Insights & Analysis

January 12, 2022

Why Alberta continues to be under-represented in Ottawa

Every 10 years, the federal government reviews and adjusts the allocation of seats in the House of Commons. The latest process began in October 2021, and Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer has determined that the number of seats in the House of Commons will increase by four. Chronically under-represented Alberta gets three new seats, while British Columbia and Ontario get one each.

Yes, that does add up to five. But one province—Quebec—is losing a seat, bringing the net increase to four.

In this Quick Read, we explain how seat redistributions are calculated and why some provinces, including Alberta, feel they are being treated unfairly.

How many seats does each province get?

The number of seats in the House of Commons is recalculated every 10 years to account for population changes. The Chief Electoral Officer then allocates those seats to the provinces using a representation formula found in our constitution. The idea is to ensure fairness and fix over/under-representation as provincial populations shift. That said, the representation formula doesn’t only consider population. There are three rules the formula applies that can change the number of seats a province is allocated after considering population.

    1. The Senate Rule

    This rule was enacted in 1915 to protect against significant loss of representation in provinces where there might be an outflow of population. The Senate Rule ensures that no province has fewer seats in the House of Commons than the Senate. The four Atlantic provinces will benefit from this rule, gaining more seats than are allocated to them strictly based on population—New Brunswick +3; Nova Scotia +1; Prince Edward Island (PEI) +2; and Newfoundland and Labrador +1.

    2. The Grandfather Rule

    As a further guarantee to protect provinces from losing seats during redistribution, the Senate Rule was supplemented by the Grandfather Rule. This rule, enacted in 1985, protects smaller provinces by ensuring that no province will have fewer seats than it did in that year. Half the provinces will benefit from this rule during the 2021 redistribution, with extra seats given to: Saskatchewan +4, Manitoba +2, Quebec + 4, Nova Scotia +1, and Newfoundland and Labrador +1.

    3. The Representation Rule

    This rule applies to provinces that were overrepresented during the last redistribution process. If such a province were to now be under-represented based on the representation formula (including the Senate Rule and Grandfather Rule), that province is given additional seats based on its population. In the upcoming redistribution process, this rule gives Quebec another 2 seats.

What would actual representation-by-population look like?

While the initial allocation of seats is based on population, the three rules are layered into the formula and distort representation-by-population. This leaves some provinces underrepresented and many provinces overrepresented.

Elections Canada, author’s own calculations.

Despite gaining seats under the 2021 redistribution, Canadians in the fastest-growing provinces—British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario—are still considerably underrepresented. A recent Angus Reid poll found that while half of Canadians feel well represented in the House of Commons, the prairie provinces feel aggrieved, especially in Alberta, where 7 in 10 people feel underrepresented. And they’re not wrong. To have pure representation-by-population, Alberta would need 3 more seats on top of the 3 additional seats coming to us through the redistribution.

The number of seats in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the four Atlantic provinces aren’t changing, and these provinces will remain overrepresented.

After losing one seat in the redistribution, Quebec is the only province with proportionate representation. Despite this, Quebec’s Premier, François Legault, and Bloc Québécois Leader, Yves-François Blanchet, have strongly condemned the seat loss and have committed to fighting to keep Quebec’s influence in Parliament. Blanchet argues that Quebec deserves special consideration as a founding nation and, rather than lose a seat, should gain a seat.

Elections Canada, author’s own calculations.

The difference between the overrepresented provinces and underrepresented provinces isn’t trivial. In Alberta, there is 1 Member of Parliament (MP) per 120,124 residents, versus 1 MP per 40,977 in PEI, making a vote in PEI nearly 3x more powerful than a vote in Alberta.

Conclusion

The representation formula and its three rules are constitutionally entrenched. For this reason, Canada can never truly have representation-by-population. However, Parliament does have the power to make minor adjustments. This was done most recently by Former Prime Minister Stephan Harper in 2011 when he added additional seats for Ontario (+15), British Columbia (+6), and Alberta (+6) in an effort to better reflect representation-by-population. Unfortunately, while this helped, it did not go far enough.

During this redistribution process, Parliament should give more thought to distributing seats more fairly and equitably, rather than focus on Quebec’s desire to maintain influence despite waning population growth.



Emma Dizon, Policy Analyst

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