Hon. Steven Fletcher (Minister of State (Democratic Reform), CPC)
moved that Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Democratic representation), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to open the second reading debate on Bill C-12, the democratic representation act.
Our government is committed to restoring fairer representation for faster-growing provinces. We made this a throne speech commitment because we believe that to the greatest extent possible, each Canadian’s vote should carry equal weight.
Bill C-12 will do this by restoring the democratic principle of representation by population in the House of Commons. Representation of the provinces in the House is readjusted every 10 years using a formula in our Constitution. At Confederation, representation by population, or as some say, “rep by pop”, was the basis for the seat distribution.
The formula has been amended a number of times since Confederation to respond to demographic changes as our country has grown and evolved. Bill C-12 is the next step in that process. It makes key improvements to the existing formula, which has caused faster growing provinces to become under-represented in the House.
So members can fully understand the importance of this legislation, I will describe how the current formula works and how it adversely impacts democratic representation. I will then outline the positive effects of Bill C-12 in moving the House of Commons closer to representation by population, while protecting the representation of smaller and slower growing provinces. I hope that by the end of my remarks opposition members will agree that Bill C-12 is needed to ensure that all provinces are fairly represented in this place.
The existing constitutional formula for readjusting House seats was passed in the Representation Act, 1985.
The 1985 formula was designed in the context of a seriously flawed formula enacted in 1974. That old formula would have resulted in extremely large numbers of additional seats following the 1981 census. As a result, the formula we now have in our Constitution was deliberately designed to limit the growth of the House of Commons. While this goal was reasonable in theory, in reality it has penalized faster growing provinces. Let me explain.
As a first step, the 1985 Parliament divides the population of the provinces by 279, which was the number of provincial seats in the House at that time.
Then, the population of each province is divided by that quotient to determine the number of seats for each province.
As a second step, two constitutional seat guarantees provided a top-up for some provinces. The Senate floor, passed in 1915, guarantees that each province will have at least as many seats in the House as it has in the Senate. This protects, for example, P.E.I.'s four seats. Then there is the grandfather clause, which guarantees each province, at a minimum, the number of seats it had as of 1985.
Taken together, the effects of these two seat floors are significant. First, it means that all provinces, except Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, rely on seat floors rather than population to maintain their seat count in the House.
Second, the formula allows the three faster-growing provinces to get a proportional share of only 279 seats, even though the House has expanded to 305 provincial seats since the 1980s. Of course, there are three additional seats for the territories.
Third, the extra four seats for slower-growing provinces, which are not based on population, further erode the relative representation of the faster-growing provinces.
As a result, the three faster-growing provinces have become significantly under-represented in the House. For example, in the last readjustment, Ontario received only 34.8% of the provincial seats while its share of the provincial population was well over 38%.
This is not just a symbolic problem. It has a real impact on MPs and the people they represent.
Based on the 2006 census, MPs from Ontario, B.C. and Alberta represent, on average, 26,000 more constituents than MPs from other provinces.
As well, because faster growing provinces are prevented from getting a fair number of seats based on population, there are fewer seats to distribute within those provinces. This creates major differences in riding populations when electoral boundaries are drawn.
For example, the member for Brampton West represents over 170,000 constituents based on the 2006 census, whereas the member for Kenora represents about 64,000.
The difference in riding populations between provinces is also significant. For example, the member for Battlefords—Lloydminster represents about 71,000 constituents. Next door, the Alberta MP for Vegreville—Wainwright has more than 111,000 constituents.
These effects on Canada's democratic representation will only get worse if the current formula is not changed.
The Lortie commission on electoral democracy recognized this in 1992, when it stated on page 129 of volume one of its final report:
|| The Representation Act, 1985 substantially modified the principle of proportionate representation to an extent never before experienced
The report goes on to say, on page 131:
|| In short, the formula errs in two ways: it fails to give sufficient weight to the constitutional principle of proportionate representation; and its restriction on increases in the number of Commons seats, which works to penalize the provinces experiencing population growth, is not related to any principle of representation.
That is why the government has introduced Bill C-12, to restore the principle of democratic representation in this place.
The democratic representation act would amend the constitutional formula for readjusting seats to bring fair representation to the House, while maintaining the seat counts of slower growing provinces.
First, the bill would remove the artificial ceiling of 279 in the current formula that penalizes Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.
In the next readjustment, after the 2011 census, seats in the House will instead be based on a maximum average riding population of 108,000, which was approximately the average riding size in Canada during the last election.
In other words, seats will be determined by dividing a province's population by 108,000 and rounding up any remainder. This ensures that the average riding population in any province is no greater than 108,000 people.
Compared to the current formula, this means faster growing provinces will receive more seats because of the rise in their population. The exact number of seats cannot be known until after the 2011 census is completed, but under the principles of this bill, the representation of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta will be much closer to representation by population.
It is important I mention another aspect of Bill C-12. This bill protects the constitutional seat guarantees.
This means no province will lose seats, even though its population may be in relative decline. It also means all provinces except Ontario, B.C. and Alberta will continue to receive extra seats to maintain their current seat counts.
Obviously, if a slower growing province has a sufficient population increase in the future, it could receive additional seats beyond those guaranteed by the seat floors. But in the meantime, the seat floors will continue to ensure that average riding populations in these provinces are lower than in faster growing provinces.
Another major feature of Bill C-12 is that seat counts in subsequent readjustments will increase on a principled basis.
The maximum average riding population, which will initially be set at 108,000, increases each subsequent readjustment based on the rate of growth in all the provinces. To take an example, the population of all the provinces is projected to grow from more than 34 million in 2011 to over 38 million in 2021. The percentage increase in population would be applied to 108,000 to create a new maximum average population of about 120,000 for the readjustment following 2021 census.
Based on this, only a limited number of new seats would be added to the House for those provinces that have grown faster than the national average.
In contrast, the current formula, which penalizes population growth, Bill C-12 recognizes and reflects it in the House. At the same time, overall growth in the House will be moderated in the future.
Our government is committed to giving fair representation to faster-growing provinces. That is why we have introduced this bill. I believe the opposition can agree with me that some basic principles of fair democratic representation are advanced under Bill C-12.
First, the representation of the elected assembly should be based on population as much as possible. This means that the representation should reflect the population growth and demographic realities of our country. Bill C-12 would strengthen this principle by ensuring that faster-growing provinces receive fair representation in this House.
Second, as a democratic society, we should strive as much as possible for the ideal of one person, one vote. This means that average riding populations should not unduly vary in size from one province to another.
Bill C-12 would significantly reduce the average riding population for faster-growing provinces. In the next readjustment, Ontario, B.C. and Alberta would have average riding populations of less than 108,000 people, compared to more than 120,000 constituents under the current formula. The imbalance that exists under the current formula led the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation to call Canada one of the worst violators of the principle of one person, one vote among the federations of the world.
A third basic principle of democratic representation is that smaller provinces may need better representation to ensure their opinions and concerns are heard. Bill C-12 would protect the seat counts of all provinces, guaranteeing that slower-growing provinces will not lose any seats.
I would like to make it clear that there are no extra seats being given to faster-growing provinces under Bill C-12. Unlike every other province, Ontario, B.C. and Alberta will receive seats based on their population alone.
It may be tempting for critics to argue that the increase in seats for faster-growing provinces impacts the relative representation of other provinces. I believe this argument is based on a false premise. In fact, it is the other seven provinces that receive more seats than their populations merit, thanks to constitutional seat guarantees.
There is good reason for this, including historic compromises and the recognition of slower-growing and particular smaller provinces need enhanced representation to protect their voices in this place. However, it is these extra four seats that also impact the relative representation of other provinces and prevent strict representation by population in the House.
At its core, representation in this House is a delicate balance between competing democratic principles.
Bill C-12 strikes a balance that I believe on which all Canadians, no matter where they live, can agree. I urge the opposition parties to support the bill so we can restore representation by population in the House.
