Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise and speak on behalf of the people of Timmins--James Bay, a region that is larger than Great Britain. It is important to put the size of my riding into context in the debate because we are talking about what is fair.
We heard this morning the fact that the Conservative government once again has tried to shut down fair debate on the bill. There is the sense that there are beleaguered members on the government side who represent communities that are completely unfairly under-represented.
We have heard throughout the morning about the principle of representation by population, yet we know that Canada is not based simply on representation by population. If it were, we would start to erase most of the political map of Canada. Labrador, with 26,000 people in its riding, would cease to exist.
I ask my hon. colleagues from the suburbs, do they believe that those 26,000 people are somehow over-represented or the riding of Western Arctic with 41,000 people? That population would fit three times into a small Toronto riding and yet there is an impossibility of getting access to one's elected representative in a region that is larger than western Europe. That is part of the fundamental principle of participatory democracy.
I have heard the argument that every vote should be weighted the same. My friend from Brampton West said that his vote should weigh exactly the same as Prince Edward Island. Just doing the math quickly, and my dad was great at math but I always got about 52%, that would give Ontario about 600 or 700 seats if we were to have the exact same representation by population as Prince Edward Island. Clearly, that is an absurd position.
In my riding of Timmins--James Bay, for people to come to my constituency office from Attawapiskat would cost $1,000 for the flight. There are no roads. If they want to see me in my office it is a $1,000 flight while people from Brampton West could drive to the Toronto airport and go to Portugal for the weekend and come back for less than $1,000. Are people who are able to drive to an MP's office somehow under-represented when there are members in the House who represent communities they can only get to once or twice a year?
When we talk about seat redistribution, which is a very important discussion to have with all members, we are talking about nation building. It has to be done right.
Unfortunately, I sense this is an attempt to have the idea of nation division here. When questions are raised about how the process is done I hear colleagues asking such things as, “What do you have against the people of Ontario and Alberta”, as if that was the only question before us. That is obviously not the question. It is how we weigh votes and ensure not just representation by population but the ability of citizens in the country to access the participatory democratic system.
If we go with a simple model of representation by population, as I said earlier, we can erase Labrador with its 26,000 people. Manitoba ridings average 78,000 people. We will probably take a couple of ridings out of Manitoba so that it is more fair than the way that Brampton is set up. In Saskatchewan, with an average riding size of about 63,000 or 70,000, we could probably take out three seats. With regard to Yukon, we do not even need to talk about as there are only 30,000 people, so it would disappear. In my good friend's riding of Kenora in Northern Ontario there are 64,000 people. I would challenge anybody on the government side or the opposition side to try and represent those 64,000 people across the grand grass terrain of Kenora.
That is not to say that the addition of seats in urban areas is not an important aspect, but it is not the sole aspect. It is the issue of balance. When we are here as members of Parliament to talk about how we will find that balance, it is very disturbing to see this attempt to pit one region against the other.
I will speak to the issue of Quebec. In Champlain's Dream, the vision Champlain had was for Canada to be a place that would avoid the wars and hatreds that had consumed Europe. His original dream was to build a new society with the first nations. Unfortunately, we kind of blew that one somewhere along the way, but hundreds of years later I think we are starting to reconnect with the original dream of Champlain.
However, the founding of Canada in 1867 was really the coming together at that time of Upper Canada and what was then Lower Canada and the maritime provinces. We were all somewhat equal in that sense because we were a much smaller population. There was a fundamental recognition that even though there were a number of provinces at that time, there were two founding peoples. That was what the Canadian compromise was based on. That is how we build nations: by compromise.
I am concerned when I hear that Quebec's population representation is not going to drop; what the government is not saying is that Quebec's historic place in the House will drop. That is a fundamental difference, because if we are going to continue on this nation building exercise and if we recognize that there is a distinct Quebec nation in this country--and we have agreed to that principle--then we have to agree to the principle of historic weight in the House of Commons. There will be regions in this country that will grow faster, and that is okay, but the historic weight of certain regions cannot be lost.
That brings us back to Prince Edward Island. Poor Prince Edward Island always gets picked on whenever we talk about representation by population, because it now has how many senators and how many ridings? It is four, as I know. There are many people who say, “My God, there are more people living in Sudbury, and Prince Edward Island has four seats and four senators”, but that is the historic compromise we made.
