By Neil Reynolds, Globe and Mail, September 19, 2011
In the beginning, Canada was the merger of Quebec and Ontario: the United Province of Canada. Established by an act of the British government in 1840, this colonial alliance rested on a remarkably astute division of power. In its legislative assembly, population differences notwithstanding, Quebec (Canada East) and Ontario (Canada West) held an equal number of seats. The Act of Union guaranteed Quebec (population 697,084) 42 seats and Ontario (population 455,688) 42 seats. Naturally, Quebec proceeded to clamour for rep by pop, the American heresy that was sweeping northward across the border. Naturally, Ontario proceeded to resist it.
Thus Canadian history began in conflict over rep by pop, a conflict that continues to this day. The old questions remain. On the one hand, how important is the union? On the other, how essential to it is representative democracy? To what degree must the one be sacrificed to accommodate the other? Whatever the answer, rep by pop has irrevocably changed sides. In 1840, with 60 citizens for Ontario’s every 40, Quebec held half of the seats in the legislative assembly. Now, with 23 citizens for the rest of Canada’s every 77, Quebec holds a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons and must soon settle for fewer still.
In 1861, the decennial census reported a Quebec population of 1,111,566 and an Ontario population of 1,396,091. Abruptly, Ontario outnumbered Quebec by more than 250,000 people. With 44 per cent of the population, Quebec still held 50 per cent of the seats. Henceforth, Ontario would clamour for rep by pop; henceforth, Quebec would resist.
In April of 1861, Grit leader George Brown moved a radical opposition motion in the legislative assembly. “The representation of the people in Parliament should be based on population,” the motion read, “without regard to any separating line between [Ontario] and [Quebec].” For its part, the Tory government had no use for rep by pop – and regarded it, probably correctly, as a deal-breaker that would tear the union asunder. In an impassioned speech that lasted five hours, George-Étienne Cartier, co-premier with John A. Macdonald, defended Canada’s signature guarantee of equal political power, regardless of population, for Quebec and Ontario.
Macdonald himself joined the debate on the night of April 19, one week after Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter and launched the American Civil War. By contemporary press accounts, Macdonald delivered a memorable speech. Beginning at 11 p.m., he spoke for hours to uproarious Tory applause. So much, he essentially said, for the American experiment in rep by pop....
The old conflict will soon assert itself once again, this time perhaps more definitively than ever. Based on the 2011 census, the Harper government proposes to add 30 seats to the Commons, bringing the total to 338: 18 more for Ontario, five more for Alberta, seven more for British Columbia. This would reduce the proportion of Quebec seats from 25 per cent to 22 per cent. The questions now change a bit: When does Quebec confront and concede its existential decline in population and power? And without a 19th-century imperialist around, can the union survive democracy?
This aspect of Canadian nationhood, holding the union together at the expense of a population-based number of seats in the House of Commons, has served Canada well. The relationship between the federal government and the provincial governments, always a testy one, is barely mentioned, except in the context of increased the number of parliamentarians, and with respect to the proposed changes in the Senate.
We live in a micro-managing time when the fine print often trumps the larger principle. We seem to revel in our "accounting" obsession when it comes to a few dollars in the use of the challenger jets by the Head of the Defence Staff. We love to pick scabs from the secrets of all political parties for their indiscreet use of public funds; witness the Sponsorship Scandal, and the Mulroney debacle with the infamous Mr. Karlheinz Schreiber. It is not that these dollars do not matter; it is rather that our obsession with accounting takes our eyes off much larger questions, and compels us to a kind of addiction to the numbers.
There is a theme running through the current federal government that could be expressed thus: "for too long, eastern Canada has been the focus of the nation's attention, and now it is the west's turn for power."
However, the Ontario-Quebec "duality," "duet," "balance" or "equality" represented by the principle of the number of votes in the House of Commons, as a percentage of the total, rather than representation based on population is at the heart of this country's creation. Whether or not the current Prime Minister is unfamiliar with these elementary facts remains uncertain. That he seeks deliberately to fly in the face of them, with little or no regard for what could happen in Quebec, and in other provinces in support of Quebec, is obvious.
Declaring Quebec a "distinct nation" within the nation of Canada, by parliamentary bill is not, and will never be, a substitute for maintaining of the principle of Quebec's having 25% of the members of the House of Commons.
There is nothing sacred about the number 338; there is something unacceptable about holding to the formula that threatens the 25% principle. However, with his majority, the Prime Minister will push his "reforms" through the House, using whatever "logic" serves his purposes, while he trods, presumably knowingly, on the intent of one of his party's and the country's main, and for many, most important Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald and his principle of roughly equal numbers of seats for Ontario and Quebec to preserve the union.
To raise the number of seats in Quebec to the level that would preserve the 25% principle would neither bankrupt the country nor bring this divisive issue to the front pages. Nor would it sabotage the move to increase the number of seats in other provinces. To fail to do so will only exacerbate the tensions between Quebec and the rest of the country for what purpuse...a short term political goal of placating the Conservative base, one of the new features of the Canadian government's pursuit of permanent power, trumping history and in the process replacing it with personal ambition, not a sustainable equation for this country or any country.
We are not now, and were not conceived as, a replica of the United States. We do not wish to become, regardless of who occupies the Prime Minister's office, a replica of that country, for all the many attributes that we appreciate of our southern neighbour. And this kind of aggressive and insensitive grab for power, at the expense of our history is, and will be seen as, a thumbing of the nation's nose at the principle that has attempted, however marginally at times, to hold the tension in this centrifuge of a nation, without having bowed obsequiously to the demand from either side for strict representation by population.