Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

1st Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 148, Issue 44

Friday, December 16, 2011
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Constitution Act, 1867
Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act
Canada Elections Act

Bill to Amend—Third Reading

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, this past Wednesday and Thursday, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs commenced its study on Bill C-20, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and the Canada Elections Act. Today I would like to address a number of issues that were raised in committee: the importance of ensuring that all Canadians receive fair representation, the costs that will be associated with this bill, and finally the fact that visible minority groups may continue to receive unequal representation even in the event that this bill is passed.

Honourable senators, our committee had the opportunity to hear from the Honourable Tim Uppal, Minister of State and Democratic Affairs. Minister Uppal explained the need for Bill C-20, saying as follows:

Bill C-20 delivers on our government’s long-standing commitment to move the House of Commons towards fair representation by allocating an increased number of seats now and in the future to better reflect population growth in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia . . .

He then went on to explain:

The readjustment formula in Bill C-20 is designed to address problems created by the existing 1985 formula, in particular, the representation gap that has developed between the faster-growing provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta and the slower-growing provinces. While the 1985 formula has been successful in limiting the size of the House of Commons, it has prevented the faster-growing provinces from receiving a share of seats that is more in line with their relative share of the population.

He then went on to address the gross under-representation of visible minorities.

Honourable senators, I am very familiar with the challenges that my province of British Columbia is currently facing with regard to fair and equal representation. I too believe that we must ensure that all of our citizens are equally represented and they each are provided with a voice. The Fair Representation Act is a step in the right direction but, as with other things, there are still matters that need to be addressed.

For example, previous incarnations of this bill included a provision that enabled the commissioners to look at the projected rate of increase of the population when creating boundaries. This has now been removed. I believe that we need to reinstate the provision to allow the provincial commissioners to take the projected rate of increase in population into account when setting our electoral boundaries.

The more concerning issue for me is the concept of deviation. When the commissioners divide the provinces as per the average population, they are allowed to deviate by 25 per cent. When I asked Minister Uppal about how he would ensure that all citizens receive fair representation, he explained that the commissioners have been set up to take the number of seats that they have received for the province and then divide them based on population. He further explained that the goal was to have each riding consist of roughly 111,000 people, keeping in mind that special consideration would have to be made for ridings in more rural regions.

Minister Uppal then went on to provide an example of a riding that needs to be divided because of sheer size. He explained that the riding of Brampton West consists of 200,000 people. This bill would mean that the 200,000 people would be represented by two or perhaps even three different members of Parliament, depending on how the riding gets divided.

However, since commissioners are allowed to deviate by 25 per cent, my fear is that urban populations will continue to face the same challenges that this bill seeks to address. Many of these ridings have large numbers of visible minorities. In many countries, including the United Kingdom, the deviation rate is 5 per cent. I believe we need to impress upon the commissioners that they very sparingly use the deviation rate of 25 per cent.

Honourable senators, although I firmly believe that every Canadian’s vote should be weighted equally regardless of where they reside in the country, I do not believe this bill is the correct remedy to ensure that in this case, as long as we continue to give the commissioners the power of 25 per cent deviation when they deem necessary.

Another point of concern is the costs that will be associated with adding 30 additional seats to the House of Commons. Prior to yesterday evening, I was under the impression that this would cost $14.8 million per year. When I questioned this sum further, however, I learned that the cost associated with adding an additional 30 seats to the House of Commons would in fact be $19.3 million. In addition to the $19.3 million, we will also see an addition of $8.6 million in the additional costs of elections.

Other issues I find to be incredibly troubling are those surrounding community of identity and community of interest groups. Our committee had the opportunity to hear from Mr. Marc Mayrand, who is Election Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer. Mr. Mayrand explained to the committee that Elections Canada planned to organize a panel of Canadian experts to discuss the concepts of community interests and community identity with the commissioners. Mr. Mayrand went on to explain why community of interest and community of identity groups were relevant to the piece of legislation before us, stating:

In order to determine, effective representation, you need to consider the communities in the district you are trying to define. The Supreme Court gave an open-ended list of factors to consider, such as demography, geography, minority representation. There is a series of factors, and the court was careful to say this is only a list; there may be other factors, such as economic ones, that emerge as the public consultations take place before the commission.

Honourable senators, I am well aware of the importance of taking into consideration the interests of community and identity groups. I too am in agreement that the distribution process should reflect the Canadian mosaic, which is comprised of people from all linguistic, religious and cultural backgrounds. That is why I was incredibly disappointed to later learn that the commission members would be unable to reflect upon the interests of communities and identity groups because they would no longer have access to the information required for this to be the case.

This year, the mandatory long form census form was eliminated. From now onward, every five years, Canadians will instead have to fill out a short form census, which will provide information regarding age, sex, marital status and official language characteristics. The census will no longer provide data regarding characteristics such as ethnic origin, race or religion. Although I would point out that this information could be provided from the National Household Survey, it is important to remember this is completely a voluntary survey, unlike the long form census, which was mandatory.

When I asked Professor Sancton about the challenges that would accompany the future lack of data, he stated:

. . . the fastest growing areas where you most want to have that information and that information would be, I guess, out of date. I found the Statistics Canada material that they had on their laptop computers, where they could tell us how many people of certain minority groups were living in a few blocks area, was absolutely invaluable. I really do not know how a commission could do its job properly if it did not have up-to-date information of that kind.

Honourable senators, witness after witness stated that visible minorities were particularly under-represented as a group. The question we need to ask is how long we will allow this to continue. It is irrefutable that visible minorities at the present time are under-represented. When holding public hearings, I urge the commissioners to be proactive in ensuring that visible minorities are fairly represented.

Our committee has heard time and again that this bill is about fair representation. However, after learning that identity and community groups will be unable to receive the consideration they are entitled to as Canadians, I am afraid they will continue to receive unequal representation, even in the event that this bill is passed.

Before I conclude, I would also like to mention that I was given an opportunity to ask Mr. Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, whether Muslim women would be required to remove their niqab when voting. He stated that since ballots were accepted by mail, there was no need for a voter to show their face while voting. Therefore, Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab will not have to remove their headdress when casting their vote.

Honourable senators, I understand there is a perceived urgency to pass this bill, as the redistribution process is scheduled to take place in the near future. However, yesterday, while hearing testimony from Professor Andrew Sancton, I learned that this was in fact not the case. A one-page piece of legislation could suspend this process, thus giving us the time we need to properly study and debate this bill. This has been done on numerous occasions in the past.

The Senate of Canada has an important role to play, especially with respect to this particular piece of legislation. It is often said that it is the job of the Senate to provide sober second thought, thus I urge all my honourable colleagues to take the time required to do this.

In conclusion, honourable senators, the time has come for fair representation for all Canadians, especially for visible minorities.