The rest of the country grew at an exponential rate and Prince Edward Island did not; however, there has never been a suggestion that those four seats from Prince Edward Island should be taken away, so Prince Edward Island will always maintain its historic weight, even as other regions have grown exponentially.
We see real growth right now in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, and we recognize, as the New Democratic Party, that there is a need to address some of those growing disparities.
As someone who represents a region that is bigger than Great Britain and represents communities with no roads, I do not believe that my area should be considered more valuable or less valuable than an area represented by someone elected in a large urban region. They represent very different realities.
The idea of nation building is based on compromise and on understanding each other. We have to agree with each other and say, “Yes, your reality and the people you represent in a smaller urban area are in some ways completely different from the reality that I represent, but we have to find the compromises”.
This is why the New Democratic Party came forward with our bill, Bill C-312, that would address this issue of imbalance. I want to assure my colleagues on the government side that we take this matter very seriously. That is why we came forward with our bill.
Through our bill, we wanted to ensure that the new areas of British Columbia, the growing regions of Alberta and the growing urban regions of southern Ontario grew, but we also wanted to maintain the historic representation percentage of Quebec in the House of Commons, because that is part of our founding commitment to one another. It is not enough to say simply that whatever Quebec's population is, it will maintain some percentage in the House. That is not the balance of two founding peoples.
We are interested to see time allocation being used to get this bill moving quickly. We have not even had the census. I would like to see the population trends that the census could show us.
My hon. colleague from Nickel Belt raises the question of northern Ontario. I would argue that one reason we have political alienation in various parts of the country is that people do not feel as though they are represented. In northern Ontario we have very often felt politically alienated from the urban south. We have always considered ourselves, and have been considered to be, a colony of southern Ontario. We have felt that Queen's Park ends at Steeles Avenue. Anybody in northern Ontario will say that.
What added to the political alienation was the Mike Harris gang, and unfortunately many of them are sitting in the front row now. They are the front line of the Conservative Party. Mike Harris decided that the best way to have political representation was to just take a whole whack of seats out of northern Ontario; that would be representation.
Taking those provincial seats out of northern Ontario made it very difficult for people to be served by their elected representatives. We have seen northern Ontario's presence in the Province of Ontario continually diminish, to the point that when the McGuinty government made a plan over the last few years for the development of northern Ontario, its officials did not bother to come up to consult with anybody in any of the first nations. They were too busy.
I remember The Toronto Star asking what the problem was with all these first nations people and whether they did no trust the smartness of the Liberal government.
Those people were making decisions about lands that they did not even want to bother visiting. That is the sense of political alienation we have in northern Ontario. It occurs once we get north of Highway 17. With all due respect to my hon. colleague from Muskoka, although we get money out of the FedNor fund, we have always believed that northern Ontario starts at Highway 17. North of Highway 17 it is a completely different community, a different set of cultures, a different set of economic realities, yet as elected representatives from northern Ontario, we are tied to the population base of Ontario overall.
When we see massive urban growth in regions around the 905 belt every time we redo the census, people begin to say that northern Ontario is somehow over-represented, because it is based on the population of southern Ontario, which is, of course, absurd.
I represent a riding with over 80,000 people. That would make mine a normal Manitoba riding or a big Saskatchewan riding. In New Brunswick or Newfoundland, it would be a very large riding. However, in Ontario it is considered over-represented and is perceived to have an unfair advantage over my colleague from Brampton, or whatever other suburbs are represented here in the House. That is not the reality.
New Democratic Party members want to address the need to deal with the changes in the House. However, we are very concerned with the Conservative government's attitude that it is right, that we should get with the program, and that if we do not like it, then it shows that we are against Alberta or against Ontario. I do not know who it thinks we would be against next. That is not how we build a nation.
This change has been a long time coming. It can take some good debate, but it needs something more than debate; it needs some good will. Unfortunately, I find that is lacking in the Conservatives' approach.
I am more than willing to look at what would happen at committee with the bill, but my spidey sense is tingling. As I said earlier, I see a government that seems to be moving toward some manner of autocracy. It wants to limit debate on all manner of bills. The Conservatives seem to think that being given a majority on May 2 gives them the right to override the interests and concerns of other elected members of Parliament.
