Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New seat distribution formula to look a lot like the old one.

I've taken a close look at the proposed numbers in Harper's new plan for seat redistribution.

This is a difficult to understand issue, so I will begin by explaining the history a little bit. Canada has had a number of different formulas to distribute seats across the land.

From 1867 to 1915, we used a "Quebec" based formula. Quebec was guaranteed 65 seats. That number was then divided by Quebec's population, and the size of the electorate in each Quebec riding was thus determined. Each province would then be given seats so that their ridings would be equal in size to that of Quebec. An additional formula made it difficult for provinces to lose seats, though possible.

From 1915 to 1946, the formula we used was nearly identical, except that no province could ever have fewer seats than Senators. The result of this was to raise PEI back up to 4 seats (from the 3 it held, mathematically, for a short time) but this clause, the Senatorial clause, was added to the Constitution, where it remains to this day.

In 1946 the formula was amended to it's first non-Quebec based formula. Canada's provinces were assigned 254 seats (with 1 extra for the Yukon) and these 254 seats were then assigned to each province based on it's fair share of the population. Provinces could now lose seats, excepting the Senatorial clause, and this thus quickly became the new concern. In 1951 a new clause was added forbidding provinces can losing more than 15% of it's seats at any one time.

Between 1974 and 1985 we went back to a Quebec based formula, this time with Quebec at 75 seats. This formula gave different calculations based on the size of provinces, and needless to say, was quite unwieldy. It was used once, in 1976, and never again. This adjustment is important however, as the number of seats assigned in 1976 became the basis for the "Grandfather Clause", which states no province can have fewer seats than they were assigned under this 1974 formula.

The formula in use since 1985 is what we have been debating replacing. This formula gives 279 seats to the provinces (and 3 extra set aside for the Territories) and then gives the provinces it's fair share based on that. The Senatorial clause is then added, which at this time gives extra seats to PEI, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and then the Grandfather clause is activated which gives extra seats to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec.

The current formula ends up being harmful to BC, Alberta, and Ontario. As more and more seats are added due to clauses, there is less and less room for these provinces to grow. This is the basis for the need for change.

The old formula, since it is a mathematical formula, is easy to calculate. Using it for the coming changes, we get 108 seats for Ontario, 37 for BC, 31 for Alberta, and the same 138 for the other provinces combined. Harper proposed a change, that would allow Provinces smaller than Quebec to have riding sizes equal to that within Quebec. This would have raised Alberta to 35 and BC to 41 but kept Ontario at 108. Needless to say, Ontario was not very happy with this, and protested. Harper then responded by allowing all provinces to have equal population-per-riding to Quebec, which raised Ontario to 124

The problem is this huge increase suddenly put Quebec at a disadvantage. Thanks to the "Clauses" Quebec suddenly found itself entitled to fewer seats than it's population would otherwise allow. This is where the debate stood a week ago.

Yesterday, Harper announced new seat counts. 119 for Ontario, 41 for BC, 34 for Alberta, 77 for Quebec, and an unchanged 63 for the smaller provinces. Acting on a tip from an Internet user known to me only as "Krago" I was able to figure out the formula behind this.

What Harper is using is the old 1985 formula with only two changes. First, the number of seats the provinces are entitled to goes up from 279 to 305. 305, plus three for the Territories, is our current seat number; but due to over-representation of the smaller provinces, this new number gives the larger provinces many more seats. Secondly, there appears to be a new "Quebec Clause" that entitles Quebec to a number of seats equal to it's share of the population. If you add these two together, you get the exact results reported in the media.

At the risk of having a post that is a bit TL;DR, I hope that this clears things up.


  1. The only way to eliminate the unfairness is to get up to 445 seats, and even then PEI has "extra" seats. Over 800 would be needed to smooth things over. At 445, however, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland, all have proper numbers.


  2. Thank's a ton for doing this, Teddy - very, very interesting. I may have to delve into the political ramifications of this after the fact.

  3. Thanks for the excellent detective work on this, and the history.

    The seat distribution seems reasonable to me. My concern, however, is with the "Quebec Clause", and the justification for it. I suppose we'll have to wait for the legislation on that one.

  4. Not much research needed TBH, I accumulate a ton of useless trivia that once in a while turns out to be useful :P

  5. Two points:

    (1) There is a 'poison pill' contained in the 1982 repatriation of the Constitution. According to section 41(b), the 'Senate floor' clause can never be repealed without unanimous approval from Parliament and EVERY provicial legislature.

    (2) According to 2021 population projections, Quebec would drop back down to 75 seats next time, even if the 'Quebec clause' is included. Watch 'em howl to put in an expanded 'Grandfather clause' where no province can lose seats EVER.