Hon. Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul's, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, we too as a party are grateful that this has finally come to the House, since it was tabled on April 1. It seems to have been the embarrassment of the civic literacy which arose during the recent by-election where the Toronto riding of Vaughan had 120,864 voters while Winnipeg North had only 51,198. Even children in the grade 5 classrooms in my riding ask why votes in St. Paul's count half as much as those in other ridings across this country. It is disappointing. The government had an opportunity to do something about this. In census after census it has become clear that Ontario, B.C. and Alberta have way fewer seats than they are entitled to. This needs to be fixed and it is hoped that as soon as we have the results of the 2011 census we can get this fixed once and for all.
After the by-elections the government was embarrassed and chose to leak to the media that there was some deal between all the opposition parties to kill the bill instead of doing the right thing and bringing it to the House. As the hon. member from the NDP said, it is impossible for the opposition parties to be accused of stalling when a bill has not even come to the House. That anyone would think that this is merely about arithmetic, that any bill that comes before the House is perfect and does not deserve a proper analysis in committee is truly undemocratic.
Our country will never have a perfect rep by pop system. There are too many differences. The Supreme Court has already decided that the territories have such a big land mass that even though there are fewer people there, they need their own representative per territory.
Because of the Constitution, P.E.I. will always have the same number of seats as it does senators. That will always be the case. That is the floor. In 1985 there was the understanding that no province would ever receive less seats than it had at that floor. Year after year with each census we have been redistributing the ridings within a province as best we can. This bill is the only way we can go forward to get more seats for the provinces like Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, but it is hugely important that we get this right.
The government has refused to deal with the provinces at all. There are no first ministers meetings. There are no conversations. This is not something that one can do by fiat. Ever since I have been here, there has been this idea that governments think they can bring a bill to Parliament as though it were a perfectly baked cake, instead of allowing the good work of committees and witness testimony to proceed. We enhance our democracy by allowing parliamentarians and witnesses to participate at committee. In this case because the government has refused to consult the provinces, we are going to have to hear from the provinces and territories at committee.
Our democracy is founded on the principle of one person, one vote. Canadians expect that they will have fair, effective representation regardless of where they live. Any redistribution of seats must incorporate these ideas.
We believe that any proposal for redistribution must be thoroughly considered in a serious and civil committee setting. This ought not to be an opportunity for political games and one-upmanship. This is about fairness and transparency, but we know that whatever we come up with, there will still be some ridings with a lesser proportion than others, no matter what happens.
Therefore, we need to have a civil conversation to figure out what is the level of compromise, what Canadians would see as fair. At the moment it is worrying because a number of provinces have expressed concerns about their projected level of representation under this proposed redistribution.
This bill fails to provide fair representation for Quebec. This has to be fixed. Using this formula, Quebec will be farther away from rep by pop than it is at the present time. We believe that no province should end up farther away from rep by pop, or less representative, as a result of this bill. Therefore, the bill needs to go to committee to be properly and thoroughly studied.
Yet again, the Prime Minister has failed to properly consult with Canadians. It is completely undemocratic in terms of this proposal that even their elected representatives would not have a chance to study the bill properly. This is extraordinarily important in terms of trying to make our country and its representative democracy more fair. It is ridiculous to think that this is just a lesson in arithmetic and that the government already has the right formula and crib notes.
Liberals will work in committee to ensure the fair representation of all Canadians in the House of Commons as we move forward. I believe it is going to make sure that this is hypothetical, because the results of a census may mean that we would want to adjust the formula, or at least make allowances for less populated provinces, to ensure they have fair representation after this bill passes.
It is hugely important that even though the principle of proportional representation of the provinces is entrenched in section 42(1)(a) of the Constitution, representation by population has never been the sole criteria when distributing seats in the House of Commons. Canada was created through a federation of provinces with the assumption that each would have fair, if not equal, weight. This has led to the basic unit of calculating seats as a province rather than a straight calculation based on population.
In the reference of the Supreme Court on the provincial electoral boundaries of Saskatchewan, the court commented on the issue of the relative parity of voter power and analogous issues of riding boundaries. Relative parity of voting power is a prime condition of effective representation. Deviations from absolute voter parity, however, may be justified on the grounds of practical impossibility or the provision of more effective representation.
Factors such as geography, community, history, community interests and minority representations may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic beyond this delusion that one citizen's vote as compared with another's should not be countenanced.
Ontario currently has 38.8% of the national population and holds 34.4% of the seats. Alberta has 10.9% of the population and 9.1% of the seats. B.C. has 13.23% of the population and 11.7% of the seats. Quebec currently has 23.2% of the population and 24.35% of the seats, but if the new formula is passed, it will have 22.2% of the seats in the House, which is actually below its proportion of the Canadian population, according to Statistics Canada's 2010 population estimates.
It should also be noted that the legislation sets out a formula for how to determine seat distribution based on population and does not distribute a specific number of seats to provinces. The number of seats currently being used by the government to explain the bill is an estimate of seats based on population projections, and we will not know the actual number of seats these provinces will be allocated until the 2011 census is actually completed.
The existing formula has the two floors, the Senate floor and the grandfathered floor from 1985, and also the decision that each territory will have a seat. We believe that with the effect of the new proposal, there are still some problems that need to be worked out in committee.
We need all Canadians to feel that this was properly studied and that when this bill passes, every single Canadian will understand the reasons for the decisions taken and that it was as fair as it could possibly have been because of the due diligence and proper scrutiny of parliamentarians having heard from witnesses.
It is imperative that this bill go to committee to be properly studied, to bring forward the proper witnesses from Atlantic Canada, for example, Donald Savoie, and other people. The Supreme Court ruling talked about the idea of our social mosaic and how that too is important in any deliberation on allocating seats. We regret that this bill did not come forward in the spring. We regret that we have not received the respect that parliamentarians should be receiving to represent not only their constituents but the future of Canada in all deliberations with respect to a bill as important as this one.
To suggest that we could rush this bill through because the government sat on it since last April is truly disingenuous, ridiculous and undemocratic. I call upon the minister responsible for supposed democratic reform, a member of the Conservative Party, to realize that this proposal flies in the face of anything those of us committed to democratic renewal in this country are trying to do.
Mr. Pierre Paquette (Joliette, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I am extremely pleased to take part in this debate because that way, I, like my colleagues, am fulfilling the mission for which Quebeckers sent us to the House, which is to defend unconditionally the interests of the Quebec nation.
I would like to begin by saying that Bill C-12 on “democratic representation” is a direct attack on the Quebec nation. I am here to say that the Bloc Québécois, as we have been saying for months, will oppose this bill and do everything in its power to prevent the bill from passing. We currently have a minority government, and an election could be called in the next few weeks or the next few months. Our goal is to make this proposed marginalization of the Quebec nation a key issue in Quebec during the next election.
On November 22, 2006, the Conservative government moved a motion recognizing the existence of the Quebec nation. As a nation, we did not need this recognition to exist, but it was nonetheless interesting to see that almost all the parliamentarians in the House recognized the existence of this nation; that was a first. The government should have followed through on this recognition, should have walked the walk by introducing a series of measures.
Naturally, Bill C-12 does not walk the walk when it comes to recognizing the Quebec nation. On the contrary, this bill denies the existence of this nation and marginalizes its representation in federal institutions here, in the House of Commons.
The proportion of the population cannot be the only factor in determining the representation of each of the regions of Canada. If that were the case, Prince Edward Island, which currently has four members of Parliament, would certainly not have as many. Prince Edward Island has approximately the same number of people as a Montreal borough, which generally does not even have one member of Parliament. We understand that, and it is absolutely fine.
We have the same thing with the Îles de la Madeleine in the Quebec National Assembly. We understand that no democratic institution, including the House of Commons, can be an exact mathematical representation of the proportion of the population. This means that an important factor in the debate right now should be that the recognition of the Quebec nation must give it the political weight it requires in federal institutions to ensure that its voice be heard.
