Madam Speaker, I rise today in this debate on the joint motion of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.
Before getting into debate, I would like to address a comment to my colleague, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform. He said, “Quebec we love you”, and “Thank you Quebec”, but perhaps his government should do something positive for Quebec instead of just saying nice things.
Before addressing the basic principle of our democracy—one person, one vote—I have to say that my colleagues from the Bloc are really trying my patience.
The Bloc Québécois members always try to poison discussions and have Quebeckers believe that they are there for them. In my sense, that is not true. They make it clear that they want a sovereign Quebec and, to me, a sovereign Quebec means no seats for Quebec.
They are calling for more seats for Quebec, while at the same time wanting none. As I said, no seats for Quebec. That is hypocrisy. There is an old saying that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Everyone knows that the Bloc does not want any seats for Quebec, be it in the House of Commons, in the Senate or in government. The Bloc states its objective honestly, but there is something hypocritical about putting forward a motion like the one before us this morning.
The Bloc Québécois leader toured the rest of Canada to meet Canadians and explain his blueprint to them. He was convinced from the start that it was a lost cause. Why did he undertake this tour if he was convinced from the start that it was a waste of time?
In an interview with a journalist from the daily newspaper Le Devoir, the Bloc leader expressed this negative mindset in these terms:
There is nothing that Canada can offer or change. Canada cannot be reformed. The federalists have said it themselves, “The fruit is not yet ripe” or “the soil is not fertile”. We are not discussing this any more; it is over. The only solution for the Quebec nation is sovereignty. Quebec is not against Canada; it is even a good solution for Canada, instead of having these endless debates.
I have been told that I made a mistake in saying that this was a joint Bloc Québécois and NDP motion, since the Bloc amended its own motion and not the NDP. I will correct that and say that I am talking about the motion that has been entirely presented by the Bloc Québécois.
The only solution good enough for the Bloc is its own. It thinks that outside its own party, there is no salvation. However, the Bloc Québécois does not represent all of Quebec. Not every Quebecker supports sovereignty. Even the former leader of the Bloc Québécois, Lucien Bouchard, does not believe that he will see sovereignty in his lifetime. Quebeckers deserve much more. They deserve recognition and representation that reflect the important role they play in Canada.
The government has introduced Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Democratic representation). The Conservative government introduced a similar bill in the second session, before the Conservatives decided to hide from their problems and prorogue Parliament. Who can forget the famous prorogation?
This bill would amend the rules in the Constitution Act, 1867 for readjusting the number of members of the House of Commons and the representation of the provinces in that House.
Why is the Bloc so eager to pass a motion on representation in Quebec, when it knows very well that we will be discussing every single one of these issues during the debate on Bill C-12? The Bloc is using this forum to convince Quebeckers that it is the only party that knows the truth and that it is the only messenger.
They want to get political mileage out of it. Why, on their allotted day, are they not tackling the problems of concern to Quebeckers, like the economy, jobs, pensions, health care and employment insurance, among other things?
No, the Bloc is using this day it has been given to pursue its campaign strategy and not to advance the cause of Quebeckers. It is here to advance its own cause and its own very specific solutions.
We, the Liberals, want to advance issues that are important to Quebeckers and to Canadians, and we want to debate the entire question of representation in the debates on Bill C-12. We will participate actively in discussions about Bill C-12, and we will very probably vote in favour of the bill at second reading so it can be studied in depth in committee.
We, the Liberals, want to debate it on its merits and hear experts tell us about all the ins and outs of the broad principle of representation. It is an important but also very complex value that must be studied in its entirety. We must not limit the study to representation as it relates to Quebec. Canada is a whole, whatever the Bloc may think. What affects Quebec also affects all the other regions of Canada. We do not live in a vacuum. Our economy and our trade extend far beyond our borders.
I would now like to talk about the great democratic rights set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In particular, I would be remiss if I did not mention the right to vote. I would like to quote section 3 of the charter on the right to vote: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”
There is a fundamental principle in our democracy: one person, one vote. In a federation, that principle generally applies to the lower chamber. In Canada, the broad principle of one person, one vote is applied to the House of Commons. In a federation, regional interests are often represented in an upper chamber. In Canada, representation of regional interests is found in the Senate.
Under the Canadian Constitution, Quebec has 25% of the seats in the Senate. That is a constitutional guarantee.
We then have to ask whether the Bloc itself believes in its own motion. It was against the referendum on the Charlottetown accord. To the Bloc, there is only one solution: no seats for Quebec in the House of Commons, zero seats. In the Senate, Quebec has 25% of the seats. What is the Bloc proposing instead? Abolishing the Senate, which amounts to no seats, zero seats, for Quebec in the Senate.
Every election, the Bloc fights to have Quebec ultimately get no seats in government. Zero seats.
I reject this fake indignation, this playing at having their delicate sensibilities offended, that the Bloc members in Ottawa wrap themselves in. Those same members are trying to convince us today that they are fighting for Quebec to have a place in Ottawa, when everything they do demonstrates that they are trying to eliminate Quebec’s place in Canada.
We all know that their objective is clear: no representation for Quebec in Ottawa; but we, the Liberals, believe in the principle that is dear to our democracy: one person, one vote. Those rights and freedoms, and the right to vote that is part of them, were won by our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents, who fought many battles for them.
In passing, I would say that in my own family, my great-grandfather, Isidore Proulx, and his son, my grandfather, Edmond Proulx, who were both elected in eastern Ontario, came here to the House of Commons to fight for their rights. I think we can say they succeeded, since I grew up in eastern Ontario entirely in French.
More than 40 years ago, I chose to come and live in Quebec. I am proud of that and very happy about it, but there were past battles that also proved successful.
