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Representation by numbers means we don’t count

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

Ominous things brewing in Ottawa these days (but then, what else is new?).

There’s been a lot of coverage in the news lately about the federal Conservative plans to re-allocate seats in the House of Commons, to give more seats (and power) to the more urban provinces: Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta.

And there’s been a lot of coverage in the news about Quebec’s battle to prevent this happening.

But what needs to be asked is where is our province – and its representatives, from the provincial government to our federal MPs – and what are they doing to prevent us from losing even more political representation than the meagre amount we currently have?

The new plan would see more seats for the fast-growing urban regions. In the most likely scenario, Ontario would get 18 more seats, BC would get 7, Alberta would get 5. It is, of course, no coincidence that these are also areas where the Conservatives enjoy strong support and would have a good shot at winning the new seats.

If the mighty, seat-rich Quebec is afraid of what will happen…what do you think it’s gonna mean for us?

Quebec strongly opposes the new legislation, because more seats for Ontario and the others means a smaller overall percentage of seats – and political power – for Quebec. Now before you jump on the infuriatingly inane anti-Quebec bandwagon, think about that for a moment. If the mighty, seat-rich Quebec is afraid of what will happen if its proportional clout in the Commons gets reduced – what do you think it’s gonna mean for us?

It’s going to mean that our meagre 7 seats will go from a little tiny bit of federal representation, to an even littler tinier bit of representation.

And that is something our representatives need to be fighting against.

Canada: a democratic tug-of-war between numbers and regions

In Canada, there have always been two principles struggling with each other in how we structure our representation. On the one hand, there’s been a drive to entrench ‘representation by population’: the number of representatives is determined by the number of people. On the other hand however, there’s been the fact that Canada is not a single homogenous nation, but a federation of unique regions each of which expect to be treated fairly equally. So these federated partners, which we know better as provinces, have often struggled against the principle of pure representation by numbers. If Canada adopted wholeheartedly the principle of numbers, then the larger more populous partners in Confederation – Ontario and British Columbia, for instance – would wind up with a lot more power than the other partners (and places like PEI might as well just, you know, sink).

The Senate, in its original form, was designed to allow equal representation for what back then were Canada’s three main regions – 24 seats for each of Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes; while the House of Commons was based more on population numbers. Of course, things have changed a lot. That formula is no longer in play, and the Senate is little more than a rubber-stamping tool of the governing party. But it shows the tug-of-war which has gone on throughout Canada’s history: representation by region, or representation by individual voters?

The point here is, that our democracy is a lot more complicated than just saying it should be based on population.

Indeed, there have been a number of proposals made to re-organize representation in the House of Commons more purely along the lines of population, but each time the smaller provinces fought and resisted such moves. Logically enough: it would disadvantage them. In 1974, a system for representation was developed which was based on the idea that provinces should be categorized as large, medium or small, and a different formula would be used to calculate representation for each of the three types, in order to ensure small provinces wouldn’t automatically see their representation decimated. However, this formula was suspended because it was feared the House of Commons would become too big. At the same time, a variety of regulations were imposed so as to ensure that smaller provinces did not lose what representation they had, even if they didn’t gain more to make things more equal.

The point here is, that our democracy is a lot more complicated than just saying it should be based on population. That might be ok if we were a single little country comprised of fairly equal provinces, but we’re not. We’re a variety of dramatically unique regions and cultures joined in a Federation, and in this system, democracy should not – and cannot – be just about the numbers.

Real ‘Federation’ or ‘Con’ Federation?

Remember 1949? Well even if you don’t that year has been etched into our collective memory with a significance that has, perhaps, grown rather than faded with the passing of the years. It was, of course, the year that Newfoundland and Labrador reached the end of a difficult and divisive decision-making process to join the political entity known as Canada. The difficulty of the decision, and the hesitance with which we approached the idea of joining the Canadian federation, was reflected in the nearly split vote which accompanied that decision.

But what’s important to remember is that we joined under terms negotiated (originally) by the Newfoundland National Assembly. In other words, Confederation was not an absorption of Newfoundland and Labrador by Canada, it was a negotiation between equals over the conditions under which we would both agree to collaborate in a political relationship for the indeterminate future.

Canada committed to providing Newfoundland and Labrador seven seats through which to represent Newfoundland and Labrador in the House of Commons. The Conservative plans to boost seats in Ontario, BC and Alberta doesn’t take away our seats, but it undermines their substance and dilutes their proportional effect, meagre though it is. It undermines our political influence in the House of Commons. And let us not forget what that House has been doing to us lately: gutting our local Marine Search and Rescue; gutting our local environmental agencies; gutting DFO; selling out protection of our waters to European overfishing fleets while our own fishing communities get “rationalized” out of existence. The House of Commons is a battleground where we only ever seem to lose, and where we need representation. And now, with dozens of potential new seats being added from mainland Conservative strongholds, what little we do have is going to count for even less.

