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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A New Call for Rep by Pop

George Brown

The Census of 1851, which was actually completed in 1852, is not a common topic of conversation. Bar the Durham Report it was, however, the most consequential government report of the Victorian era. For those of you still awake, let me explain. About a decade earlier Lord Durham, a high-flying British aristocrat, of a classical liberal bent, was dispatched to the Canadas (Upper and Lower) to examine the causes of a series of minor rebellions in 1837 and 1838. After proposing some important constitutional reforms, such as responsible government, Durham then came to the conclusion that Canada would never work as a bilingual / bicultural country. The French, simply put, were a backward priest ridden lot surrounded by the dynamic anglophone societies of the New World. It was in the interest of both the French and English in Canada that the former be assimilated into the culture of the latter. As a means to that end the separate provinces of Upper and Lower Canada were to be unified, with the predominately English-speaking western region (now Ontario) having the same number of seats in the new legislature as the majority-francophone east (now Quebec). 

At the time the report was published, 1839, the Francophones in the East considerably outnumbered the Anglophones in the West, thus the unified legislature, established the following year in 1840, over-represented the English. This was the Imperial government's rather ham-fisted attempt at assimilation. It failed specularly. The French refused to play along, and the Imperial government didn't have the heart to rule by force, so by the mid-1840s the policy was officially abandoned. No one, however, bothered to change the seat redistribution from the fifty-fifty split. When the 1851 Census was published Canadians were shocked to discover that the population of the Anglophone West now exceeded that of the Francophone East. So a tool to assimilate the French, by depriving them of proper democratic representation, became a tool by which the English would have their rights trampled upon. In the wake of the 1851 Census came Separate (Catholic) Schools, over the fierce objections of westerners, the Grand Trunk Railway, again over the protests of taxpayers in the West, and a tariff policy that favoured Montreal capital over Toronto and London business interests. Like the prairie farmers of the early twentieth century, their Ontarian predecessors found themselves at the mercy of those "eastern bastards." 

Just as prairie farmers turned to the Laurier Liberals, the Progressives, the Socreds and lastly the Manning Reform Party to redress their grievances, so the people of Canada West turned to the nascent Liberal Party (originally a loose collection of self-styled "Reformers"), and its implacable leader, George Brown. A staunch classical liberal, who rose to prominence as the publisher of the Globe - yes, amazingly enough that Globe - Brown rallied westerners around a single policy: Representation by Population, Rep by Pop. 

The solution to Separate Schools, and their undermining of the separation of Church and State, Grand Trunk malfeasance and countless other sins was not dissolving the union, but in insisting on representation by population. Brown was even able, very briefly, to form a government, but it collapsed when it became clear that even French classical liberals weren't going to accept Rep by Pop. Frustrated, Brown spent the next few years in the political wilderness, while a train of weak governments tried to govern the province with diminishing success. After the collapse of one government, which tried to rule by obtaining a majority in both East and West, Brown was able to consolidate most of the western members into a cohesive bloc. From this platform he was able to force his rival John A Macdonald, and French chef George Etienne-Cartier, into a coalition government with one purpose, to establish a federal government between the East and West. This was soon expanded to include a wider union of all of British North America. 

A call for representation by population gave birth to Canada, it may yet become a source for modern constitutional and political reform. Comparing the relative size of a province's population, with its proportional weight in the House of Commons, there is clearly a pattern of under-represensation for Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, and overrepresentation for the Maritime provinces, especially the picturesque rotten borough of P.E.I.: Ontario 38% population (34% seats), Alberta 9.9% (9% seats), British Columbia 13% (12% seats), Quebec 24% (24% seats), Nova Scotia 3% (Seats 3.5%), PEI .45% (Seats 1.3%). The Mowat Institute, an Ontario think tank established in 2009 with funding from the provincial government, published a report in March of this year arguing that the House of Commons was no longer properly adhering to the principle of Rep by Pop. Measuring the relative weight of a single vote for the House of Commons, the institute's report shows a persistent and increasing deviation from the ideal of Rep by Pop, as envisioned by George Brown and the Fathers of Confederation.

While early on in the country's history certain frontier areas, such as British Columbia and Manitoba, were grossly over-represented in the Dominion Parliaments, this was a short-term phenomenon, made moot by the rapid growth of the West. By 1901 the distribution of seats in the House of Commons basically adhered to the principle of Rep by Pop. Since then the distribution of seats in the Commons has been steadily deviating from this principle. Among the biggest culprits in the process is the "Senatorial floor," a provision added to the BNA in 1915 that guarantees that a province should have at least as many MPs as Senators. This was essentially confirmed at the time of patriation. Since Senatorial distribution was fixed at Confederation, or when a province was admitted to the Union, it guarantees a minimum number of MPs for each province. A serious attempt was made to rectify this in the late 1940s, but was soon scuttled through inter-regional politicking. A 1987 legal challenge, by then Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell, to the under-representation of British Columbia was rejected by the provincial Supreme Court, and an appeal was not heard by its federal counterpart. As remedy to the situation the paper calls for a return to the pre-1970s policy of stripping provinces of seats when their relative size warrants such a reduction, with the exception of the constitutionally mandated "Senatorial floor."

The importance of Rep by Pop in modern Canada can be summed up in one word: redistribution. Under-represented areas, like Ontario, B.C. and Alberta can be taxed to buy votes in over-represented areas like the Maritimes. It is, in effect, a form of disenfranchisement for residents of those three provinces. While allowances have always been made in democratic systems for some over-representation, the classic Canadian case in point is giving each of the three Territories an MP. The sheer distances which an MP has to traverse in theses ridings limits their ability to serve their constituents effectively, so more MPs in particularly sparse areas makes sense. These, however, are minor variations from the ideal of Rep By Pop. We are some way from that ideal in modern Canada. Today the Maritime provinces elect 32 MPs, with a combined population of 2.2 million. The City of Toronto, with a population of 2.5 million is represented by 23 MPs. As Torontonians tend to vote - very foolishly - en bloc for the Liberal Party, whereas the Maritime seats tend to go to the highest political bidder. With this in mind it makes rather a lot of electoral sense to transfer wealth from Toronto, to buy votes in the Maritimes. This block voting for the Grits, however, simply compounds an already existing problem, that the vote of some Canadians is worth more than others. Rep by Pop isn't just a matter of electoral fairness, it's restoration would be a blow against statism. That's something George Brown understood a century and a half ago. It's an ideal that modern day classical liberals would do well to remember, and fight to achieve again.

Posted by Richard Anderson on May 5, 2010 | Permalink


.. so if the rep per pop formula was actually mathematical rather than emotional, Canada would then shape itself into a streamlined cohesive unit in the windtunnel of reality without excuses ?

No farty old hucksters with soft spoken commands
sacrificing sector A for sector B? A nation that actually ran as clear cut and simple as the hockey game model we all cheer for but can;t seem to pull off in out daily lives- because farty old hucksters with referee status are interfering with normal play?
OK ! And as the Dadaists used to say 100 years ago crueling mocking socialism, I abridge here for effect

" a puck for every player "

Posted by: 419 | 2010-05-05 9:44:36 AM

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