin O’Toole, along with all ten Quebec MPs. Leslyn Lewis, an Ontario MP and candidate in the current leadership race, voted no. But even in the West, no fewer than ten Conservatives – led by interim leader Candice Bergen – supported the motion. Front-running leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre (an Ottawa MP) and past leader Andrew Scheer (from Saskatchewan) skipped the vote.
Blanchet’s motion did not compel the government to act, which effectively made it symbolic. Or should have. The government certainly appeared to feel compelled. The new Supply and Confidence Agreement announced on Tuesday between the federal Liberals and NDP – effectively creating a leftist coalition government – explicitly backs the motion’s intent. It declares that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh “commit to ensuring that Quebec’s number of seats in the House of Commons remains constant.” That suggested something more than symbolism. Sure enough, the day before yesterday the Liberals tabled Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (electoral representation), to, as the National Post euphemistically put it, “protect Quebec’s voice in Parliament.” If passed into law, it would prevent Quebec from ever losing any seats.
What is the significance of these moves? To understand, we need to look at the history of redistribution of Parliamentary seats. The black-letter law version is found in s. 51 of the Constitution Act (1867) where the redistribution “process” is an administrative exercise. It begins after each decennial census (currently every second census) in order to produce a seat-distribution in the House of Commons that reflects a decade of changes and movements in the Canadian population. The current process began in October 2021 and is expected to be completed in September 2023. The earliest the new electoral map will come into effect is sometime around April Fool’s Day, 2024.
The general purpose of redistribution, as with “redistricting” in the U.S., is to ensure that every Canadian constituency has approximately the same population. Under such an electoral system, a vote in PEI is about equal in significance to a vote in Alberta. The most obvious way to achieve this goal is to divide the population of Canada by the number of seats in the House of Commons, and then build every constituency around that number, so that each Member represent a constituency with about the same number of people. (Constituencies can vary greatly in physical size, of course.)
This objective is acknowledged in the federal legislation dealing with redistribution. It is called the “electoral quotient,” quotient being a mathematical term that describes the result of dividing one quantity (such as the population of Canada) by another (such as the number of seats in the House of Commons). Following the previous decennial census, the electoral quotient was 111,166. Canada’s population has grown over the past decade so that today the electoral quotient is 121,891. In the 2011 Fair Representation Act, the electoral quotient was said to reflect the principle of “democratic representation of the Canadian people.” As we will see, it is not the only principle governing Canadian electoral laws.
Nevertheless, representation by population, or “rep-by-pop” to give this principle a more familiar name, is fundamental for liberal democracy because it institutionalizes the idea that all citizens should have an equal vote. Voter equality means there are no second-class citizens. If the seats in the House of Commons were divided this way, Quebec would receive 71 Members under the new distribution, reflecting Quebec’s census population of 8,604,495 ÷ 121,891 = 70.59, which is always rounded up.
Instead, Quebec wants 79 seats.
Rep-by-Pop Versus So-Called Sectional Equality
“Rep-by-pop” was a source of great controversy during pre-Confederation Canada. It arose in 1841 during debates over the Act of Union, which unified the colonies of Lower and Upper Canada (now Quebec and Ontario, respectively) under a single government, the parts of which were renamed Canada East and Canada West. At issue was whether the two sections of “Laurentian” Canada would have the same number of representatives in a single legislative assembly despite the population of Lower Canada/Canada East being 18 percent greater than that of Upper Canada/Canada West. If this occurred, the population disparity would provide considerable over-representation for English-speaking Canadians in the common legislature.
The contrived balance between the number of legislators from each colony was called “sectional equality.” Not surprisingly, the champions of rep-by-pop back then were the French-speaking and Catholic inhabitants of Canada East. By 1851, immigration from the British Isles had made English-speaking and mostly Protestant Canada West more populous than Canada East. Now the champions of rep-by-pop were the inhabitants of Canada West and the champions of sectional equality lived in Canada East.
The debate went on into the 1860s, when the “Fathers” of Confederation hit upon a solution: a bicameral or two-house legislature. The lower house would be elected along rep-by-pop lines, with the new province of Ontario getting 82 Members of Parliament, Quebec 65, Nova Scotia 19 and New Brunswick 15 (PEI, Newfoundland, B.C. and the Prairies did not join Canada until later). The upper house would have 72 seats, with each region – Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes – having 24 Senators regardless of population.
As noted, section 51 of the British North America Act, as Canada’s founding constitutional document was then called, provided for the redistribution of seats after each census (these initially occurred once per decade). With several modifications over the past century-and-a-half, sectional equality (later renamed “proportionate equality”) coexisted with the arithmetic equality of citizens. With one obvious exception: sectional equality for the Senate was never extended to the West, a vast region of four provinces. The last attempt in the early 1990s to create an elected, effective and equal or “Triple-E” Senate went nowhere.
