Madam Speaker, it is indeed an honour for me to rise and add my comments at report stage with respect to Bill C-20, the fair representation act.
As members know, representation by population is one of the fundamental principles of democracy. In fact, it is one of the principles that this country was founded upon.
In researching the debates leading to the British North America Act and the formation of Upper and Lower Canada with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1867, members would know that the Fathers of Confederation insisted that the House of Commons would be based on the concept of representation by population; that all Canadian citizens in the new country of Canada would have an equal voice in electing members to this chamber and an equal voice in the affairs of their nation; and that their members would, within reasonable limits, represent the same number of people.
Those principles that our country and Constitution are based on are as valid today as they were in 1867, so it will come as no surprise to the members of the House that I support Bill C-20 and congratulate the Minister of State (Democratic Reform) for introducing this legislation. In my view, it will remedy some of the current deficiencies in representation in this chamber.
This legislation, as members of the House know, does not dictate the number of seats that each province would get; rather, it sets a formula and changes the formula that determines the representation in this House.
Several provinces in our Confederation are growing much more quickly than others. I happen to represent an electoral district in one of those faster-growing provinces, the province of Alberta. The other faster-growing provinces are British Columbia, where you, Madam Speaker, are a representative, and Ontario.
On representation by population, I think we can agree on two things: that it is a principle that ought to be adhered to to the greatest extent possible, and that true and perfect representation by population is impracticable in a country as diverse as Canada.
Simply stated, on the one hand we have too many densely populated areas. Around the GTA, for example, Mississauga, Brampton and other suburbs are densely populated and growing arithmetically. Conversely, we have very sparsely populated parts of our country: the Arctic, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, even northern Alberta. Driving an hour north of my riding of Edmonton—St. Albert, one begins to enter the sparsely populated parts of our province.
We will never have perfect rep by pop because there has to be some accommodation for the less densely populated areas to be represented. Of course those provinces and territories are entitled to representation, and they require and deserve a voice on national issues.
Over time, representation in this place has been modified by a number of formulas, each superimposed upon the other, and we have talked about them today. There is the Senate floor clause, I think from around 1915, which guaranteed that no province could have fewer seats in the lower chamber than it had in the upper chamber. Then there is the 1985 grandfather clause, which dictates that no province could have fewer seats than it had at that time. We have a number of rules superimposed upon each other, and those rules, coupled with the fact that some provinces, including mine, are growing very quickly have led to the current disproportion.
It is a significant disproportion. According to the Mowat Centre, 61% of Canadians are currently under-represented in this chamber. Worse, visible minorities in visible minority communities are particularly under-represented. That is because they tend to reside in under-represented densely populated urban areas, largely but not exclusively in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario.
I was speaking with my colleague from Brampton West after question period. According to the 2006 census, in his riding he has the highest number of constituents in this country.
Based on the 2006 census, the population of Brampton West was 170,422 people, but he advises me that those numbers are five years old and that there are likely more than 200,000 people living in his constituency.
More significantly, 53% of those, according to the member, are visible minorities. This creates some really distinct problems when we try to represent both that number of people and that number of visible minorities.
As I know from representing the good people of Edmonton—St. Albert, the majority of what we refer to as “casework” is immigration work on behalf of individuals attempting to get visas for their relatives or to expedite their path to citizenship. I represent a relatively homogenous riding in Alberta, but casework still takes up probably close to 70% of the files that come to my office from constituents needing my assistance, so I cannot imagine the workload for a member like the member for Brampton West, who represents, according to him, 200,000 people, half of whom are visible minorities.
The bill tends to remedy those deficiencies by working toward representation by population, although admittedly not achieving it in any perfect form.
Under the new formula, the calculation would give Ontario 15 additional seats, British Columbia six additional seats and my province, Alberta, six additional seats. Because of Quebec's unique status within Confederation, Quebec would be provided with three additional seats to allow its representation to be comparable to what it is currently.
This is a great attempt at moving toward representation by population.
I want to share an anecdote, because I have some experience in this matter.
I know the members of the Liberal Party are advocating that provinces such as mine be awarded extra seats but that the size of the House not be increased. We were faced with a very similar problem in Alberta about eight years ago, when I was the MLA for Edmonton-Calder. We had a comparable situation in that the city of Calgary was growing very quickly; the city of Edmonton was growing, but slowly; and rural Alberta was either staying constant or, in some parts, actually getting smaller. As a result, the people of Calgary were under-represented in the provincial legislature, and we had to wrestle with this very same issue.
Ultimately the decision we made was similar to what the Liberals are currently proposing federally: the provincial legislature would stay at 83 seats, but to accommodate that, we would take two seats away from rural Alberta and one away from Edmonton and give those three seats to Calgary. I know the member for Crowfoot remembers that situation.
The outcry, which ought to have been predictable, was loud. The citizens of Edmonton would not and did not accept that one of their members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta would be taken out of play and that they would have one less representative. They felt disenfranchised.
They spoke loudly, first through letters to the editor. Editorialists wrote that the MLAs for Edmonton were not standing up for Edmonton. They subsequently spoke in the next election about their dissatisfaction. Of course, that was not the only issue, but they were certainly dissatisfied with the loss of a member of the legislature.
I say to my friends opposite who advocate keeping this House at the same size by reducing the number of members from certain provinces that the citizens of those provinces will not accept it. They will argue, and argue correctly, that they have been disenfranchised, that they have lost membership in this House and that they care about representation. They will be upset.
This formula, which expands this House marginally, would allow for more representation for faster-growing provinces such as mine, Ontario and British Columbia, but it would not take away seats from any province. Therefore, it is a good compromise and a step toward representation by population, which is a fundamental concept of our democracy and needs to be preserved.