We think we need to have an improvement in the seat distribution, unlike the Liberal Party, which wants the status quo. That is their business, and I do not mind that, but I think we need to find a balance. If we are going to find that balance, we have to recognize that the number one principle is representation by population. However, my concern is that if it is solely representation by population, Canada would not work, period. We would have no balance whatsoever. We need to find that balance.
For example, if we added 15 seats to Ontario, all in the 905 region, we would certainly change the political makeup of the country, and this is a discussion that needs to happen. How is that going to play out? Is it fair? Does it unfairly affect the representation of Quebec? Are there enough seats given to ensure Quebec's historic status?
This is not about dividing; it is about asking straightforward questions. I think every member in the House is committed to the idea of fair democratic representation.
I used to live in Toronto--Danforth, the riding of my former leader, Jack Layton. I could walk 20 minutes either way to two MPs' offices. I saw it as normal for living in the city. I could walk up Danforth and see one MP's office and then walk along Queen Street, and there was another. However, as I said, when I hit the break week, I could probably put 3,000 to 5,000 kilometres on my car and still not visit all of my communities. Therefore, I find it a little rich when I hear someone tell me that because they represent a suburban riding, they are unfairly under-represented in the House.
If it is a question of resources, that is certainly a fair question. Is the caseload in an MP's office the issue?
This is another important element about northern Ontario. Most of my region does not have government services, as the government does not bother to come up into the James Bay coastal area. When I go up to Attawapiskat, Kashechewan or Fort Albany, I fill out health card forms because Ontario health services will not go there.
It is funny: because of the risk of health card fraud, in Ontario one cannot have a health card without a photograph, but there is no place to get a photograph on the James Bay coast; as a result, the provincial government does not bother worrying about photos on the James Bay coast, because it does not want to bother servicing those communities. To provide services to them, I go up with my staff and the provincial member goes up with his staff, and we fill out health card forms and birth certificates, because there are no government services.
In rural areas, members of Parliament are not only seen to represent the political interests and the political will of the community, they are often the only front line. With the cuts to Service Canada and Service Ontario, our offices take on more and more caseload all the time. We do not have more resources to do it, which adds another question: what is the role of the member of Parliament?
Ccertainly we have a role to be here as legislators. That is our primary role. That should perhaps be our one role. We were elected to be legislators. However, with the continual shrinking of government services and community people falling further and further through the cracks, it is just assumed that if individuals go to their member of Parliament, he or she will fix it for them.
We spend our time having to do the front-line work of the federal government because the federal government does not bother servicing many of these communities. They are not adequately serviced by Service Canada. People are out of luck with EI claims if they do not come to our offices, and out of luck with immigration and passports. We are a passport service.
As legislators we are doing the work of government, because it does not want to spend the money. Its narrow focus is that we will just add 20, 30, 50, 60 seats to the House of Commons and everything will be magically balanced. That is not a realistic solution to the problem.
Number one, we have to ensure that our front-line services are there, because our citizens are looking to us not simply to come here and vote for them, but to represent them and be their face of government, because the face of government is not there.
It is not about pitting one region against the other, but about working together as parliamentarians. I certainly see the scowl on my colleague's face on the Conservative side. I am not surprised. They do not understand that unless members are in the autocracy of the Prime Minister, they are somehow against everything. They do not know the idea of balance and compromise. That is not how we build nations.
We are here. We have offered our own bill because we believe that the bill's plan can work. We want to make sure that we have maintained a historic balance, but we are very uncomfortable with the simple statement that we have to get to representation by population. If the Conservatives were serious about that, they would rejig the entire borders of Canada, and they are not going to do that.
We need to work together. I am putting out the olive branch to my colleagues, but I will be surprised if they take it. This is not the way that we have done business. If the government worked with people, it would not have to shut down every debate that happens.
I am interested in what might come next, because over the last six years the government has bothered to complete pitifully few bills. Usually it prorogued and started over, and then government members would rant on about crime. Then the Conservatives would prorogue and start over. If they get all their time allocations, I am wondering what they will do. I imagine they would probably shut this place down and prorogue again.
We are interested in this issue, but we are certainly a little concerned about the government's attitude toward questions on the bill.