Quebec’s “Revenge of the Cradle”
As Canada developed, Ontario grew dominant in population but Quebec’s share of Canada’s population soon began a slow but long-term slide. Laurentian Canada’s control of Ottawa enabled this relative decline to be managed by a greater emphasis on “proportionate equality” as well as Quebec’s own vigorous policies encouraging population growth.
Quebecers long maintained Canada’s highest birthrate. Their baby production inspired them to adopt the 19th-century expression la révanche du berceau, the revenge of the cradle. The underlying argument was that Quebec’s expanding population would assure its importance in Canada. And it worked to a degree: as late as the 1950s Quebec had a fertility rate of 3.9 children per woman. Within a generation, however, the average rate had fallen to 1.4 children per woman, lower than the Canadian average of 1.7, itself a long way below the replacement rate of 2.1. (In addition, Quebec had previously lost nearly 1 million people to emigration, mainly to the U.S.)
If proportionate equality was to be salvaged, something new had to be done. In 1988 Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa tried to reverse his province’s demographic decline by ramping up a new and expanded “baby bonus” program. As Nicole Boudreau, president of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal, said at the time, “This is a serious problem for Quebec. If the population declines, then we will have a more difficult time maintaining our identity and culture.”
Immigration was now the chief driver of Canada’s growing population. As in the 19th century, however, most immigrants perceived that they were coming to a predominantly English-speaking North America. Even before the Canada-Quebec Accord of 1991, which gave Quebec full control over its immigration policy and process, the predominance of the French language in that province, coupled with its increasingly heavy-handed language laws promoting French and discouraging English, made it less attractive for many prospective immigrants.
Added to that was Quebec’s enduring nationalism. Expressed in such terms as pure laine (“pure wool” or “genuine”) and vieille souche (“old stock”), as well as in more contemporary legislation such as Bill 21, an Act Respecting the Laicity of Quebec, this cultural phenomenon did not make the province any more attractive to religiously inclined immigrants (or, arguably, some visible minorities) even if they spoke French. Nor was Quebec’s introduction of a well-subsidized daycare program sufficient demographic stimulus.
What had taken place since the 1950s was the famous “Quiet Revolution,” whereby in the dizzyingly short period of one generation Quebec transformed itself from a largely rural and piously Catholic society of mainly large families into a more or less secular urban one where women joined the workforce, contraception and abortion were not unknown and many fewer babies arrived in the world. Moreover, the previously central roles of nuns and priests in health and education as well as ethical, political and spiritual affairs was largely taken over by secular intellectuals, journalists and nationalist politicians. The revenge of the cradle had failed; Quebec would need new means to defend its federal interests.
Three Constitutional Distortions Undermine Rep-by-Pop
Quebec’s apparently irreversible demographic decline relative to the other provinces motivated even greater demands for proportionate equality and sectional representation. Historically, however, the real challenge to achieving the principle of democratic representation through rep-by-pop came from what might be called constitutional legacy distortions.
The first of these, the Senate floor rule or “senatorial clause,” dates from 1915. It guarantees that no province has fewer seats in the House of Commons than in the Senate. The initial beneficiaries were all in the Maritimes and the provision was later extended to Newfoundland and Labrador. Seven additional House seats result.
A second distortion is the “grandfather clause,” according to which future redistribution may never allocate a province fewer seats than it had in 1985. This provision benefits Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, all of which have lost population in relative or even absolute terms since it was enacted. Twelve seats are involved, four of which are allocated to Quebec.
The third distortion is called the “representation rule,” introduced in 2011. It applies (in principle) to all provinces that were overrepresented at the end of the previous redistribution. If these provinces would become underrepresented, even after the application of the senatorial floor and grandfather clauses, they would be given extra seats so that their representation was proportional to their share of the national population. Only one province qualified: Quebec. In 2011 it gained two additional seats for a total of 78, six more than it would have received under strict rep-by-pop rules (7,903,001 111,116 = 71.09, rounded up to 72). (The seemingly strange disparity between calculating a province’s seats based on the electoral quotient versus using the same province’s share of the national population arises from the over-allocation of seats to the Atlantic provinces under the previous two distortions, as well as to the territories getting three seats when their population justifies a total of just one.)
Under the pending redistribution, using the same combination of rep-by-pop principles and distortions, Quebec would be allocated 77 seats. One might think that normal people whose first allegiance was to democratic representation would say: fine, our province has lost one seat, but we still have five (or even six) more than we deserve. Not, however, the political philosophers of Quebec. Hence the March 2, 2022, motion of BQ leader Blanchet in the House of Commons, which was preceded by some remarkable utterances.