Unfortunately, Bill C-12 does the complete opposite. This was mentioned earlier by an NDP member. He said that with Bill C-12, the proportion of members from Quebec in the House will be less than its demographic weight. We believe that Quebec should always have at least 25% of the seats, as was the case at the time of the Charlottetown accords. We should all agree on that. My colleagues know that we are far from agreeing on that.
In Quebec, there is strong, virtually unanimous, opposition to Bill C-12. The Quebec National Assembly has, on several occasions, taken the stance that this bill should be withdrawn. Previously, before the September 2008 election, Bill C-56 gave 26 additional seats to the Canadian nation.
As of the moment the House of Commons acknowledged the existence of the Quebec nation, there have been at least two nations within the Canadian political landscape. In fact, there are more if you consider the first nations, but that is a separate acknowledgement or another way to handle nation-to-nation relationships. In this case, the Canadian political landscape is made up of two major nations: the Canadian nation and the Quebec nation. Bill C-56 would have given the Canadian nation an additional 26 seats, and we were opposed to that. We now have even more reason to object to Bill C-12, which would give it 30 seats.
It should also be mentioned that the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party did not act on Quebec's concerns about Bill C-56. What is worse, Bill C-12 is, in some ways, more reprehensible than Bill C-56. It is clear that this bill is about winning Canadian and Conservative votes. Not only did they not try to find a compromise and a balance to ensure that the Quebec nation is heard in federal institutions, but they introduced a bill that gives more to Ontario, at the expense of the Quebec nation, to ensure that they have more support in the next election in order to perhaps, eventually, win a majority government.
Bill C-12 is even more reprehensible because it adds four seats, which is a slap in the face to the Government of Quebec and the National Assembly after all the submissions they made. I want to remind this House that the 47 Bloc Québécois members and the 125 members of the National Assembly of Quebec are opposed to Bill C-12. That makes 172 out of 200 elected representatives in Quebec who are opposed to this bill, just as they were opposed to Bill C-56. More than 85% of MNAs and MPs from Quebec are opposed to this bill.
Canada should listen to the elected representatives of the Quebec nation and withdraw this bill. In addition, it should keep the proportion of MPs from Quebec at 25%. If the political will is there, formulas will always ensure that the democratic representation in the House reflects Canada's demographic reality, just as it does Quebec's demographic reality. There are other criteria that must be considered, because representation cannot be based on population alone. We can agree on formulas.
For example, if we increase the number of representatives from Canada in the House, we also have to increase the number of representatives from Quebec to keep the proportion at 25%. Quebec would be quite open to this solution, which might make it possible to reflect the demographic realities of faster-growing provinces in western Canada, such as British Columbia and Alberta.
We could also base our approach on what is done in the National Assembly of Quebec, where there are 125 seats and the chief electoral officer of Quebec regularly makes changes to reflect population movements. These are not easy debates. In this case, they take place in Quebec. Sometimes, some regions gain ridings while other regions lose them. But the National Assembly still keeps 125 seats. We could come up with a different breakdown of the current 308 seats in the House, while reserving 25% or so for members from Quebec.
It is not that we do not wish to allow Canada to change its representation to reflect the changing Canadian reality, but rather that this cannot be done at the expense of the interests of the Quebec nation. Benoît Pelletier expressed this very idea, on May 17, 2007, with regard to Bill C-56 which, I will remind members, was the forerunner of Bill C-12, although the latter is even more reprehensible because four more seats are involved. I will thus read what he said when he was intergovernmental affairs minister in the Government of Quebec.
|| I appreciate that the House is based on proportional representation. But I wonder whether there might be special measures to protect Quebec, which represents the main linguistic minority in Canada, is a founding province of Canada and is losing demographic weight. Why could Quebec not be accommodated because of its status as a nation and a national minority within Canada?
It should be noted that Benoît Pelletier is not a sovereignist but a federalist. He clearly understood the essence of a true confederation.
I would also like to remind members that in 1840, when the United Province of Canada was founded, the population of Lower Canada was much larger than that of Upper Canada. At that time, there was more talk about the French-Canadian nation than about the Quebec nation. The political leaders of the French-Canadian nation made the argument with French Canadians, with the population of Lower Canada, for an equal division of seats between Upper Canada and Lower Canada in the central legislature at that time. From the beginning, it was understood that political arrangements were needed to ensure that the two nations could talk to one another as equals.
The spirit that existed in 1840 should have guided us in 2010. Unfortunately, we are forced to acknowledge that we have lost that spirit because the sense of confederation no longer exists. We have a government that is increasingly centralist and, in reality, this is a confederation in name only. It is a political system where the central government, the federal government, has more and more powers, especially because of its pseudo-spending power in provincial areas of jurisdiction.
In this regard, I would like to remind the members of the House that this winter, during this session, the Bloc Québécois introduced a motion to eliminate the federal spending power in areas under the jurisdiction of the provinces and Quebec. The Prime Minister promised that this would be done and the hon. member for Beauce suggested that this action be taken several days before we introduced the motion. Unfortunately, all the Canadian federalist parties opposed the motion. This is yet another sign that the existence of a Quebec nation is not actually recognized.
This lack of recognition is particularly true on the part of the Conservatives, as we later saw. The Conservatives recognized the Quebec nation for opportunistic electoral reasons. They were trying to show Quebeckers that they were more open-minded than Jean Chrétien's Liberal government. However, this recognition and open-mindedness was merely a symbolic gesture—like a rose in someone's lapel—with no concrete meaning.
We have seen other examples of the government's refusal to eliminate the federal spending power. I remind the members of the House that I myself introduced a bill to apply the Charter of the French Language to companies under federal jurisdiction in Quebec, companies such as banks, interprovincial and international shipping companies, and broadcasting and telecommunications companies. We proposed this bill so that the 225,000 workers in Quebec who are not currently protected by the Charter of the French Language could be. With the exception of the NDP members, who were divided on the issue, all of the Canadian federalist parties opposed the bill. This just goes to show the lack of recognition of the Quebec nation and its common language and one official language, French. Once again, the parties wanted to perpetuate the myth of bilingualism when we know full well that, in the rest of Canada, the French-Canadian minority is, unfortunately, gradually being assimilated, despite the laws that, in theory, are supposed to protect francophones.
This is also quite obvious when it comes to the national culture of Quebec and Quebeckers. The Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages once again introduced Bill C-32, which has been denounced by all creators, artists and singers in Quebec. This government has shown nothing but complete indifference. I must say, Quebec is not the only place that abhors Bill C-32. Many Canadian artists are also denouncing it, but Quebec's voice has been much louder than that of anglophone artists in Canada. So, once again, a direct attack is being launched on Quebec culture. This is another example of the failure to give tangible expression to the recognition of the Quebec nation. Very clearly, the bill before us is meant to favour the major broadcasters and the major Canadian and American producers, to the detriment of artists' copyrights.
Once again, this all proves that tangible expression will never be given to the recognition of the Quebec nation—not under the Conservatives nor under any federalist party.
If the government had really taken the Quebec nation into account, it would never have introduced Bill C-12. Something else would have been arranged, like what was agreed upon in Charlottetown, that is, 25% Quebec representation in federal institutions.
The old Constitution, the 1867 Constitution, contained provisions whereby the French-Canadian nation, which was based in the Lower St. Lawrence region and in Lower Canada as a whole, had accepted that the English-Canadian nation should have equal representation. Things have changed since then.
French-Canadians who live within Quebec's borders now identify themselves as Quebeckers. Everyone who lives in Quebec considers themselves part of the Quebec nation. People no longer talk about a nation based on ethnicity. The same is true of the Canadian nation. It is not a nation made up of English-Canadians or people only of British, Scottish or Irish origin. Now everyone agrees that people who live in Quebec, those who are permanent residents, who have citizenship, regardless of their place of birth, their religion or their mother tongue, are Canadians or Quebeckers.
