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Quebec fears delay new Commons seats for Ontario, Alberta, B.C.

Fears of a Quebec backlash have delayed the Harper government's plan to give the growing parts of Canada a larger share of seats in the House of Commons.

As a result, the changes the Tories promised in the spring campaign may not be in place in time for the 2015 election, leaving millions of voters once again underrepresented in Parliament.

The bill to change the way seats are allocated, which would give Ontario an expected 18 additional MPs, British Columbia seven and Alberta five, aims to redress the severe shortage of seats in large and growing urban areas.

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But the Conservatives are still grappling with the fact that the change would disadvantage Quebec, which it continues to court despite being virtually shut out there in May. The province has 23 per cent of Canada's population and 24 per cent of the seats in the House, but its share would fall to 22 per cent under the new formula. The NDP, which achieved a breakthrough there in the election, and many Quebec politicians vehemently oppose the plan.

Although Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal said in the summer that only Ontario, Alberta and B.C would receive extra seats, that position is being reconsidered, according to a government source. One option might be to give Quebec more seats as well.

A government source said the bill is now unlikely to be introduced before the end of the month at least. That could delay final passage until after the House rises at Christmas, in which case, the current reallocation process that takes place after a census will begin in the new year.

Once it starts, it becomes difficult or impossible to change the ground rules. The large English-Canadian provinces would remain underrepresented under the existing formula.

A spokesman for Mr. Uppal refused to comment on the government's deliberations.

"We made a clear commitment in the campaign, and we will fulfill that commitment," Kate Davis said. That commitment, in the Conservative platform for last spring's election, is to "restore fair representation in the House of Commons" while ensuring that "the population of Quebec remains proportionately represented."

A report from the Mowat Centre, an Ontario-issues think tank, is proposing that legislation should guarantee that Quebec's representation in the House of Commons never falls below what its population warrants.

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If the House were increased by 30 seats to bring Ontario, B.C. and Alberta closer to their fair share, Quebec would receive four seats as well, increasing the number of MPs to 342 from 308.

Such a move would reflect "Quebec's unique place in the federation," the report states. A copy of a draft was provided to The Globe and Mail.

Some critics believe that seats should be stripped from smaller provinces with declining relative populations to keep the House from becoming too large, but constitutional and legislative guarantees make that virtually impossible.

As the Mowat report notes, rebalancing the House to incorporate the reality of the three fast-growing provinces is essential, not only to preserve the principle of representation by population, but to prevent the unintended but real discrimination against visible minorities that results from the status quo.

Most new Canadians, the vast majority of whom are visible minorities, settle in the burgeoning suburbs surrounding the country's largest cities.

As a result of the current system, rural ridings with virtually all-white populations are heavily overrepresented in the House, while suburban ridings with large non-white populations are heavily underrepresented.

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For example, Brampton West, on the edge of Toronto, had a population of 170,422 in the last census and is 54-per-cent visible minority, while Malpeque, in Prince Edward Island, had 33,796 people and is 99-per-cent white.

"In the face of massive immigration, the dilution of some Canadians' votes and the amplification of others increasingly disadvantages Canadians from non-European backgrounds," authors Matthew Mendelsohn and Sujit Choudhry conclude.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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