When the implications of redistribution first came to light last fall, Blanchet vowed he would personally unleash “the fires of hell” if that happened. Sonia LeBel, Quebec’s “Minister Responsible for Canadian Relations,” declared that “we are part of the founding peoples of Canada,” which apparently meant that Quebec deserved special treatment.
The Government of Canada’s initial response was entirely predictable: Jean-Sébastien Comeau, press secretary to Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, said the Liberal government was working on a proposal to ensure Quebec’s “political weight” was maintained. “We reject any scenario where Quebec loses a seat,” professed Comeau.
The collective specialness of Quebec, its “specificity” as they say in that province, was emphasized by its premier, François Legault. Hardly a political, let alone a constitutional term, “specificity” is effectively translated into the claim that Quebec is a “nation,” though how it differs from the Siksika Nation or the Rider Nation, for that matter, has never been specified. No one, for example, referred to French political theorist Ernest Renan’s famous essay of 1882, What is a Nation? which argues that “nation” is a “spiritual principle” and its existence a “daily plebiscite” that affirms its life. Even so, Ottawa has twice recognized Quebec as a “nation,” once under the Stephen Harper government as a “nation within a united Canada” and then more recently by the Justin Trudeau government as a “nation” tout court.
Onward to the “Fourth Distortion”
Premier Legault now explained that the spectre of Quebec’s losing a seat was a “test” for Trudeau. Why? “Because,” Legault said, “It’s nice to recognize that Quebec is a nation, but now there has to be an effect.” So, as Machiavelli would have said, the effective truth that Quebec is a “nation” means that it can never, ever, lose a single legislative seat in the Parliament of the country from which it considers itself essentially separate. As Legault explained to the CBC, “I think the nation of Quebec deserves a certain level of representation in the House of Commons, regardless of the evolution of the number of inhabitants in each province.” He did not elaborate or explain why Quebec deserved special treatment from the nation with which it maintains “relations” – apart from the vague claim that constituting a “nation” expressed the even more abstract notion of specificity.
Blanchet then took up the cause of the “nation.” Because of the Liberal-led declaration last year that “recognized the status of the French nation of Quebec,” Blanchet said it followed that “protecting Quebec’s political weight is good for everyone who recognizes the existence of the Quebec nation.” Democratic principles, including rep-by-pop, were simply irrelevant. “If the affairs of the state,” Blanchet went on, “could be managed by statistics alone, then we would need to ask ourselves what we are doing here” in Parliament. In fact, “We cannot allow decisions to be made by statistics.”
Yet that is how laws get passed in Parliament: one MP, one vote, and the result is counted. It’s a statistic! No matter: “It is unacceptable that Quebec’s weight could be reduced within any kind of Canadian institution at this point in time.” Accordingly, “We must not allow ourselves to be weakened.” The notion that Quebec’s demographic history clearly shows the province had “weakened” itself was apparently beyond Blanchet’s ken. Instead, his and Legault’s lengthening string of euphemisms (“evolution”) and non-sequiturs (“deserves,” “unacceptable”) would have to carry the freight.
Legault, of course, agreed and expanded upon Blanchet’s claim: “Whether it’s more [seats] for everyone or fewer for everyone; what’s important is the percentages, that we keep the percentage of seats that we currently have.” As a result, population changes are really beside the point – mere statistics. Blanchet then expanded upon Legault’s demand that the “percentages” not change. As these two men see it, the idea that Quebec is a nation isn’t merely consistent with its claim upon a guaranteed share of seats in Canada’s House of Commons – it’s proof thereof!
This would mean that, since the next redistribution will increase the House of Commons by four seats, from 338 to 342, Quebec must get one of them. Period. What a pair!
An Old Story but an Enduring – and Worsening – Outrage
Placed in the context of Canada’s constitutional history, the demands and claims of Quebec politicians today are indistinguishable from the demands and claims of Quebec politicians 180 years ago: from sectional equality when the benefits of rep-by-pop no longer favoured Quebec, to proportionate equality, to “specificity,” and now to an undefined nationhood that still entitles Quebec to a certain irreducible number and “weight” in the Canadian Parliament. Plus ça change….
The answer to the question posed near the beginning is therefore clear: the Bloc Québécois motion means the perpetual entrenchment of Quebec as a, or perhaps the, major power in the Canadian federation. Nothing connected to the democratic representation of citizens can touch in importance Quebec’s sectional or proportionate equality. That is what the current crop of Quebec politicians wants.