I am thinking as well of the struggle that women waged for the right to vote and of the struggle to enable tenants and aboriginals to vote. Over the decades, all the discriminatory practices preventing various categories of people from voting were eliminated. How many countries have fought to enjoy our great democratic rights and how many citizens of these countries put their personal safety at risk in order to vote? We cannot turn this into an electoral football. We must carefully study any changes to representation and the right to vote in a comprehensive way that is fair to all Canadians.
I would like to take a closer look now at the general principle behind representation. Elections Canada has prepared an instructive brochure on this called “Representation in the House of Commons of Canada”. It is available to all and makes it easier to understand the principle. We all know about one person, one vote. The Canada Elections Act specifically prescribes it. In addition, this representation must be effective. That is why we have such things as ridings.
The boundaries of the ridings are revised from time to time to reflect changes in their population and in the particular interests of each riding. I well remember the last revision of the electoral map because I sat on the committee set up to make the recommendations. The boundaries are not based purely on a mathematical formula. Regional characteristics are also considered, such as demography, urban and rural populations, and so forth. Just ask our colleague from the New Democratic Party, the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst, because he can go on about it for hours.
Proportional representation is therefore not the only principle governing the distribution of seats in the House of Commons. Canada resulted from a desire to create a federation of provinces, the presumption being that each would be fairly represented, if not always equally. That is the basis, therefore, on which we calculate the number of seats that each province will get, rather than just a simple mathematical formula based on population.
In the Senate, we wanted regional representation, as I said earlier. During the course of the negotiations, Quebec and the Maritimes were concerned that the House of Commons would be dominated by Ontario interests because of its large population. In order to provide some balance in the Senate, an equal number of seats were therefore allotted to all three regions of the country. This equality of regional representation was preserved when the West was added. Today, each region therefore has about 25% of the seats in the Senate.
The House of Commons, however, did not take the same path. In the 1960s, it had 264 seats; in the 1990s, 282 seats; and with further expansion, it now has 308 seats. Through all this, the number of Quebec seats remained constant, while its proportion of the population declined. Quebec has often been the subject of special discussions. I would like to mention again the Charlottetown agreement. It contained a clause providing that Quebec would have no fewer than 25% of the seats in the House of Commons. History shows, though, that the referendum failed to achieve the results that the federalists hoped for, including the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party. The opponents on the federal scene were the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party. History shows that the Bloc has always opposed fair representation for Quebec in the Canadian federation.
Today, Quebec represents 23.2% of the Canadian population and holds 24.35% of the seats in the House of Commons. If the new formula proposed by the Conservatives were adopted, Quebec would then have 22.2% of the seats in the House, even though its population, as I was saying, accounts for 23.2% of the Canadian population.
If we compare the situation of Ontario with that of Quebec, we see that Ontario represents 38.7% of the population, although it holds only 34.3% of the seats in the House. Alberta represents 10.9% of the population and has 9.1% of the seats; British Columbia, 13.25% of the population and 11.7% of the seats.
This calculation demonstrates the difficulty of coordinating the concept of proportional representation with the regional realities of the Canadian federation.
I recall that a bill was withdrawn a few years ago because on one hand it under-represented Ontario, and on the other hand it diluted the representation of Quebec. In other words, these are not new concerns.
If we look at the distribution of the 308 seats in today’s House of Commons, we see that Newfoundland and Labrador hold seven seats, Prince Edward Island four, Nova Scotia 11, New Brunswick 10, Quebec 75, Ontario 106, Manitoba 14, Saskatchewan 14, Alberta 28, and British Columbia 36. Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon each hold one seat.
With the formula proposed by the Conservatives, Ontario would have 124 seats, Alberta 33 and British Columbia 43, for a grand total of 338 seats. However a number of provinces have expressed concern about the representation proposed by the Conservative government.
We absolutely need an informed and open-minded study of this bill in order to respond to Ontario’s cry for more seats, as evidenced in the Fairness for Ontario campaign.
We also need to be aware of the feeling of alienation in the western provinces, particularly Alberta and British Columbia. However, neither can we allow ourselves to dilute the weight of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. I feel that we will have to be open-minded toward all these demands, and call upon all of our creativity to respond to the needs of each of the regions of Canada.
I also think it would be more sensible to study this whole issue in a responsible, serious and respectful manner in committee. I do not believe that the atmosphere in which this motion is being tabled is conducive to good discussion. What it does instead is to discredit federalism with Quebeckers, something which is not constructive.
If the Bloc Québécois had been serious about the place of Quebec, its leader would have renounced—that’s right, “renounced”—Quebec separation during his pilgrimage through the rest of Canada. He would instead have argued for better representation of Quebec within the House of Commons.
In other respects, one must admit that the Conservatives’ bill is worrying. It is in fact being tabled with an election in mind, and would have the substantial effect of reducing the representation of Quebec. What are the Conservatives going to tell us? They will repeat to us over and over that the current representation formula penalizes the provinces experiencing strong growth. I will admit that, but they have not always been in favour of fair representation. They are the ones who in 2007 tabled the bill on strict representation of one person, one vote. If that bill had been passed, only 10 additional seats would have been given to Ontario, even though the population requires a larger number.
Here is the question: what did the Conservative members from Ontario do? They stayed quiet in their seats and acted against the interests of the population they represented at the time.
The Liberal Party will vote against this motion of the Bloc Québécois, which I regard as opportunistic. We Liberals will continue to work to improve the balance between the great democratic principle of representation based on population and the principle of regional representation within the Canadian federation. Quebec deserves effective representation with which it can identify. And that is what we will offer it.