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Constitution Act, 1867

Bill to Amend--Third Reading

June 21, 2022


Hon. Dennis Dawson [ - ]

Moved third reading of Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (electoral representation).

He said: Honourable senators, I rose in the Senate yesterday to speak in support of government Bill C-14 and, in the 24 hours since, my opinion has not changed, so I will not repeat myself. I know senators will laugh when I say “I will be brief” — I’ll do my George Baker impression — but I rise today to deliver only a few remarks as sponsor of the bill.

I want to thank my colleagues who spoke yesterday, as well as those who will continue the debate today. Several senators asked questions about the structure of Canada’s representation system. Regional representation, no doubt, is something important to many of us — that’s why we exist as a Senate — and is one of Canada’s greatest strengths as a country. I am glad to see the passionate advocacy among parliamentarians.

For my part, I will do what I can to make inquiries and raise awareness with the government about this issue. In particular, I want to mention the observations raised by Senator Simons on the lopsided representation of Canadians here in the Senate. I want to emphasize that these are important discussions that contribute to the health of Canada’s democracy. However, let me be clear: These are serious issues, but they are beyond the scope of Bill C-14.

In short, this adjustment, an essential part of our democracy since 1871, includes a new calculation of the number of seats allocated to each province and a readjustment of electoral boundaries in each province to accommodate demographic changes and population changes throughout the country.

The problem is that the minimum threshold, the baseline for representation, is outdated. It has to be updated to ensure that no province will ever have fewer seats than it had in the 43rd Parliament.

What Bill C-14 does not do is institute a particular method for determining the distribution in the House. Canada has always been, in principle and in practice, a modified representation by population. That has always been enshrined in our constitutional formula. To change the formula itself and change our modified representation system would undoubtedly trigger the general amending formula. It would require resolutions here at the Senate, the other place as well as by at least seven provinces totalling 50% of the population of Canada. That, honourable senators, is a tall order.

By contrast, Bill C-14 is a carefully considered bill. It is more modest in its proposal, and it is wholly consistent with Canada’s principles and practice of modified representation by population.

More specifically, it proposes a modest but significant update to the 1985 grandfather clause, which is in section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and guarantees that no province will have fewer seats than it did during the 43rd Parliament. Basically, the update pins the threshold to the year 2021.

This is not the first time we have protected Canadians’ representation this way. More recently, the grandfather clause was similarly amended in the Fair Representation Act of 2011. At the time, it did not trigger the general amending formula.

I believe now, as I did then, that the proposals in Bill C-14 are minor enough and consistent with our modified representation system to need nothing more than a resolution in both houses.

Colleagues, I promised to be brief, and I hope I have been so. The sooner we can pass this bill, the sooner the Quebec commission can proceed in their work. I urge all my dear colleagues to support the passage of Bill C-14.

Thank you.

Hon. Scott Tannas [ - ]

Will Senator Dawson take a question?

Senator Dawson [ - ]

With pleasure.

Senator Tannas [ - ]

I have been following the questions and debate on this, and I just want to be clear. Nothing in this bill favours Quebec or any other province or changes the calculation for representation by population. If we use the example of Quebec, we are setting a floor of 78 seats. Right now, the population of Quebec relative to the population of Canada is about 22.5%. But it has fallen significantly over the last four decades. If we went forward, say, four decades, and it was 20%, all we would do is take the 78 seats for Quebec at, say, 20%, and true everybody else up to make this work. Is that your understanding?

Senator Dawson [ - ]

It seems that you were listening to me quite closely, senator. Yes, it is my understanding. As we did for the Maritime provinces a few years ago, it is giving a floor. When that floor is established, it means that everybody else will have to go up.

That’s what we are doing now. In the case of Quebec, we were not part of that floor, and now we will be part of the floor.

And I hope the percentage doesn’t continue going down. I wouldn’t want to be as pessimistic as you are, but, that being said, it won’t change the balance of representation in the House of Commons.

Senator Tannas [ - ]

One other question, just for the record. It is my understanding that the formula talked about here does not work out exactly right for representation by population — chronically — for Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. But it does work out more or less even for Quebec, and it is the other provinces — the Maritimes, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and, obviously, the territories — that on a representation-by-population basis are slightly overrepresented. So in other words, it is correct that Quebec has not enjoyed any kind of disproportionate favour over the formula discussed yesterday, which is not part of this bill.

Senator Dawson [ - ]

Senator Tannas, it is not something that is creating a different imbalance. There are imbalances — and we mentioned them yesterday — but this only gives a floor for Quebec. It does not penalize other provinces.

Senator Tannas [ - ]

Thank you.

Hon. Donna Dasko [ - ]

Would Senator Dawson take another question?

Senator Dawson [ - ]

Yes, Senator Dasko.

Senator Dasko [ - ]

Senator Dawson, I may have missed this over the past few weeks when this bill was being discussed. Can you explain why this bill did not go to committee? Thank you.

Senator Dawson [ - ]

That’s beyond my pay grade.

Senator Dasko [ - ]

Do you have any explanation that somebody might have offered as to why this bill didn’t go to committee in the Senate?

Senator Dawson [ - ]

You could put the question to somebody who would be in authority to give an answer. I’m not in authority to give an answer to that.

Honourable senators, I am pleased to speak today at third reading of Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867, in relation to electoral representation.