We also have to recognize that in that context, Quebec remains the heart of the Francophonie, not just in the Canadian body politic, but in all of North America and even the Americas. Except for Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe, where French is spoken, the only place where French is the primary language is Quebec.
We have to take this reality into account in order to make the political voice of Quebec heard in the House. Mr. Gérin-Lajoie made the same arguments when he was education minister in the early 1960s under the Liberal government of Jean Lesage in Quebec, during the quiet revolution. He said that Quebec's domestic jurisdictions should be extended to the world stage. He was particularly interested in the issue of education. He said that since Quebec was responsible for education, which is central to the development of a nation and its culture, then Quebec should be heard with its own voice on issues of education and culture in international institutions. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Let us not forget that at UNESCO, we were offered a small ejection seat. If there is no agreement within the Canadian delegation between the representatives from Quebec and those from Canada, then Quebec has to keep mum, and Canada gets to speak on behalf of Quebec even if their positions differ.
This bill is insulting to us. It has to be withdrawn and I will amend it in the following way: I move, seconded by the hon. member for Laval, that the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following:
||the House decline to give second reading to Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Democratic representation), because the bill would unacceptably reduce the political weight of the Quebec nation in the House of Commons and does not set out that Quebec must hold 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons.
I am moving this amendment.
Mr. David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, NDP):
Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to join in the debate.
Let me just state at the outset, for the record, that I am not going to repeat everything that has been said. It does not need a second go-round. However, we do believe strongly in the principle of representation by population, rep by pop. I am from Ontario, the province that, quite frankly, is in the greatest need of more seats to recognize the growing population.
Some hon. members: Hear, hear!
Mr. David Christopherson: You guys applaud easily. Do you do that for B.C. and Alberta, too? I will mention them. There we go. And one for Alberta. Okay. Now, we have got through that. One would think it would be motherhood, given all that applause, that we would not be stuck in this position where we are.
Mr. Speaker, let me also say that we believe, as we approach this, that we need to be recognizing the constitutional structure of Canada, our history, as well as community of interest, as defined by the Supreme Court. Those are fundamental principles that we hold out as we move forward in reviewing this bill.
Before I leave that, let me also say, and this is important, that this is like fixing one-third of the democratic deficit we have in Canada. The other two-thirds are comprised of, ultimately, getting rid of that other place down the hall that we do not need and, second, getting proportional representation, which would truly give us a House representative of population.
We need to go to a PR House, get rid of the other place, increase the seats that the provinces need to reflect their population, and then all we have done is a major repair work. Then there is the actual onward building of the country. That is the kind of work we need to do. However, this is an important piece of it. That is why we are holding the government to account on not having brought this bill forward for eight months. This argument, because there have been some kerfuffles around other bills, that somehow the opposition denied the minister and the government the opportunity to bring in this bill is just nonsense.
First, most of the time that we took up in this place in the last year was to make up for the ground we lost because the government prorogued. So a lot of the time that was here was time that the government wasted, and those bills have been in here three and four times. The government also could have extended the hours in the last days of the sitting. It did not do that.
I hear the minister over there laughing. I do not know what he is laughing about. It is important work. The hours were there. The time was there to do it. Given that I heard the Minister of Democratic Reform say the reason the bill did not come in was because the government did not have House time, I am pointing out that is not accurate. There was a lot of House time. What was missing was the political will to bring it forward, which brings me to the article that triggered all of this.
I have made the comments here that we had a fulsome debate on April 20, for anybody who is following these things, about the Bloc position and an amendment that we put. I think it very clearly states where we are on this issue. It expands on the principles that I have already mentioned this morning. We support not the 25%, and there is a reason for that, but indeed the 24.35%, which represents the relative strength of Quebec now when this bill is introduced. But more important, that represents the relative weight of the seats for Quebec in the House of Commons as it was at the time that this House unanimously said we recognize the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada.
The reason we are even debating this today, in the last dying moments of the House, is an article in the December 2 Globe and Mail, by John Ibbitson. I realize the reporters do not write the headlines, but the headline is “Federal parties agree to scrap bill to correct voting inequalities”.
I was interviewed for that, and I have to tell members it was one of those moments. We get going through an interview and the reporter throws a piece of information at us that we did not know or that is new or maybe it is something that is thrown out there to throw us off. It is a whole art unto itself, interviewing us types.
I am going to be straight upfront about where we are here, how we got here and the confusion around this article. That is my fashion, as people who know me know.
The reporter was going along sort of normal, so to speak. I do not have a tape but I suspect the reporter does. In the midst of the interview, the reporter said, “I want you to know that I've talked to one your party strategists, who I can't name but who tells me that there's an unofficial, a wink-and-a-nod deal to make sure that C-12 doesn't become law, doesn't carry, doesn't move”.
That caught me flat-footed because I had heard no such thing from anyone. However, I have been around long enough in government and in opposition to know that sometimes decisions are taken at higher levels up the food chain than me and we are not always notified in a quite timely way.
I was sort of dancing a little, thinking maybe there was something going on and I did not know about it. I said as much to the reporter. I said, “To the best of my knowledge all I can do is reflect where the elected caucus is. Unnamed, unknown, confidential party strategists I do not know about. The position of the NDP on Bill C-12 is that, as an elected member, as the elected chair of the Ontario caucus within our federal caucus and as a member from Ontario, I can tell you that we are supportive of Bill C-12 getting to committee so that we can do the work that needs to be done. Nothing has changed”.
I said that. I did not know how the article would turn out. When I looked at it, the whole article was what these strategists in the background said. I know I am wading into waters that I am going to regret.
Hon. Vic Toews: Go ahead.
Mr. David Christopherson: Thanks a lot. “Go ahead”, good friends from across the way holler.
One does not mess with someone else's profession. We interact with reporters but it is not our world, not our profession.
I have to say that the comments from the elected people, while in some cases may not have been as clear as one might hope, certainly did not reflect that headline and it certainly did not reflect what the so-called party strategists were talking about. That is what disturbs me.
I want to make sure that I get this in. I am actually glad in the long run that it happened because it did bring about debate. However I would feel a lot better about it if we had actually got to a vote and sent it to committee so that when we returned in the new year we were landing ready to go, ready to start working at committee. As it is, I do not know where we are going to go.
What I do know is, if there are NDP strategists who are saying differently than I am right now, then they should come out of the shadows, come into public and put their comments forward, because those are not true.
What happened was, given the importance of this issue in our country, that there was an avalanche of articles in which people took that starting point as the gospel, then moved from there, and we all got dumped on from all the four parties because the message was out there that there was this secret deal by backroom folk to make sure that the bill died.
I am putting on the record right now for the NDP that there is no such position, no such wink and a nod, no nudge-nudge. The fact is that we desperately need to get the bill to committee. Ultimately we have to get it enacted.
There are 30 members of Parliament who are not here who should be representing Canadians and speaking for them, just as we are. The reason they are not is that collectively, and it is the government's fault because it is the lead, collectively we have not found a way to change the law to allow that to happen.
Here we are in the last few minutes of the last day. Normally the government puts sort of unimportant things here. It shoehorns them in. My sense is the government brought this in today so that it could put forward words about how it wants to make this move forward. Again, in the absence of a vote it really does not mean much other than it is now on the political agenda of Canadians, especially those Canadians in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. who are waiting for their right to democracy and fairness and representation in this place to be delivered to them.
We are the only ones who can do that. That is why I ask the question of the Bloc. I believe if we could get this bill to committee, given the importance, we would be forced to find a way to have common ground to get this through so we can get those MPs into the House doing their job on behalf of the Canadians who have yet to elect them.
We in the NDP believe that the issue around Quebec ought not to be such a huge matter. It is sort of the second part of what we already did with the declaration.
