In the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, British Columbians rejected the proposed amendments to Canada’s constitution with the highest “no” vote in the country (68.3%). Also in the “no” camp were Manitoba (61.6%) and then Alberta (60.2%). Four other provinces also turned it down and the package barely passed in Ontario.
In B.C. and Alberta, a prime reason why the Charlottetown Accord failed so miserably was fierce opposition to the proposed “distinct society” clause for Quebec. It was a nebulous concept with the potential to continually exempt Quebec’s government from norms applicable to other provinces, including on individual rights. (It is why Pierre Trudeau opposed it). In another Charlottetown section, on the Senate, any issue involving French language and culture would have needed the approval of a majority of Francophone senators, not just a bare majority of all Senators.
Two decades later, there’s no shortage of politicians who act as if Quebec deserves continual special policy treatment. Examples abound: $2-billion from Ottawa to Quebec this year for a GST-provincial sales tax harmonization that occurred two decades ago; protection of Quebec’s dairy cartel; ignoring the Quebec government’s discriminatory policies against one of Canada’s two official languages; and winking at Quebec-first policies on labour and government contracts.
Defenders of the foregoing justify the exceptions with an observation followed by an irrelevant assertion: French language and culture in Quebec makes that province unique; that merits special treatment.
Now enter the latest example—the federal government’s attempt to backtrack on pre-election promises to award 30 new seats to Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. That was the plan under the now-dead Bill C-12, this after opposition from Quebec. In the newest legislation, the Fair Representation Act, Ontario receives only 15 seats while BC and Alberta will get six apiece, or 27 in total. The missing three seats? They go to Quebec.
The Conservative government’s justification is that this will ensure “the proportional representation of Quebec according to population.”
But the attempt to maintain such precision for Quebec in parliament—without an equally exacting formula for voters in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta—is distinct society status in legislative drag.
Here’s why: at present, nationally, the average riding represents 111,957 constituents. Broken down, the average Quebec riding has 106,396 people, 5,562 fewer people than the national average.
In contrast, the average Ontario riding has 126,160 people; B.C., 127,037; Alberta, 134,977.
For a variety of constitutional reasons and political deals, the big four provinces have always been at a disadvantage in parliamentary representation compared to Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Atlantic provinces. Regrettably, that is unlikely to change soon. At least under the previous bill, giving 30 seats to the three fastest-growing provinces would have meant some redress in those numbers. In that case, Ontario and British Columbia ridings would, respectively, have an average of 5,827 and 4,336 more people in them compared to the new national average; Quebec’s ridings would also have had 4,375 extra people above the national average. Thus, under the previous bill, Quebec would finally have been treated akin to two of the other major provinces, though Alberta would still have been an outlier with an average of 12,506 more people per riding (compared to the national average).
As for the new legislation, it instead re-entrenches the special status of Quebec vis-à-vis the other major provinces. Using July population figures, Quebec, at 23.1% of Canada’s population will have 23.1% of the seats.
In contrast, Ontario, BC and Alberta have 63% of the population but will have only 58.3% of the seats. That 4.7% difference may not seem like much, but it represents 2.1 million people who must now “share” MPs with others.
The disparities among the provinces will likely grow over time. In the past decade, Ontario and B.C.’s population grew about one-and-a-half times faster than Quebec; Alberta’s rate of growth more than doubled Quebec’s.
Assume this growth pattern continues in the decade ahead. That would mean that by 2021, under the new bill, the average federal riding will contain 112,261 people. However, British Columbia’s average riding will have 120,757 people; Ontario: 122,678 people; and Alberta will bulge with 132,389 people per average riding. Meanwhile, the average Quebec riding will have just 109,722 people.
In 1992, Pierre Trudeau wrote a book opposing the Charlottetown Accord entitled “A mess that deserves a NO.” As policy, the Fair Representation Act is not nearly as messy as that pot of constitutional porridge. But the latest attempt to gerrymander Parliament shortchanges voters in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. It is thus in the spirit of the long-defeated Charlottetown Accord.