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Farmers better represented in the House than the field

TODD KOROL/Todd Korol/Reuters

The House of Commons sealed the fate of the Canadian Wheat Board last week, removing the organization's control over grain sales in Western Canada. The decision that will have a profound effect on the lives of thousands of farmers was approved by a House made up of, among others, lawyers, doctors and career politicians. But farmers, too, voted to end the board's 76 year monopoly.

According to the Parliament of Canada's website, there are 21 self-described farmers sitting in the House of Commons. All but four of them are Conservatives and more than half of them represent ridings in the three provinces in which the Wheat Board has the most influence. Three Liberals, all from Atlantic Canada, and one New Democrat from Quebec listed "farmer" as one of their occupations.

Many listed farming as one among several. Robert Sopuck, the Conservative MP representing the riding of Dauphin–Swan River–Marquette in Manitoba, for example, listed five occupations while Francine Raynault, NDP MP for Joliette, listed six.

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Farmers have always played an important role in the Commons and the 21 MPs currently sitting in the chamber who listed farming as their occupation are typical of the last few decades. Since 1972, the number of farmers in the House has consistently been between 17 and 27. That number has changed even less since the 1997 election, with between 19 and 22 farmers sitting in the House of Commons over that time.

Not surprisingly, Conservatives, Canadian Alliance MPs, Reformers, and Progressive Conservatives have dominated the ranks of the parliamentary farming community. Roughly three-quarters of politician-farmers have been Conservative in the last four decades, and in every election since 1957 the Conservatives have sent more farmers to the Commons than any other party.

Since 1867, the Conservative Party and its predecessors have contributed more farmers to the House than any other party as well, outpacing the Liberals by roughly 250 MPs to 200. The New Democrats and their CCF predecessors elected only about two-dozen farmers to the Commons in their history.

Ontario has sent the most farmers (234) to Ottawa since Confederation, understandably as the western provinces had very small populations until well into the 20th century. But the West has caught up over the last 100 years and has sent 225 farmer-MPs to the House throughout its history. Only 92 Quebec and 52 Atlantic Canadian MPs have listed "farmer" as their occupation.

But the 20 or so farmers who have sat in the House of Commons since the 1970s were a much smaller contingent than the ones that came before. For the first century of Canada's history farmers made up a very large proportion of sitting politicians, with the number usually being somewhere between 35 and 60 farmer MPs. The most farmers ever elected were in 1921, when 86 farmers (the bulk of them from the Progressive Party) were sent to Ottawa. In elections held between 1911 and 1965 no fewer than 38 farmer MPs were ever elected.

Though the Conservatives have predominated among farmer MPs over the last 50 years, for the first century after Confederation the Liberals or the Progressives usually had more MPs with an agricultural background.

Of course, the population that actually lives on a farm in Canada has dropped precipitously since those early days. That the number of MPs with a farming background has fallen from highs of more than 60 to today's average of about 21 (in a larger parliament) should come as no surprise.

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But whereas farmers were under-represented in the House of Commons before the 1960s, since then farmers have made up a larger proportion of the House than they have in Canada as a whole.

In 1931, 32 per cent of Canadians were defined as being part of the "farm population." That has continuously dropped, to 21 per cent in 1951, 7 per cent in 1971, and now down to only 2.2 per cent, according to the 2006 census.

By comparison, after the 1930 election only 22 per cent of MPs were farmers. This under-representation continued until after the Second World War, when the number of farmers in the House closely matched the proportion of the farm population nationwide.

But the proportion of MPs who listed "farmer" as their occupation has never dropped below 5.8 per cent, and since the 1958 election there has been a higher percentage of farmers in the House of Commons than there are in the general population. Today, 6.8 per cent of MPs list "farmer" as one of their occupations – more than three times the proportion of Canada's farm population.

Certainly, farmers are as different from one another as are their farms, and those farmers that benefited from the Canadian Wheat Board will be sorry to see it go. But farmers have been predominantly elected to the House of Commons under a Conservative banner of one stripe or another for decades, and have occupied more than their fair share of seats. With the demise of the Wheat Board now seen by many as inevitable, it would appear that many farmers have reaped what they have sown.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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