Maybe WE should be the ones demanding more representatives, not those living in the lap of urbanity.

Quebec has dug in its heels to fight the reallocation of seats in the House of Commons, and if we are smart – and if our provincial government is not afraid to do its job – we will join them in this fight. Providing extra seats to Ontario, BC and Alberta undermines our political strength, influence and representation in the House. It means we will have even less sway and influence than we currently do.

Moreover, who is to say that representing the 26,000 people spread over almost 300,000 square kilometres in Labrador is not just as much of a challenge as representing the 110,000 people crammed into 38 square kilometres in Etobicoke? Both have their own unique challenges. It’s mighty hard to represent and meet the needs of people spread over 300,000 square kilometres, especially in a remote, weather-beaten region with relatively little infrastructure. The annual income of a family in Etobicoke is $73,000. The annual income of a family in Labrador is $27,000. I could walk from one end of Etobicoke to the other in a day. How long do you think it would take you to walk across Labrador? Or even fly across it for that matter, given the unpredictability of weather, sea and air transport? Which is the more challenging district to represent, again? Maybe WE should be the ones demanding more representatives, not those living in the lap of urbanity.

The immigrant argument

Some have argued that the current system is discriminatory against immigrants, because immigrants are preponderantly situated in the heavily populated urban areas, and that more seats for Ontario is an issue of equality. This, too, is a bogus argument. The issues of smaller numbers of immigrants located in rural regions without community or cultural support networks are just as great as those of large numbers of immigrants in the diverse, multicultural – and mutually supportive – communities of the urban centres. Again, each reality comes with specific and unique challenges. One does not outweigh the other. Indeed, if we are to better support the needs of immigrants, greater political strength is needed by rural regions such as Newfoundland and Labrador. Federal immigration laws are predicated invariably on channeling immigration to meet the needs of the vote-rich large urban centres (for instance, channeling large numbers of immigrants into exploitative minimum wage nanny jobs demanded by middle-class white Ontario families). Meanwhile, we in Newfoundland and Labrador – who actually want to boost our population with skilled and professional immigrant workers, and provide them good-paying jobs and encourage permanent settlement here – are disadvantaged because the federal government is more interested in the needs of vote-rich Ontario. The expansion of representation for Ontario will not enfranchise immigrant workers – it will ensure their continued entrapment and exploitation in the heavily populated mainland Canadian provinces where they are treated as a cheap labour underclass.

Can we not fight Quebec, just for once please? It’s getting a bit old.

Quebec’s provincial government is on the right track by resisting these changes. Where are our federal representatives on the issue? Where is our provincial government on the issue? Have they even considered the implications for us if our representation in federal bodies gets further diluted, diminished and undermined? Or are they willing to trade off our long-term interests for the sake of an increasingly questionable Muskrat Falls loan guarantee, or some other such short-term political point? For the sake of our collective future, let’s hope not.

But it’s time for their voice to be heard. They’ve dodged the issue long enough, perhaps because they think there’s nothing they can do about it. One almost can’t blame them, considering how Stephen Harper virtually laughed off Kathy Dunderdale’s epic phone call to try to save Marine Search and Rescue in this province.

Almost.

If they are to fulfill their responsibilities as representatives of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, they must speak out against the changes to representation. And if they can, for once, look beyond the typical short-term tactic of winning cheap political shots by bashing Quebec, they might realize that in Quebec lies an ally with as much to gain – or lose – by resisting these changes as we do.

Adding urban seats is not about enhancing democracy. It’s about weakening us politically.

Quebec’s concerns have already delayed the implementation of these changes. Together, we might actually be able to stop them. At the very least, we can draw attention to the fact that a functioning Canadian democracy is not one based solely on the might of numbers (or in other words, the might of Ontario and British Columbia).

Adding urban seats is not about enhancing democracy. It’s about weakening us politically. Our unique culture – where values of mutual support, equality, cooperation and common sense still mean something more than they do in cutthroat urban centres like Toronto – has played a vital role in preserving the values which, when we joined, were Canadian values too. Weakening our influence on the national stage will only weaken the values that mainland urban Canada increasingly only pays lip service too. And if it goes ahead, perhaps it will be time for us to finally ask the question – out loud – whether we should continue in a partnership which has formally decided to take us less seriously than they already do.

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