We fervently believe that one of the medium- and long-term goals of all of us from outside of Quebec is to continue to try to create the conditions, with limitations, I am not suggesting we write a cheque and let everything go, but at the end of the day if we truly want a united Canada, all the provinces have to be signed on to the Constitution. In this country, that is not going to happen at the end of a gun and it is not going to happen through any kind of coercion. It would only happen if the people of Quebec decide in their hearts that their future is with Canada as federalists as opposed to sovereignists and an independent Quebec. That is the battle. It seems to us in the NDP that it is only fair that if we are going to go as far as we did on the motion earlier, we at least lock in that relative weight. This is a culture that is trying to survive surrounded by umpteen hundred other cultures and beyond our borders too, and we are proud of what that means for Canada.
That to us ought not to be such a big deal. It looks as though it is going to turn into that. It is a shame. I want to emphasize that I did appreciate the positive remarks of the House leader for the Bloc. He offered, I think, some constructive tone and opportunity as well as his other concerns. My words, not theirs, but I got the sense, and when I did use the word I was not corrected by the member, that they are not looking to be obstructionist about this, that they recognize the need for Ontario, Alberta and B.C. to get these extra seats so they are properly weighted and represented in the House, but Bloc members want to do it in a way that makes sure that it is not the slippery slope so that 50, 75 or 100 years from now they are down to a fraction, percentage-wise, if theirs is not one of the provinces that grows in population. We do not know what those numbers are going to be.
We are in a bit of a spot here. I am glad we are debating it. We will not know until we get back, assuming we do come back, how serious the government is about this. We in the NDP will be looking for the government to put Bill C-12 front and centre when we come back, rather than tagging it into the last day in the final dying hours of the House before we rise for the Christmas break. When we get back, I really hope that some of the positiveness here can be focused and that we can get a quick vote to get the bill to committee, because that is where the real work is. We all know that. Then we can bring in the provinces and all the experts. We can do all that we need to do but try to do it in a timely fashion so that we are not just stuck here, because that is where we are.
We look to the government. It has all the levers of power. We look to it to correct its mistake of letting this languish for so long and give action to its words that this is a priority, that it cares about the people of Ontario, Alberta and B.C. If so, then we would like to see that reflected in government business when we return, that this is up there for debate and we spend as much time as it takes to get to a second reading vote so that hopefully we can get this to committee, and as quickly as possible, get our work done there and then get it back.
Remember, democracy is not perfect. One of its negatives is that it is slow. So we need to recognize that, as quickly as we move in each of the pieces, there are a lot of pieces that need to be dealt with. If anybody is causing us to drag our heels at any of these stages, this is just not going to get fixed, and then, quite frankly, those headlines out there will be probably well deserved.
This is a minority House, a minority government, but everybody is talking about wanting to ensure that Ontario, Alberta and B.C. get the seats they could. Everyone is pretty much treating that as motherhood, so let us find out, what are the rubs; where are the problems? Let us try to get a little bit of grease, a little bit of oil, on that problem and get it dealt with. If the Bloc members are not going to vote for this on second reading no matter what, fair enough, that is their right, but that is not the majority of the House. We can still get it to committee where we can deal with their issues and all the other issues, but that is only going to happen if the government puts the bill on government business in a timely enough fashion such that we can actually do the work.
I will leave it there and I look forward to any comments and questions from colleagues.
Hon. Michael Chong (Wellington—Halton Hills, CPC):
Madam Speaker, there is an amendment before us from the Bloc Québécois to defeat this bill at second reading, so it my honour to speak to that amendment and to the broader bill behind the amendment, Bill C-12, the Democratic Representation Act.
My party is supporting the bill and the Bloc clearly is not. Therefore, my comments today are directed toward the Liberals and the New Democrats.
Before I begin, I am splitting my time with the member for Edmonton—St. Albert.
For my colleagues across the aisle, this is one of the most important pieces of legislation introduced into the House of Commons in the last 10 years. It is so important because it ensures compliance with a fundamental constitutional principle, and that is representation by population in this chamber.
The idea in the Constitution is that this is the people's chamber and this principle is fundamental to democracy and an essential element of the Canadian Constitution. Representation by population is the notion that all Canadian citizens are equal and they all should have an equal say in who governs our country.
It is fundamental to our system of government. It is a founding principle of Confederation. In fact, it was the war cry of George Brown, who was the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 1857, and post-Confederation, to 1873. He fought for that principle in the United Province of Canada and subsequently in Confederation. It was on that agreement, in part, that Confederation was forged.
Today, however, we have gone a long way from that founding constitutional principle. The gap between how many voters an MP represents in a fast-growing province, such as Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, has never been bigger. The gap today is bigger than at any other point in our country's history since 1867.
Under the current formula by which the seats have been distributed in this very chamber, we have reached a point where the difference between the fast-growing populations in provinces such as Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario and the slower-growing regions has undermined the very principle of representation by population. For example, an MP in the House from Ontario, B.C. or Alberta represents, on average, 26,000 more Canadians than an MP from any of the other 7 provinces.
I acknowledge two other constitutional conditions on representation by population: the senatorial floor and the grandfather clause. The senatorial floor ensures that there must be at least as many members in this chamber from a particular provincial division as there are senators represented in the next chamber. The grandfather clause in section 51 ensures that in no circumstance can the number of MPs in any provincial division fall below the number of MPs that the provincial division had in place in 1986.
While the Constitution contains these two conditions on representation by population, the essential element is there and the essential element is clear and overwhelming that this chamber should be representative of the population of each provincial division.
The current situation may very well be unconstitutional. In 1991 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on proposed changes to the electoral boundaries in the provincial division of Saskatchewan. The court stated:
|| A system which dilutes one citizen's vote unduly as compared with another citizen's vote runs the risk of providing inadequate representation to the citizen whose vote is diluted....The result will be uneven and unfair representation.
When MPs from faster and larger-growing provinces represent tens of thousands more constituents than their colleagues from smaller provinces, it is a violation of the fundamental constitutional principle of representation by population. It is also a denial of a voice for new Canadians and for visible minorities. That fact is when we look at the 30 most populous ridings in the country, more than half of them have greater than 25% visible minority populations. The fact is these 30 largest ridings are disproportionately from Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Those ridings are disproportionately made up of new Canadians and visible minorities.
Denying these rapidly-growing regions new seats is to deny new Canadians, and visible minorities in particular, a voice in this chamber. The new Canada is growing, the new Canada needs a voice and the new Canada wants in. This is where the democratic representation act comes in.
By bringing faster-growing regions closer to representation by population in the House, Bill C-12 would restore the balance in this chamber. By adding seats to faster-growing regions, the gap in average riding populations in the country will be reduced.
For my New Democrat and Liberal colleagues, the longer we wait to make these changes, the more difficult, the more politically tenuous, they will become. The longer we wait to address this inequity, the more difficult it will be to achieve politically, because the gap will only continue to grow.
Population projections confirm this. The GTA, the region which I represent, has eight million people. It is going to grow by 50% in the next 20 years. The greater Toronto area will go from 8 million Canadians to 12 million Canadians by 2031. The same story can be told of Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.
The number of visible minorities in the country will also continue to grow. In fact, Statistics Canada recently released a report that said by 2031, one in three Canadians would be a visible minority, up to 14.4 million citizens.
The effects of this imbalance are very real. They are real for Canadians in faster-growing provinces whose voices are not in this chamber, whose voices are not represented here and whose voices are not heard as strongly as they should be. By allowing under-representation to continue, we are sending a signal to these Canadians that their interests are not as important as those from other regions of the country and that they somehow count for less.
This act would strike a good balance between providing fair representation for those slower-growing provinces and recognizing the galloping heterogeneity of the new Canada. It would recognize the demographic realities in faster growing regions of the country.
I encourage my Liberal and New Democratic colleagues to support the bill, to defeat the amendment in front of us and to restore the fundamental constitutional principle, representation by population.
