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Sep 22, 2009

Will the Federal Government Listen to Ontario, BC and Alberta — and Visible Minorities?

September 22, 2009

Sujit Choudhry on voting rights in Canada and the merits of representation by population.

In Canada, the worth of one’s vote depends on where one lives. The situation is especially unfair for Canada’s visible minority population, who are seeing their voting power diluted, even as their population expands.

Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives all adult Canadian citizens the right to vote, but wide variations in the size of constituencies mean that not everybody’s vote has the same impact. In fact, the average ballot cast in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario is worth less than one cast in any other province.

This underrepresentation translates into dilution of votes from visible minority communities. Canada’s visible minority population is increasing, especially where population growth is concentrated — Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, and in urban areas – but their representation is not keeping up.

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The current makeup of the House of Commons promotes the interests of those who live in smaller provinces and rural areas at the expense of visible minorities’ interests. In other words, seat distribution does not represent the new face of Canada.

Visible minority vote dilution must be addressed, for three reasons: a) some of the rules and practices giving rise to it may violate the Charter; b) visible minority communities are increasingly alienated and disadvantaged economically, so how those interests are represented in the legislative process counts; c) to successfully integrate visible minority immigrants, political institutions must be scrupulously fair in how they represent their interests.

The power of one’s vote can be measured through weighting. In 1996, the “weight” of a rural vote was 1.15 (i.e., 15 per cent higher than average), while urban visible minority voters had a voting power of 0.96. In 2001, while the weight of a rural vote increased to 1.22, the weight of an urban visible minority vote declined to 0.91 (75 per cent of a rural vote). While the trend for urban visible minority voters is downward, the strength of urban voters remained largely unchanged, standing at 0.97 in 1996 and 0.96 in 2001.

This suggests urban visible minority voters are concentrated in certain ridings, and visible minority voters are worse off than urban voters generally, and much worse off than rural voters. B.C.’s urban visible minority voters are the most under-represented in the country, with their voting power dropping from 0.89 in 1996 to 0.84 in 2001. For Alberta, urban visible minority voters had a voting power of 0.94 in 1996 and 0.87 in 2001. In Ontario, the weight of an urban visible minority vote declined from 0.95 in 1996 to 0.90 in 2001.

We can also provide a rough estimate of vote dilution in the future by counting all permanent residents of voting age as if they were citizens. Under this scenario, the national results for vote dilution are even more troubling. In 2001, rural voters would have a voting power of 1.27. The voting power would be 0.85 for urban visible minority voters, or 67 per cent of the voting power of rural voters.

Let’s look at other numbers. The current House has 308 members. Strictly on the basis of representation by population, Alberta, B.C. and Ontario should have 30, 40 and 117 MPs respectively. However, the actual figures are 28, 36 and 106. In other words, these provinces are 17 MPs short.

The shortfall is caused by the formula used to calculate the number of MPs.

The formula starts with 282 seats. Each territory gets one seat, which leaves 279 to be distributed across the 10 provinces. That number never changes, but the federal ridings are redistributed after each Census in an attempt to maintain representation by population

However, two special rules then apply. One rule is the Grandfather Clause, which ensures that provincial representation cannot decline below the levels in the 1986 House of Commons. The principal beneficiaries are Manitoba and Saskatchewan, whose total complement increases from 19 to 28 MPs, and Quebec, which gains seven seats once the Grandfather Clause is applied.

The other rule is the Senate Floor, which guarantees each province gets at least as many MPs as it has Senators. The Senate Floor benefits the Atlantic provinces exclusively, which collectively receive an additional nine MPs.

These rules were adopted to protect the representation of provinces whose population is dropping as a share of the national total or in absolute terms. The impact of these rules is increasing. In 1996, they accounted for 20 extra MPs. By 2003, they added 27 MPs.

These rules benefit every province except Alberta, B.C. and Ontario. The under-representation of Ontario, Alberta, and B.C. means their young, urban and multicultural populations are under-represented. For example, Toronto, despite having a greater population than all four Atlantic provinces, has only 23 MPs to Atlantic Canada’s 32. And, as the populations of Alberta, B.C. and Ontario continue to grow, their under-representation becomes even more pronounced.

In a minority Parliament, this under-representation could affect the balance of control and the direction of public policy. Voters in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia could choose to address any of a variety of public policy issues differently than their fellow citizens, but their influence on who forms government is significantly weaker than Canadians in other provinces.

These rules undermine the principle of representation by population. The idea of one person, one vote requires that each vote counts equally. In Canada, the constitutional rules that restrain growth in representation from the fastest-growing provinces have moved our system away from this ideal. These growing gaps imperil the legitimacy of the House of Commons.

Federal parties have said they want to redress the under-representation of Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario without reducing the representation of other provinces, but none have proposed a workable model.

But the history of Canada’s electoral system has been one of compromise, and that is what is needed here. Practical reform options to alleviate visible minority vote dilution do exist: a) to amend federal and provincial legislation to minimize variances in riding size; b) for electoral boundary commissions to voluntarily limit deviations from voter equality; c) to increase the size of the House of Commons to accommodate population growth in B.C., Alberta and Ontario while preserving the seats assigned to the less populous provinces.

For example, if Parliament adjusted the formula for calculating seats in the House of Commons, by increasing the base from 279 to 308, while still allowing the Grandfather Clause and the Senate Floor to apply, it would add 22 MPs – 13 for Ontario, three for Alberta, and six for B.C. – for a total of 330.

These reforms could change the direction of federal public policy, making it more representative of the changing face of Canadian society. The political architecture of Canadian democracy must keep pace with the country we have become.

For more information, please see the report for IRPP choices, Is Every Ballot Equal?


Sujit Choudhry

Release Date

September 22, 2009


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