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  • Canada:A crisis in regional representation?
  • Herman Bakvis (bio)

I have to ask the honorable gentlemen opposite how they are going to organize their Cabinet, for these provinces, according to this so called Federal scheme? I think I may defy them [the government] to shew that the Cabinet can be formed on any other principle than that of a representation of the several provinces in that cabinet … The Cabinet here must discharge all that kind of function, which in the United States is performed, in the Federal sense, by the Senate.

Christopher Dunkin, Confederation Debates, Quebec City, 1865.

How best to represent the regional dimension within central Canadian institutions is a question that has bedevilled the Canadian polity since Confederation. The British North America Act, the statute passed by the British parliament in 1867, established Canada as a federation with a bicameral parliament. The Senate, the upper house, despite its name suggesting American inspiration, was modelled on the British House of Lords. Though Canada lacked an aristocracy it was stipulated that appointment be restricted to older propertied men of means. It was also intended to be a chamber for regional representation, in particular to provide Quebec with the same number of seats as Ontario to ensure that its French speaking minority interests would not be completely submerged by the [End Page 51] combined populations of the other provinces represented in the House of Commons.

If perhaps not apparently evident to most fathers of confederation, then at least to Christopher Dunkin, the highly perceptive legislator from the riding of Brome, Quebec, three flaws were evident from the outset. The first flaw was that the Senate was unlikely to have nearly the same status and weight as its namesake in the U.S. Hence Dunkin’s observation above to the effect that real power would likely reside in Cabinet, and if there was to be any genuine regional representation it would have to be lodged there. The second was the numerical allocation of 24 seats, not to the individual provinces but to what in 1867 were the three main regions: Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. Within the Maritimes the original plan was that New Brunswick and Nova Scotia would receive 10 seats each and Prince Edward Island (PEI) four. PEI choose not to join in 1867 so the other two Maritime provinces received 12 each; but then in 1873 when PEI did finally join the 12 became 10 and PEI received its four as originally planned. The initial allocation was appropriate, given that well over 90 percent of the Canadian population resided in these three regions; so too was the 24 seats allocated to the west, which became the fourth region, with the addition of British Columbia and the prairie provinces and the growth of population there. But beyond these initial allocations, plus single seats for each of the territories and six for Newfoundland in 1949, things became locked in place so that currently Nova Scotia’s 10 senators, a province with fewer than a million, looks distinctly odd when juxtaposed with BC’s six senators, a province with a population of 4.65 million. As will be noted later, the imbalance and disproportionality in representation has, in combination with its appointed character, contributed to undermining the legitimacy of this unelected body.

The third flaw was the assumption that the newly minted federation, with responsibilities and associated jurisdictions neatly divided between the Dominion (federal) and provincial governments: the federal government would be responsible for matters of national concern, such as national defence, banking and currency; the four provinces, seen much like overgrown municipalities, would be responsible for mainly local matters, such as education, health care and local infrastructure, such as roads. The flaw here was the thinking that the two orders of government would function largely [End Page 52] independently of each other with only minimal need for coordination. As the American experience up to that point had already shown, right from the beginning the functions of the U.S. states and the federal government soon became closely interwoven in areas like road and canal construction and banking (Elazar 1962). In the event, the original 1867 Constitution Act had made no provision...


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