Provinces like Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario have experienced significant population growth and that trend needs to be reflected in the makeup of the House. Under this bill, all other provinces and territories would have their seat counts protected and would continue to enjoy better representation than the three faster-growing provinces. They would continue to be better represented in the House than the three faster-growing provinces.
This act strikes a good balance between the different interests across the country and restores a fundamental constitutional principle.
Mr. Brent Rathgeber (Edmonton—St. Albert, CPC):
Madam Speaker, it is certainly a pleasure for me to rise to speak in favour of Bill C-12, the Democratic Representation Act, and to speak against the Bloc amendment that would prevent it from going any further.
The bill proposes a formula that would address the representation gap in the House of Commons affecting provinces with faster growing populations.
Our government is taking a principled approach. The bill, if passed unamended, will increase the number of MPs for faster growing provinces to bring them closer to representation by population while protecting the current seat counts of slower growing provinces.
Under the current formula for readjusting seats in the House, my province, the province of Alberta, has become significantly underrepresented, despite a population surge in the last two decades. However, the democratic representation act recognizes the growing populations of Ontario, of B.C. and of Alberta by providing additional seats for the provinces on a principled basis, ensuring that all residents are fairly represented in this hallowed chamber.
I support the bill unamended, because it guarantees provinces whose populations are in relative decline will not lose any seats.
All members in this place would like their provinces to have as much representation as possible. That is only natural. However, we also have to look at the national interest by ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that Canadians have fair representation, no matter in what portion of Canada they live from coast to coast to coast.
The need to balance effective representation of smaller provinces with the demographic realities in faster growing provinces has underpinned each formula for distributing seats in the House ever since Confederation.
On the one hand, historically we have recognized that each province should have a number of seats in the House that roughly reflects its population, relative to the rest of the provinces. On the other hand we acknowledge that smaller, or slower growing, provinces need to have sufficient weight in the House to ensure that their voices are heard in decisions affecting the entire country. My remarks today will look at the historic evolution of the constitutional formula for distributing seats in the House of Commons.
The Fathers of Confederation agreed that the House of Commons should reflect democratic principles of representation, or rep by pop, as it is colloquially known. Accordingly, the Constitution Act, 1867, gave Quebec a fixed number of 65 seats, with the other provinces receiving the number of seats in proportion to their population that 65 represented in relation to Quebec's. This calculation was based entirely on the concept of rep by pop.
Each province received the number of seats it deserved, based on its share of the Canadian population. However, from the beginning it was recognized that situations might, and in fact did, arise where it would be necessary to break away from the principles of pure rep by pop. For example, there was a rule in the 1867 Constitution that stated that no province would lose seats unless its population had decreased by 5% or more relative to Canada's total population.
Shortly after Confederation, new provinces entered the confederation. When the new provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia entered in the early 1870s, they received a number of seats much higher than they would have based on pure rep by pop This was an early example of Parliament recognizing that each province required a number of seats to have an effective say in the governance of this country. For example, the province of British Columbia joined Confederation with six seats in 1871 when its population at the time would have resulted in only two seats.
B.C. continued to have six seats, protected thanks to the “5% rule” I mentioned earlier, until the significant population growth in British Columbia resulted in more seats in 1903.
Then there was the senatorial clause. Apart from the core seats that were allocated when new provinces entered Confederation, the formula for readjusting seats essentially stayed constant until 1915. At that point, a new rule was added to the Constitution that provided no province could have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it had in the upper House. This new Senate floor rule came about after Prince Edward Island lost its court challenge seeking a larger share of seats in this House.
Prince Edward Island strongly maintained it should have a minimum number of seats in the House regardless of its population to ensure it could effectively participate in the governance of the country.
Although Prince Edward Island lost the court challenge the province won a political victory in 1915 when the Constitution was amended to guarantee its seat count would never fall below the limit of four members of Parliament.
There have been other changes in the formula. The constitutional formula was again changed in 1946 and then again in 1952 in an effort to guarantee a level of representation for Saskatchewan and Quebec, which had both seen relative declines in their population. The 1952 amendment created a new rule where no province could lose more than 15% of the seats it had under the previous census.
Finally, in 1974 a very complicated formula, the amalgam formula, was adopted. I hope no one during the questions and answers period asks me to explain it.
The amalgam formula applied different rules for allocating seats in the House depending on whether a province was large, intermediate or small. While in theory the amalgam formula was designed to protect provinces with decreasing relative populations, it was soon discovered that applying the rules to the results of the 1981 census would have led to a huge number of new MPs being added to the House.
Because of the problems with the amalgam formula the current formula was adopted by Parliament in 1985. The 1985 formula starts with the fixed number of 279 seats, which was the number of MPs in the House in 1985. Those seats are allocated among the provinces based on their share of the Canadian population at that time. This basically mirrors the rep by pop principle in the 1867 Constitution Act.
Next, the Senate floor was applied to ensure that no province received fewer seats in this House than it has in the upper House.
Finally, the grandfather clause guarantees all provinces receive at a minimum the number of seats they had when the new formula came into effect in 1985.
The seat top-up provided to some provinces represents the belief of the Fathers of Confederation that every Canadian deserves to have an effective voice in the governance of their country.
Ironically, the very rules meant to protect the representation of smaller and slower growing provinces have caused the faster growing provinces to become under-represented. Because of the distortions created by the current formula, MPs in Ontario, British Columbia and myself representing Alberta on average represent 26,000 more constituents than MPs in the remaining provinces.
This balance between effective representation and demographic reality, which our predecessors saw as so essential to Canadian democracy, is now being threatened. Under-representation of people in faster growing provinces will grow worse each time the current formula is applied unless Parliament acts now.
In conclusion, the democratic representation act will bring Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta closer to representation by population while protecting the current seat counts of the remaining provinces. The new formula is principled, fair and will not cause an undue increase in the number of members of Parliament in the House of Commons.
I sincerely believe this solution balances the rights and expectations of all Canadians. As members of Parliament representing every part of this country it is our responsibility to ensure our democratic institutions are inclusive and representative.
Bill C-12 will go a long way toward achieving these important goals. I encourage all members of the House to vote against the Bloc amendment and pass Bill C-12 unamended as expeditiously as possible.
Mr. Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Lib.):
Madam Speaker, the government is sending mixed messages with regard to Bill C-12. If we think about what it is saying, it is trying to emphasize how important it is for this bill to go to committee and ultimately to continue through the process to become law. One can reflect on the fact that the Conservative Party has been in government for a number of years, and many would argue too many years, but that is another debate for another time. From what I understand, the bill has been on the order paper since April, yet today is the first day that members are afforded the opportunity to participate in second reading debate. One has to question the rationale and why it is the bill is before us today.
Most, if not all, members would recognize the importance of democracy and the manner in which members of Parliament or other parliamentarians are elected. There is a responsibility. I am really disappointed in the government's style of approach in dealing with this issue.
There is a responsibility for ministers to do their homework. I do not believe the minister has done his homework. There is a responsibility for the minister to have consultations to try to build a consensus. Different types of legislation will come before the House. The type such as the bill before us today is one that should be done in a more apolitical fashion.
Either the government House leader or the minister should have been having discussions with members of all political entities in the chamber to get a better understanding as to how we move forward in order to achieve the necessary consensus to make the changes that will be beneficial for all Canadians. Had the government approached it in that fashion, I would argue there would have been a higher sense of co-operation among the different political entities in the House of Commons.
If the minister had done his homework, as he should have, I suspect that having the bill pass quickly in a couple of hours in order for it to go to committee would have been that much more achievable. There are aspects of legislation the government needs to think twice about in terms of the type of work that has been done.
Whether it is Bill C-12 or reforms to our electoral laws, the onus is on the government to work with all political parties and build on that consensus. That point has been lost.
I had the privilege of working on electoral reform and Senate reform in different capacities. In fact, I was part of an all party task force just over a year ago that dealt with Senate reform. Actually, it was indirectly mandated through the current Prime Minister.
