How rep follows pop – and what it means for Quebec

The province that has driven much of this country's political agenda will go from belle of the political ball to wistful debutante

L'idée fédérale

And so it begins.
The front-page news in this paper yesterday was the pending announcement of an increase in the size of the House of Commons of 30 seats or so. Such an increase is made necessary by the flourishing of three provinces over the past few decades: British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.
Every other province will see its representation remain stable as the Commons increases in size, meaning a relative loss of political influence. This increase in the size of the Commons is only the first in a series that will be necessary to keep us even close to one person, one vote.
Statistics Canada maintains population projections for Canada in 2031. On all six of their scenarios, within two decades two-thirds of the Canadian population will live in the same three provinces that are about to get extra seats.
It is politically explosive to try to reduce the parliamentary representation of provinces that are losing population relative to the others, and especially so in the case of Quebec. So the Commons in 2031 will count 375 seats; virtually all the increase will go to this new three-province power coalition that will increasingly dominate Canadian politics. A party that could win three quarters of the seats in B.C., Alberta and Ontario would have a parliamentary majority without a single seat from any other province.
Quebec, the province that has driven much of this country's political agenda for the past half century, will go from belle of the political ball to wistful debutante. Its ability to win benefits for itself by consistently sending sovereigntists to Ottawa and denying any party a parliamentary majority will be severely reduced. And even if Quebeckers start voting for federalist parties in larger numbers, they will be unable reliably to deliver parliamentary majorities as they did for nearly a century.
Here's the question that really matters, though: Why are some provinces losing and others winning?
Changes in representation follow changes in population. Population shifts are composed of three main elements: fertility, internal migration and international immigration. Quebec is losing on all three counts.
Yet, in its strategic political position of the past half century, Quebec has been able to win itself a truly impressive list of special deals. The province got extra money for immigrant integration, favourable treatment for its hydro resources under equalization, tax transfers not available to other provinces, opt-outs from national programs and hugely disproportionate shares of the federal subsidies available to business, not to mention milk quotas under our anti-consumer marketing board scheme.
On a population basis, French-speakers are overrepresented in the federal civil service by roughly a third. Quebec successfully drove the campaign to fix the entirely fictitious “fiscal imbalance,” and walked away with a huge share of the cash that changed hands. And those are just a few examples of the special treatment Quebec has received over recent years.
You'd think with all those advantages, Quebec would be booming. It hasn't worked out that way. And yet, before Ottawa started to shower Quebec with benefits, before the separatist threat became significant, and before the Quiet Revolution that ushered in a huge and powerful state, Quebec was keeping up quite nicely with Ontario both economically and in other ways as well. Quebeckers had high levels of fertility and immigration, and their productivity and growth matched that of Ontarians.
Fifty years on, Quebec has had low levels of immigration, family formation, employment and private investment, high levels of out-migration, welfare dependency, of suicide, of early retirement, of public employment, of taxes and of regulation. Their fertility has only recently caught up to the Canadian average, after having fallen to one of the lowest levels in the Western world, and has only increased chiefly due to a costly program to subsidize children. Quebec's population is aging faster than almost any other part of Canada, storing up immense difficulties for the future. Based on the number of workers in different parts of the economy, the private sector in Quebec produces a bare 16.5 per cent of GDP, despite the fact Quebeckers represent nearly a quarter of all Canadians.
In short, Ottawa and Quebec together have, in a few short decades, transformed that province into a society that cannot pay its own way or reproduce itself, that is hugely dependent on transfers from the rest of the country, and that is losing its political influence. Its ability to threaten to leave the country while maintaining its standard of living is hardly credible. Atlantic Canada and Manitoba got caught in the big government trend, but were too politically weak to have been its cause. Quebec is the key.
Tellingly, it is those provinces that have footed the bill that have outstripped Quebec on almost every measure and are reaping the benefits in higher levels of in-migration, political influence, growth and opportunity. Quebec's big-state strategy in both Ottawa and Quebec City has been the distinct society's undoing, while those provinces that have worked hard and invested while keeping government, social programs and taxes under control have become lands of opportunity. The Commons is only just catching up to this new reality.
Brian Lee Crowley is author of Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada's Founding Values.

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