Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise and speak to this bill, which was introduced by my colleague from London--Fanshawe on February 19.
In the summary of the explanatory notes attached to the bill, as we have heard, the bill would freeze or cap the number of members of this chamber at 308, notwithstanding population increases or demographic shifts in the country.
I have listened to the speeches of the members opposite and I certainly agree with much if not all that has been said in terms of this proposal as contained in the bill.
I think we have to go back and look at the principles around why the system exists as it does and the way it works. First, we need to go to the British North America Act because that is where this all emanates from originally.
In the preamble of the British North America Act of 1867 it talks about the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, and their desire to be federally united into one that is called Dominion with, and this is the important part, a Constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom.
Therefore, we are talking about the Constitution of the country and Bill C-486 purports to deal with the Constitution. Indeed, it is a constitutional act.
We need to talk about the principles of our Constitution. In doing so, we need to go back pre-1867 because our Constitution is similar in principle to that of the U.K. If we look at representation under the understanding of the British model, it started in 1832 with the Act of Settlement of William IV. Until that time, the British House of Commons was a much different institution than what it is today and what this place would be if it were 1831.
Up until 1832, as many as six people determined who a member of Parliament would be in the British House of Commons. In fact, at Trinity College, Oxford, in the late 1820s, eight people decided who their member of Parliament would be. Eight people could in fact decide.
Lord Melbourne, as British Prime Minister in 1832, after much struggle and political infighting cast the die which is the principle of our system today and that is, if we are to have representative democracy, there must be a formula based on population.
We inherited that in our constitutional principles. Our Constitution, we tend to think, is a series of written documents. However, our Constitution is both written and unwritten. In fact, I refer members to section 52 of the Constitution Act of 1982 where the Constitution is defined by referring to the specific act, but it does not say this is all of it. There are many other principles which are deemed to be conventions and which are deemed to be practices.
We have inherited, through the British North America Act of 1867, a series of principles that are based on representative democracy. This bill attempts to take us back to 1831 and say, sorry, this is the way it is. This is the cap; this is the number.
I have heard some members ask in this place, “What about the U.S.? It has a cap”. That is an interesting assertion, but let us understand that if we are going to borrow one facet of the American system, we must borrow or in fact include an American system in this place.
Eugene Forsey, who was a great authority on the constitution of this place, wrote in 1982: “If you want to borrow American principles, you must borrow them all. You cannot borrow some of them”.
First, the idea that because this is an American idea it would work here, begs the question: Are we a republic or are we in fact a British style parliamentary system? That is number one.
Second, we must go back and look at other documents and other discussions which occurred. I have heard the example that it is unfair that Prince Edward Island, having 130,000 or 135,000 people, has four members of Parliament and four senators, and of course the Senate rule is found in the rules appended to section 51 of the 1867 act.
However, Prince Edward Island entered into Canada in 1873. In fact, Prince Edward Island entered by order in council, which was called admitting the then colony of Prince Edward Island to the union. Prior to that, the Manitoba Act of 1870 admitted that province into the union. In the same year, by order in council, the Northwest Territories and what was then called Rupert's Land were admitted as a territory.
However, let us go back to 1865 and the Quebec conference because my friend from the Bloc talked about the sensitivity of representation in Quebec. All of these matters were discussed. All of these matters were in many respects foreseen, that there could be a time and indeed there was in 1870 and 1873, and in fact in 1867, of population imbalances in terms of the number of people who would represent those areas in the House. If one looks at the 1865 Quebec conference and, indeed, in the minutes which exist in the Library of Parliament, this matter was raised and there was an agreement struck which brought in section 51 in the 1867 act.
If one were to look at the admission of British Columbia, one would find that there were great discussions and debates in that province around how we could be certain we were going to get enough people in this place to be representative of us. That is part not just of history but of the constitutional convention to which we agreed upon the creation of this country and upon the addition of these former colonies at that time.
The end result is that Bill C-486 would in fact end 175-odd years of our understanding of what representation in this place ought to be and our understanding of what was agreed upon at several points in the past. We cannot say that it is our understanding of democracy today that it will be this way or that way. It does not work that way because this is part of the Constitution.
Members may not like the fact that Prince Edward Island has four members of Parliament with a simple population of 130,000 people. They may not like the fact that other areas of the country, perhaps the Province of Quebec, have what would appear to be an inordinate number of members of Parliament relative to its population, but this was a deal. It is more than a deal. It is the Constitution of the country and it ought not to be trifled with in this manner.