Toward a Rational Redistribution of Seats in Canada's Senate

By Hynes, Aaron | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Toward a Rational Redistribution of Seats in Canada's Senate


Hynes, Aaron, Canadian Parliamentary Review


The current division of seats in the Senate of Canada provides neither representation-by-population nor provincial equality, nor any compromise between the two. It is based on no consistent formula or principle. It is an incoherent hodge-podge of obsolete nineteenth-century regionalism and later exceptions and adjustments. This paper proposes three fundamental principles that might assist future leaders in rethinking seat distribution. First, the obsolete regionalism that formed the basis of the current distribution of Senate seats ought to be abandoned and seats distributed on a strictly provincial basis; second, the distribution of seats ought to give some weight to the equal franchise of each province as a member of the Canadian federation; and third, to the extent that the number of seats held by each province is based on a variable (such as population), the constitution should entrench a formula responsive to that variable instead of a fixed allocation, to reduce the necessity of future constitutional amendments.

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At present, there are 105 regular seats in the Senate. One province has four seats, five provinces have six each, two have ten each, two have 24 each, and the territories have one each. These various levels of representation are purely arbitrary, and not connected to population, geographic size, cultural distinctiveness or any other factor. The Prime Minister may appoint either four or eight extra Senators to pass contentious legislation. None of those extra Senators may come from Newfoundland and Labrador or any of the territories. Many Senators represent entire provinces, but many others choose a specific area within the province as their 'senatorial designation.' Only Quebec has permanently delineated senatorial districts. None of those districts are in Quebec's north, so that region is formally without any representation in the Senate.

No wonder Peter McCormick, Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge, told a Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform, "When I teach first-year students about the distribution of seats in the Canadian Senate, they laugh." (1)

Another political scientist, David E. Smith, has called the distribution of Senate seats, "a maze of compromises, deals and agreements." (2)

Tension between rep-by-pop and federalism

Whenever the prospect of rationalizing the distribution of seats in Canada's Senate is raised, politicians naturally argue for whatever formula will bring their own provinces more seats. Those in more populous provinces are inclined to favour a system approximating representation-by-population, while critics in less populous provinces are more favourably disposed toward equal representation of all provinces. As populations have shifted, so too have provincial perspectives on the distribution of Senate seats.

The case for representation-by-population is simple. In a perfect democracy, it is argued, each citizen should have equal influence over the decisions of the nation. However, in the context of a federation this argument is not only simple, but simplistic. It fails utterly to comprehend the essence of a federation.

In a democracy, each citizen surrenders some measure of personal freedom in consenting to be bound by the decisions of an elected legislature. In return, each citizen is guaranteed an equal franchise--equal rights and freedoms before and under the law, including an equal vote.

This democratic social contract among citizens is paralleled by a federal union of states or provinces. Each member of a federation surrenders an equal measure of self-determination, and remains equally sovereign within a jurisdiction identical to those of the other members. Therefore, just as true democracy entitles each citizen to an equal franchise, so too it can be argued that a true federation entitles every member province to an equal franchise.

At the very least, a truly federal parliament must be so designed as to prevent it from being commandeered into the service of one or two populous provinces. …

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