Ontario minorities left standing in Tory game of musical chairs

TheStar.com – Federal Election – Ontario minorities left standing in Tory game of musical chairs
October 14, 2008. Errol Mendes

Controversial legislation to redistribute seats in Parliament fell by the wayside when Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a federal election last month. But a re-elected Conservative government would almost certainly revive it. And that’s bad news for Ontario and its large population of visible minorities who will be casting their ballots today.

The Harper government’s Bill C-54 would have given British Columbia and Alberta another five and four seats respectively after the 2011 Census. That would make their representation in Ottawa roughly proportional to their share of the national population.

But Ontario would have ended up with just 35 per cent of the seats in Parliament even though the province is home to 40 per cent of the population. As Rudyard Griffiths, co-founder of the Dominion Institute, has calculated, this would effectively disenfranchise some 1 million Ontarians, or approximately one of every 10 citizens of voting age.

According to Griffiths, Ontario’s 1.1 million immigrants, the majority of whom are visible minorities who have arrived in the past five years, would be the most affected.

All this is reminiscent of the situation in George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm, in which some animals were more equal than others after they overthrew farmer Jones. Napoleon, the pig leader in Animal Farm, would have been impressed by the result.

He also would have approved of the suitably Orwellian comments of Peter Van Loan, a Conservative MP from Ontario and Tory House leader in the last Parliament, who had the temerity to call Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty “the small man of Confederation” for opposing the bill.

The Conservative government responded to the howls of protest from the Liberal government of Ontario and the federal Liberal party by saying the province was getting 10 more seats and should stop complaining about the 11 other seats it is entitled to based on population. The Conservatives said it would mean expanding the federal Parliament by 20 to 25 seats – too much bother!

Try telling that to the unequal voters of southern Ontario in fast-growing cities like Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, Brampton, Oakville and Toronto. Try convincing the 47,000 voters of Willowdale who go to the polls to elect one MP that their votes are as equal as those of the 27,000 voters of Palliser, Sask., who also get to vote for one MP.

Indeed, the gross lack of effective representation that would have resulted from Bill C-54 may well have called into question its constitutional validity. The Supreme Court in Attorney-General of Saskatchewan v. Roger Carter ruled that while Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not guarantee total equality of voting power, it does guarantee the right to “effective representation,”

The court continued: “Relative parity of voting power is a prime condition of effective representation. Deviations from absolute voting 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 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.”

While the ruling could justify smaller populations for rural ridings, the court also clearly stated that effective representation must also increase the number of seats to reflect population increases in urban areas.

Bill C-54 would not only have denied effective representation for growing urban areas of Ontario, but also would have denied, in the words of the Supreme Court in the Carter ruling, “minority representation (that) may need to be taken into account to ensure legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic.”

There is expert proof of this in a study by Michael Pal and Sujit Choudhry in their paper published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) titled Is Every Ballot Equal? Visible Minority Dilution in Canada.

Pal and Choudhry stressed that the visible minority vote is diluted across Canada, especially in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

Within a decade, one in three citizens in Ontario will be visible minorities, the majority living in ridings that would have been negatively affected by Bill C-54. That could be grounds for a constitutional challenge to future redistribution legislation based on Section 15 (1), the equality guarantee of the Charter.

We might well ask if Bill C-54 was a deliberate attempt to dilute the votes of visible minorities in the vote-rich areas of southern Ontario.

If that was the case, then not only was the bill in violation of Sections 3 and 15(1) of the Charter and, therefore, unconstitutional, it also was a despicable attempt to undermine the democratic foundations of this country.

Should any attempt be made to revive this pernicious legislation, it should be vigorously opposed in the courts and by the vast majority of citizens of Canada in Ontario

Errol P. Mendes is a professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa and editor-in-chief of the National Journal of Constitutional Law. emendes@uottaw.ca

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