I bring that up because there is a great deal of merit in the way in which Manitoba initially attempted to deal with the issue. It was recognized that, given the very nature of the issue, it was important that legislators meet with the public. Public meetings were set up all over the province of Manitoba and a committee of individuals was put together. I happened to be the one representing the Liberal Party.
The committee went to different communities to hear first-hand what the public had to say about Senate reform and what role Manitoba should play. The government would have done well had it used a similar approach of working with political parties and seeking the opinions and thoughts of Canadians about legislation such as this.
It would be good to draw upon some of the comparisons. There is the whole issue of why one province has x number of senators while another province with a far greater population only has y number of senators. There seems to be some injustice.
The public, as a whole, within the province of Manitoba recognized that. It was great to be able to get the feedback, in terms of what real people had to say about that issue.
I listened very carefully to members from the government caucus and the Liberal caucus with regard to rep by pop. In theory, yes, rep by pop is a great way to go. However, we are a nation of different regions. We have to be sensitive to the constitutional history of our country. We have to be sensitive to the needs of the different regions, the uniqueness of all of our provinces. Whether it be Manitoba, P.E.I., Quebec or British Columbia, all provinces are unique in their own way, I would ultimately argue. In listening to the presentations from the public with regard to this issue, I found that the public was very sympathetic to those arguments. They understand that representation by population is a positive thing. They also were sympathetic, as I believe a majority of Canadians would be, to the rationale that was being used to try to justify the numbers. It did not mean they agreed with the numbers, but it meant they were open to some sort of fluctuation.
Canadians as a whole are very reasonable people. The government had nothing to fear by working with opposition parties and listening to what the public might have to say. There has been a great deal of reluctance from the current government to engage the public.
When I reflect on the by-election, the different styles in leadership amaze me. The Liberal Party has a leader who is prepared to go out and engage with people, whether it is at town hall meetings, Internet town halls, or just getting out into the community unscripted. Compare that to the little glass bubble the current Prime Minister seems to be in and the amount of control he insists on. I suspect maybe it was the Prime Minister's Office that said to the minister, “No, no, no. Don't go out and consult with the public because we might not want to hear what they have to say. We have our script and that is the script that has to be”.
It is very clear that is the type of comment we hear with the current government, “Here is the course we are taking”. It does not matter what is actually happening and what people have to say about legislation the government is talking about. The government is determined that this is the direction in which we have to go.
I respect that the government members said that this is an important bill. However, what is really lacking is any recognition that Canadians have a role to play in terms of providing input. I do not believe the government has factored that in. And there are other things the government could have done.
At the end of the day, as I say, if the government is not prepared to have an all-party working group go into the communities to get the feedback, we can work with the different political parties to try to get that consensus. In this way, at least those other political entities have the option to do the consultation, which I believe is critically important when we are making changes of this nature.
In my opinion, that is a lost opportunity, which is unfortunate. It could have taken advantage of that opportunity to go out and consult. I will go back to the task force. When we went into the community, often the media would take an interest and there would be a report in different media outlets. People were better informed and more in the loop in terms of what it is that the legislators were talking about. There was no big surprise at the end of the day.
The government caucus has lost that opportunity. There was an opportunity to go out in a fair and open fashion to engage people, perhaps in town hall meetings. In that way there would be a better understanding in terms of what it is the government is trying to do.
Instead, it is almost as if the government wanted to try to build on wedge issues, issues that would cause a division. That causes concern. I do not believe that is in the long-term national best interest. I would have much preferred a government that was prepared to work with the parties in the House of Commons and with the public in dealing with bills of this nature.
Representation is one of the fundamental pillars of our democracy. I expected better from the government of the day. I am disappointed that it did not do its homework. To add insult to injury, after waiting, as one of my colleagues said, 160 days or since April or however long it has been, the Conservative government expects everyone to give it a pat on the back and say, “Good job”.
We know that the government has dropped the ball in terms of doing what it could have done to really improve democratic reform in the country. This is a very important issue. One of the great challenges we have as parliamentarians is trying to get more people engaged in the democratic process.
I had an opportunity a number of years ago in a different task force to deal with democratic reform at the grassroots level. Some interesting things came out of that.
We should be looking for ways in which we can have a healthier system. One of the recommendations that was brought forward was the idea allowing individuals to vote in malls. Generally speaking, it was felt that we need to make voting more accessible. In the last provincial election that is in fact what was done. Elections Manitoba allowed people to vote in locations where people were going to be, to make it more convenient. The system worked. People appreciated that.
There is so much more we could be doing to make our system that much better. Ultimately, I would argue that there is no such thing as perfect system. I think it was Winston Churchill who once commented on the overall ugliness in terms of how the parliamentary system works, but at the end of the day it was the best system in the world.
I believe, as many do, that we need to stand on guard and look at ways in which we can make our system work better. We need to look at ways in which we can improve the system. We need to look at ways in which we can engage people.
The more we engage people in a process like this one, the more interest they are going to have and the more they are going to want to participate in the process.
It always saddens me when I think of the number of young people who, for whatever reason, do not get out to vote. We could be doing so much more to engage our young people in the system. I suspect that if we brought a bill of this nature to a university campus or to a town hall meeting and young people were invited to provide their views on the kind of representation they want in our country, they would participate in the process. That is what we are missing. The government does not see the value of getting engaged with the public. It is good to see legislation that recognizes the need and tries to address that need but we could do so much more.
I encourage the government to step outside the box, step outside the Prime Minister's Office. The government needs to start thinking of ways to better serve Canadians as a whole.
Canadians should be engaged with respect to this legislation. A political party does not have the right to hijack legislation of this type and say that it is the only party that understands democracy and the way in which it works. All political parties have a vested interest in ensuring we have the best system in the world and in looking at ways in which we can improve upon it.
The government was wrong not to engage the different political parties. The government was wrong not to engage the public. As a result, I suspect the legislation is not as good as it could have been or as it should have been.
I am partial to this legislation but I personally appeal to government members that when they bring forward legislation in general that they look at better ways to get people involved in the process.
I would challenge the government to give serious thought to how we can improve the wonderful system that we currently have and to approach it with an open mind. By approaching it with an open mind and working within the system and engaging the people of our country, the system can be improved. We must never take it for granted.
One of the most touching things I have ever experienced happened one day inside the Manitoba legislature. As we were sitting on the front benches giving speeches, some vets were sitting behind us. It prompted me to remember that our veterans gave us the right to be where we are today. We should never take them for granted.
When it comes to issues such as this, it is important that we provide the best type of legislation we can so we can all feel good about the democracy in which we live and the democracy which we are proud to be a part of in this chamber, as I am.
Mr. Yves Lessard (Chambly—Borduas, BQ):
Madam Speaker, today, my colleague from Joliette and I are taking on a great responsibility that is very broad in scope by conveying the Quebec consensus to the House. The only people who disagree with this consensus are the Conservative and Liberal members from Quebec who sit in this House.
Quebec's National Assembly voted unanimously against this bill three times, and again, just recently, in May. The 120 members of the National Assembly unanimously oppose this bill, and the 48 Bloc members, who account for two-thirds of the Quebec representatives in this House, share their opinion.
As did my colleague from Joliette, I would like to remind the members of the House of the negative and undemocratic effects that this bill will have. It will significantly reduce Quebec's political weight in terms of democratic representation. Bill C-12 is a bill on democratic representation that amends the formula provided in the Constitution for adjusting the number of seats in the House of Commons for each province after each decennial census or every 10 years.
This brings us back to the rule on proportionality under which some provinces are respected and others are not. We understand the rule and we agree with it.
Prince Edward Island's population is quite small. We accept the fact that the number of PEI members is not in keeping with the population-based proportion rules, which means that PEI members sometimes represent less than 50% of the number of voters that we have in each of our ridings, including the riding of the member for Winnipeg North. This is something we accept because we recognize that geographic characteristics should be represented by an electoral college that reflects the views of the people.