First of all, I would like to make a minor correction to something I said yesterday at second reading of Bill C-14. I pointed out that the Bloc Québécois bill to ensure that Quebec never has less than 25% of the seats in the House of Commons was still being examined in the other place. I even said that I wouldn’t bet on its chances of moving forward. Apparently, it will indeed not be going any further, since Bill C-246 was defeated on June 8, so I apologize for the error. I’m grateful for the effectiveness of social media, and I especially want to thank Nicholas Thibodeau, who quickly brought to my attention the inaccuracy of that part of my speech. I wanted to set the record straight.

That being said, honourable senators, I will now begin my remarks at third reading of Bill C-14.

Canada is a very robust democracy that is the envy of many countries around the world. Our democratic values are reflected in our Constitution and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in our institutions, in our laws and in our electoral process, which offers Canadians the possibility of participating directly in choosing their elected members and of running as a candidate in an election. When we legislate electoral law, it is important to set partisanship aside and be even more vigilant, to ensure that the treasured gains we have made over the years and throughout the history of our country are not eroded in any way.

Section 3 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms stipulates that any Canadian citizen has the right to vote and to be elected in a federal or provincial legislative election. For these rights to be reasonably applied and respected, they have to be framed in a fair and equitable electoral process. If, for example, no standard was applied to draw electoral boundaries, my vote in a riding of 200,000 voters would have less weight than if I lived in a riding of 30,000 voters.

That is why our laws seek to establish parity between the various ridings. However, perfect parity is impossible to achieve. I would even say that it would be harmful to try to achieve it at all costs. That is why we find different provisions in the constitutional formula for drawing electoral boundaries.

First, there is the population provision, which I believe is certainly the most important one. A set quotient is used to establish the average number of people in each riding. In that regard, the electoral commissions established in each province must ensure that the population of each riding is as close as possible to the province’s electoral quota. This can vary by plus or minus 25% if useful or necessary. However, when Bill C-74 was adopted in 1986, greater flexibility was introduced.

In a note that the Library of Parliament prepared for parliamentarians studying this bill at the time, we read the following:

To address the problems of vast ridings and to avoid their geographic expansion, Bill C-74 broadens the application of the 25% deviation by moving from the “useful and necessary” criterion to “reasonably possible”. In that regard, Bill C-74 includes the following criteria: community of identity, historical pattern, rural and northern regions. In this way, the option of a departure from the electoral quotient replaces a deviation.

That is the population provision.

In addition, there is the senatorial clause, which ensures that no province has fewer members of Parliament than it does senators. This provision is primarily intended to protect the smaller provinces that have lower population growth than the more populous provinces.

Then there is the grandfather clause, which protects provinces whose populations are stagnant, or even declining, from losing seats in the House of Commons. This provision is currently referred to as the “1985 clause,” and, as I mentioned yesterday, it is directly affected by Bill C-14. The bill would amend this clause to bring it in line with the levels of representation in the 43rd Parliament.

Last is the territorial clause, which assigns each of the three territories one member of Parliament to represent a population that is much lower than that of other ridings. This is therefore taken into account when electoral boundaries are being drawn or new electoral districts are being created.

It is incorrect to say that our voting system perfectly represents the number of voters and populations in each electoral district. Factors such as geography, history, shared language and tradition can be taken into account when electoral boundaries are set. The Supreme Court referred to this as “effective representation.”

In a 1991 decision in Provincial Elections (Sask.), the highest court in the land stated the following:

Relative parity of voting power is a prime condition of effective representation. Deviations from absolute voter parity, however, may be justified on the grounds of practical impossibility or the provision of more effective representation. Factors like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic. Beyond this, dilution of one citizen’s vote as compared with another’s should not be countenanced.

Further on, the Supreme Court justices added the following:

 . . . such relative parity as may be possible of achievement may prove undesirable because it has the effect of detracting from the primary goal of effective representation. Factors like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic.

Bill C-74 was introduced in 1986 to maintain that historic right and establish a threshold as a way to counterbalance and improve effective representation. Bill C-14 is entirely consistent with that approach because it establishes the new threshold based on the electoral map of the 43rd Parliament. Quebec’s weight in the House of Commons has declined, and this enactment would restore it. To reduce Quebec’s representation in the House of Commons would be tantamount to denying the recognition of Quebec as a nation and, most importantly, the recognition that it is one of modern Canada’s two founding peoples.

With French as the common language, its own culture, its civil law tradition and unique customs and traditions, Quebec is most certainly a distinct nation, but that in no way prevents it from participating in the development and vitality of our country with vigour, integrity and drive. Therefore, I feel it is entirely legitimate to protect its representation in the House of Commons with the new 2021 clause.

We must not forget one important thing, honourable senators. Although Quebecers form a strong and proud nation, along with their fellow francophones in other provinces, this French-speaking population remains a minority in North America, a francophone minority in a sea of anglophones. As senators, we should be extremely concerned about this reality, especially in our role as defenders of minorities and of the regions. Bill C-14 essentially provides a constitutional guarantee of equitable representation in an important region of this country.

This bill is not contentious or divisive. It appeals to common sense. It does not infringe on anyone’s rights, and it provides all Canadians with a minimum guarantee of effective, fair and equitable representation. For all these reasons, honourable senators, I urge you to lend your kind support to Bill C-14.

Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ - ]

Are senators ready for the question?

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ - ]

It was moved by the Honourable Senator Dawson, seconded by the Honourable Senator Klyne, that this bill be read a third time.

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

(Motion agreed to and bill read third time and passed.)

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