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Studies on the Canadian Constitution and Canadian Federalism


Last revised:
26 February 2001

Representation by Population


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Representation by Population (Rep. by Pop.) is a method by which seats are allocated in the House of Commons in such a way as to vary with population. The higher the population of a province, the larger the number of seats allocated to that province will be. Essentially, it relates to the basic democratic principle of "one person, one vote" and that all votes should count equally.

The issue of representation according to population first arose in Canada during the period of the Union (1840-1867) when Upper and Lower Canada were united under a single government (legislative union). The terms of Union stipulated that the two former colonies would be represented, in a new legislature, by an equal number of representatives despite the fact that Lower Canada contained 59% of the population of the province and Upper Canada only 41%. This injustice had been created so that the "Canadiens" would be rendered powerless in the new legislature and that, consequently, assimilation be more easily attained. From the first in the Union, French Canadian members of the Parliament of the United Province of Canada protested the unfair treatment of Lower Canada and demanded that Rep. by Pop. be instituted.

Eventually, French Canadians reconciled themselves to the idea of equal representation as they succeeded in attaining, by 1848, a large measure of governmental power through their association with the reformists of Upper Canada. From that point on, Lower Canadians did not press for Rep. by Pop. and when some of their more radical members did, they defeated the measure themselves. When the results of the 1851 census were disclosed, it was found that the population of Upper Canada was now slightly higher than that of the Lower Canadian part of the province. Statistical evidence showed that the gap could only increase in the future. From that moment, the cry for Rep. by Pop. became an easy electoral battleground for the Clear Grits of Upper Canada, led by George Brown.

Fearful that Upper Canada would use their numerical superiority in the House to dominate them, or to remove the cultural rights they had managed to gain between 1840 and 1848, should Rep. by Pop. be accepted, Lower Canadians rejected every call for electoral reform between 1853 and 1864. They rallied more and more around G.E. Cartier's Bleus who promised to oppose the measure, while Upper Canadians turned, in increasing numbers, to the Clear Grits who promised to implement it. The split in the Province over this issue, and other related ones, led to the political deadlock of 1864 when the province became ungovernable for want of a clear majority.

French Canadians recognized that constitutional reforms were necessary but would not concede Rep. by Pop. unless guarantees were given. The result of these pressures was the creation of the federal system in 1867: representation by population was conceded to Upper Canada (ss. 51-52 of the Constitution Act) but French Canada obtained a province where it would be full "master" in its house. Thus, Upper Canadians could not use their numerical strength to dominate French Canadians as those powers that were directly relevant to the culture and way of life of Lower Canadians would be put beyond the reach of Upper Canadians, being entrusted to the provincial legislatures. Maritimers were also fearful of the large role that Central Canada would inevitably play in the central government. Their fear that they would be powerless in a House dominated by Central Canada became one of the most important stumbling blocks to the union of the colonies. Several guarantees were sought and obtained by the provinces that feared Ontario's voting strength:

1) Quebec received a fixed number of seats (65) and would serve as the basis for the calculations of the seats for the other provinces. It was thus guaranteed that its deputation would never fall below this number s. 51(1-2) . Cartier’s view was that as long as French Canadians voted as a block, and for his party, he "could make and unmake governments". To exercise influence in the federal government, he deemed it important that he not lead a shrinking group of parliamentarians from Quebec.

2) "The proportion which the population of a province bore to that of the Dominion was ascertained for both the census ten years earlier and the current one, and if the latter proportion was not more than one-twentieth less than the former, no reduction in the representation of that province would be made under the general rule." (R.M. Dawson, The Government of Canada, 1957, p.36); see s.51(4).

3) Rep. by Pop. in the House of Commons was counterbalanced by equality of representation of regions in the Senate (s.22). This was especially important for the Maritime provinces.

4) The British North America Act, 1915, introduced a further restriction to the principle of Representation by Population as it stipulated that a province would always be entitled "to a number of members in the House of Commons not less than the number of Senators representing such province." This has become article 51A of the Constitution Act.

Representation by Population was an issue that plagued Canada during the Union period. The strains exhibited by the unequal distribution of population in the country, and hence in the Canadian parliament, are still with us today. Proposals have been made, from time to time, especially at the time of the Meech Lake Accord, to have a triple E senate (Elected, Equal, Effective) to counterbalance the increasing influence and domination of Ontario in the House of Commons. All such pleas have fallen on the stumbling block of the democratic system that requires that all votes should be considered equally.

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College