And, it seems, the current crop of federal politicians from outside Quebec as well. The summary of Bill C-14 states its key concept: “That, when the number of members of the House of Commons and the representation of the provinces in that House are readjusted on the completion of each decennial census, a province will not have fewer members assigned to it than were assigned during the 43rd Parliament.” We are now in the 44th Parliament. By preventing Quebec from losing a seat now or ever after, Bill C-14 would meet one of the two key demands in Blanchet’s motion. If it passes, Canada will have institutionalized a fourth distortion to the principle of equal-weight voting through rep-by-pop. And Bill C-14 seems likely to pass, for one wonders how an MP who voted for the same principle less than four weeks ago could now justify voting against its expression in law.
The four distortions are a grave affront to the other provinces and fundamentally unfair to their voters. And this makes the split Conservative vote noted above particularly disappointing. It suggests that many Tory MPs regard this as mainly a regional-grievance issue and not an issue of democratic fairness and high principle. If they did, why wouldn’t Ontario and Atlantic MPs agree with most of their Western colleagues that democratic representation is a national good that should always be defended, and that favouring one province above all others using layers of constitutional and legislative tricks is intrinsically wrong? Instead, they appear to see the issue mainly as another opportunity to pander to Quebec in hopes of a few more votes.
So now what? Emmett Macfarlane, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo, says that the next step, guaranteeing Quebec a specific share of seats in the House of Commons, might require a constitutional amendment. That would be even truer if the claim on an additional seat were involved. Fortunately, that is highly unlikely. Perhaps the most sensible solution, Macfarlane thinks, would be to give the fastest-growing provinces even more seats and leave Quebec at 78, as the new law contemplates. That way, Macfarlane says, “Quebec is still outpaced as a proportion [of seats in the House of Commons] but the province doesn’t face the indignity of having a seat taken away.”
Indignity? Perhaps another perspective is needed to handle this endless question of the dignity – or better, the amour propre of – Quebec. We have seen that Quebec is already protected from the application of the principle of democratic representation by entrenched legacy distortions. But which are the unprotected provinces? It will not come as too much of a shock to discover that they are the major (if often unwilling) contributors to rectifying the so-called fiscal imbalances of the federation, namely Alberta, B.C. and Ontario.
And, just in case it needs to be said, it follows mathematically that if some provinces for whatever reason receive “extra” seats beyond their share of the national population, those that do not are mathematically under-represented based on their population. For example, under the next redistribution Alberta’s contingent of MPs is due to rise from 34 to 37 in an expanded, 342-seat Parliament. So far, so good. But the inclusion of 21 (or, if Quebec gets its way, 22) non-population-based MPs spread over seven provinces dilutes the representation of the remaining three provinces.
Alberta will have one MP for every 120,100 Albertans – very close to its proper mathematical quotient. But, following all of the topping-up, Quebec will have one MP for every 110,300 Quebecers. While that doesn’t seem like a large difference, it will mean that nearly 370,000 Albertans (10,000 per constituency) will be, mathematically, without representation in Canada’s Parliament. Put another way, based on Quebec’s “special” quotient, Alberta should have 40 or 41 MPs. It’s a similar story for B.C. and Ontario. And it is an outrage.
The so-called have-not provinces, particularly Quebec, have been, are and will continue to be politically overrepresented in comparison to the productive provinces. This is one reason why any effort seriously to change the equalization extortion of the productive provinces will be resisted by the beneficiaries. Moreover, the economic and demographic projections for Saskatchewan and Manitoba indicate that the current political benefits they receive under the grandfather clause will erode over the next decade or so. Best of all for Quebec, Manitoba will likely join Saskatchewan as a “have” province and so become “eligible” to transfer more and more wealth to Quebec and points east.
Within a fairly short time, then, the whole of the West will be exploited politically to ensure that Quebec retains the over-representation of its “political weight” in the House of Commons – just as it does in the Senate and Supreme Court. At the same time Quebec, the world’s latest stateless nation, gets to retain the benefits of being part of Canada, such as equalization payments, while keeping a veto over such things as violating the sacred terroir of the “nation” with pipelines, the use of which sustains the transfer of Western wealth to the “nation.”
So long as Quebec remains an officially have-not province, chronically on the receiving end of fiscal transfers from the West and Ontario, all this talk about Quebec’s dignity being challenged with the loss of a House of Commons seat is faintly comical. Why is it too much to expect Quebec to pay its own freight? Besides, since when do fiscal dependencies attain the dignity of genuine nationhood?
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. His latest books are Paleolithic Politics (2020) and, with Marco Navarro-Génie, COVID-19: The Story of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2022).
Source of main image: Shutterstock.