OTTAWA - The country's fastest growing provinces are getting more MPs, but whether Canadian voters in big cities and suburbs — especially visible minorities — will actually get electoral respect remains an open question.
Following a lightning-fast study and debate, the Senate passed Bill C-20 on Friday, legislation to redistribute ridings across the country.
The House of Commons will swell to 338 seats from 308 — Ontario will get 15 more seats, Alberta and British Columbia will each receive six more seats, and Quebec three.
The new seats will be in place by the time the next national vote rolls around in 2015.
But several experts who testified at a Senate committee this week said there is more work to do to ensure that the vote of a Canadian living in one riding has an equal weight to the vote of a Canadian living in another riding in the same province.
Once the legislation passes, it will be up to independent provincial electoral boundary commissions to redraw the riding maps.
And those commissioners don't just sit down and precisely divide up a riding according to the province's population. They often have to account for geography, and ridings that are unwieldy for a single MP to cover.
The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act allows for up to 25 per cent variance above or below the average size of a riding in the province — leading to some potentially large deviations.
Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer told the chamber Friday that she was worried that problems of inequality between voters would persist if the boundary commissions weren't restricted in the degree of riding variance they could apply.
"Although I firmly believe that every Canadian's vote should be weighted equally regardless of where they reside in the country, I do not believe that this bill is the correct remedy to ensure that is the case as we continue to be giving the power of 25 per cent deviation when they see necessary," Jaffer said during third-reading debate Friday.
Some witnesses who testified at the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee this week said the allowable variance in the size of a riding should be much, much lower.
"To the extent that we have chosen to over-represent certain Canadians, it is become very apparent that the Canadians who are under-represented are increasingly concentrated in suburban Canada, the GTA (greater Toronto area), visible minorities," Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the University of Toronto's Mowat Centre, told the senators.
John Courtney, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan, suggested the maximum allowable variance in a riding's size in a province should be 15 per cent — or even as low as one per cent.
"That, I think, would help to capture the new Canadians, the immigrants with which we are all familiar now, in the suburban areas in and around the great metropolitan centre of this country," Courtney said.
"It would help to ensure a greater social diversity in the House of Commons."
Another debate that has been shelved for the time being is just how big the Commons should be.
Uppal noted that, physically, the Commons can only accommodate 374 MPs. By the year 2031, there should be approximately 354 MPs, based on population projections.
But several witnesses, and the Liberal party, have suggested putting a cap on that number as soon as possible. The cost of adding 30 new MPs comes to $19.3 million a year. Keeping the number stable would mean rebalancing the ridings more drastically, by reducing the number of MPs in slower growing provinces, for example.
A Liberal proposal put forward in November would have kept the number of MPs at 308, actually eliminating MPs in places like Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and Quebec.
Andrew Sancton, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario, said the argument that more seats need to be added to improve representation by population doesn't hold water.
He said if Canada really wanted the ideal formula, given the protections given to the Atlantic provinces in the Constitution, it would need 800 MPs.
"We simply have not had a debate about the size of the House of Commons and the arguments for and against," said Sancton. "We have just been told that in order to have fair representation, we must have more members, which is simply not true."
But Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal told the committee Wednesday that increases to the Commons will be "quite reasonable."
"What is the option? Take seats away from other provinces? We do not feel that is fair," Uppal said.
"We feel we must uphold constitutional guarantees that are already in place — long-standing guarantees — for those provinces."
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