However, this representation should not be limited to geographical representation because if we had used that argument, we would have called for this long ago even though we recognize it for others. Some Quebec ridings, such as Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, are as big as Israel, for example. And then there is all of northern Quebec with ridings like Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou. These areas are bigger than many countries. If that were a factor, Quebec as a whole would have far more members than it does currently. However, this criterion is applied to others because we acknowledge that the electoral college of certain provinces is large enough to represent an opinion. I do not know if the hon. member is following what I am saying. This criterion can be applied to certain regions, but not everywhere.
Should other criteria be taken into consideration? Special criteria should be considered in certain regions of the country.
Of course we want our own country, Quebec, but in the meantime we live in a country with a constitution, Canada. We have the right to representation that must take into consideration our distinct character, which is based on two major features.
One is our language, because we have that distinguishing characteristic. We are also one of the founding provinces of Canada. The other distinguishing characteristic is that since Confederation, there has always been a concern that Quebec not go below 25% of the number of seats. We are not asking for a majority of seats or a number that is disproportionate to our representation, but we must have an electoral college that is sufficiently representative to reflect these two distinguishing features: our geography and the special nature of the Quebec nation.
In Canada there are two nations: the Canadian nation and the Quebec nation. It took us I do not know how many decades to have that recognized here in the House. Once it was recognized, we realized that it did not mean anything to the Conservative government. Not only was the recognition meaningless, but the government stepped up its efforts to reduce Quebec's weight within the democracy. Bill C-12 is a perfect example. I was not here, because I had other responsibilities, but my colleague who spoke before me must have talked about that. We do not have any objection per se to additional seats for provinces whose populations have grown significantly, provided that there is still a rule on democratic representation that reflects the two distinguishing characteristics I mentioned earlier. Bill C-12 does not do that.
That is why my colleague from Joliette moved the amendment I will reread:
|| That the House decline to give second reading to Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Democratic representation), because the Bill would unacceptably reduce the political weight of the Quebec nation in the House of Commons and does not set out that Quebec must hold 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons.
Of course I see many parliamentarians look the other way or sigh impatiently whenever we talk about the Quebec nation. This illustrates just how indifferent this particular government is towards Quebec. It comes down to more than just the documents; it also shows in their attitude. Attitude speaks volumes about how our colleagues in the other parties do not want to take into account either the two polar opposites I was talking about earlier or the recognized tradition of ensuring that Quebec does not fall below 25% representation in the House.
On November 22, 2006, the Conservative government moved a motion to recognize the Quebec nation. Since then, the Conservatives have been systematically attacking the Quebec nation and have rejected every proposal to bring tangible expression to that recognition. They introduced Bill C-12, currently before us, which would marginalize the Quebec nation even further within the whole of Canada. The Prime Minister wants to continue reducing our political weight in the House of Commons. Thus, from the 36% of seats it had in 1867, Quebec will have only 22.4% in 2014. The Prime Minister who promised us open federalism is muzzling us instead.
I said this in a question earlier, but it cannot be overstated: we are debating a bill that is supposed to pave the way for even greater democracy and instead we are realizing that, in this debate, the expression of democracy, as expressed by the Quebec National Assembly, is being denied.
Quebec's National Assembly unanimously demanded withdrawal of Bill C-56, which gave 26 seats to English Canada and none to Quebec. I am talking about the previous bill, which in essence is the same bill. All the elected members of Quebec's National Assembly and the 49 Bloc Québécois members who make up two-thirds of elected Quebeckers in the House of Commons, are calling for this bill to be withdrawn. In total, 87% of the elected members from the nation of Quebec are calling for this bill to be withdrawn.
Again, it is quite ironic that they claim to be expanding democracy for other regions in Canada when they are denying democratic expression from Quebec by all the elected members there. I am talking about 87%. There is something unacceptable about the way the government is acting. That is why we will repeat ad nauseum that this bill needs to be rejected and our amendment adopted.
I am not sure if the hon. members in the House are familiar with Benoît Pelletier. He was a cabinet minister in the Charest government in Quebec. He is a Liberal and a federalist and not someone who would lobby for the nation of Quebec to become a country. When he was intergovernmental affairs minister he said the following on May 17, 2007, when Bill C-56 was being debated. He was on the show Maisonneuve en direct talking about the number of seats in the House of Commons. This might interest the hon. member over there because if she ever intends to say something about this, she might not repeat what I am about to say. Mr. Pelletier said:
|| I appreciate that the House is based on proportional representation. But I wonder whether there might be special measures to protect Quebec, which represents the main linguistic minority in Canada, is a founding province of Canada and is losing demographic weight...Why could Quebec not be accommodated because of its status as a nation and a national minority within Canada?
I think that summarizes the situation. He is a federalist and a constitutionalist who teaches and was a minister in Mr. Charest's cabinet. He very eloquently expressed the feelings of all elected officials in Quebec and, of course, of the Quebec National Assembly.
Here, it is as though that did not exist. There is only one opinion that goes with that notion of federalism, and you either believe in it or you suffer the consequences. We have to believe in federalism, otherwise we will gradually end up in a funnel, where, democratically, we no longer have the ability to meaningfully express how we would like things to go. That is where we are today.
I remind members that, in response to the Conservatives and the Liberals voting against the Bloc Québécois motion to not pass the bill, the Quebec National Assembly adopted a third unanimous motion on April 22, 2010. I will repeat it, in the hopes that one day, people will listen to what Quebec has to say. It said, “That the National Assembly reaffirms that Québec, as a nation, must be able to enjoy special protection for the weight of its representation in the House of Commons” and asked “...the elected Members from all political parties [sitting in Ottawa] to abandon the passage of any bill whose effect would be to diminish the weight of the representation of Québec in the House of Commons.”
An Angus Reid poll from April 7, 2010, also indicated that 71% of Quebeckers were against such a bill and that barely 15% of Conservatives were in favour of it. In all of Canada, barely 37% of respondents were in favour of the bill, while 45% were against it. The rest remained silent. So once again, the majority is against it. The Conservatives and the Liberals always claim to be introducing a bill that would create a better democracy. But this debate contradicts the very idea of democracy and goes against the popular opinion in Quebec and the majority opinion in the rest of Canada. What are we supposed to make of that? As I was saying earlier, the goal is to limit Quebec's presence in Ottawa as much as possible, in terms of democracy, so that the government can continue to dictate what happens.
I will not go into all the arguments I have in mind. I will try to restrain myself as my time is limited. I would remind members that the government has acknowledged the existence of the Quebec nation, but that it refuses to deal with Quebec accordingly. It refuses to recognize that our nation has a language—French. It continues to use all its powers in an attempt to make Quebec bilingual. It refuses to ensure that corporations under its jurisdiction are required to respect the Quebec Charter of the French Language: 250,000 workers under federal jurisdiction work in Quebec without being subject to the Charter of the French Language. Even if it is one of the major political acts, one of the most important political measures, they just ignore it, they do not comply.
By continuing to promote multiculturalism, the Canadian government also refuses to acknowledge that the continuity of our national culture depends on our ability to ensure that immigrants embrace it. It refuses to recognize our society because it has developed as a different nation. It even refuses to consider allowing Quebec to have a radio-television and telecommunications commission that would look after its own interests and its own challenges. It also refuses to limit federal spending power in Quebec's jurisdictions.
How does it manage to impose such views on Quebec? Conservative members from Quebec have made disrespectful statements about Quebec institutions. It is truly shameful. If I have the opportunity during the questions and comments period, I will talk about some of the statements made by the member for Lévis—Bellechasse.
In closing, because I may not have the time to do so later, I would like to wish all my constituents in Chambly—Borduas, as well as my colleagues here in the House, wonderful holidays and a very happy New Year.
I welcome any questions.