Numbers & Respect: Why the City of Vancouver Might Not Get the Federal Attention it Wants
David Baxter, Andrew Ramlo, & Ryan Berlin
The Urban Futures Institute

Vancouver City Hall is a long way from the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa (4,358 km, actually) and, in terms of federal government decisions, the policy distance often seems much greater than the physical one. With the recent release of the 2011 Census population counts and the 2012 Federal Electoral Boundary proposals, it is appropriate to consider where the City of Vancouver stands, numerically that is, with respect to our federal political representation. [Full Report]

I. Population Matters

The City of Vancouver, with a Census population of 603,502 persons in 2011, accounts for almost two percent of the Canadian population. While this may seem significant to some, the City of Vancouver is only the eighth most populous municipality in Canada. As measured by population rank, there is actually quite a crowd of municipal representatives at the federal cabinet’s door in front of those from the City of Vancouver. Ahead of it in the queue are the heavyweights from Toronto (Toronto’s council represents 2.6 million residents, or almost eight percent of the country’s population), Montreal (1.6 million), Calgary (1.1 million), Ottawa (883,000), Edmonton (812,000), Mississauga (whoa, Mississauga? Yup: 713,000), and Winnipeg (663,000). The Vancouver’s city council is peaking over the shoulders of Winnipeg while Brampton (yes, really, Brampton!) is peaking over our shoulders.

One way for us to move closer, and perhaps be better heard, might be to express the City of Vancouver’s municipal issues as regional issues, as the Vancouver Census Metro Area (CMA) is the third most populous CMA in Canada just behind the Toronto CMA (5.6 million residents) and the Montreal CMA (3.8 million). While easily stated, this may be much more challenging to achieve in reality, as the City of Vancouver only represents 26 percent of its CMA’s population. Hence, bringing municipalities together to express a consensus of regional concerns would require bringing the municipal representatives of the remaining 73 percent of the regional population on board. By comparison, the Toronto’s city council only has to deal with another 53 percent, and the mayor of the City of Montreal the remaining 57 percent. The City of Calgary’s Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, enjoys the luxury of representing fully 90 percent of the Calgary CMA’s population. None of this is meant to be seen as an argument for regional government per se, but rather as an explanation as to why regional partnerships and cooperation would have to be pursued with much more vigor, and require much more energy, here in Vancouver than in most other metropolitan regions in Canada.

II. Riding Equality

With respect to our political representation in Ottawa, this presumes that population actually matters—that each person in a democracy has not only an equal right to be heard, but also an equal voice, and an equality of representation in the political process. In Canada, however, inequality of voice is fundamental to the Canadian federal electoral system: while each federal riding has a single and equal vote in parliament, each riding has a vastly different number of people living within it.

With each of the current 308 seats in the House of Commons representing one riding in Canada, for true equality of political voice there should be 108,691 people in each federal riding (33,476,688 people divided by 308 ridings). However, such is not the case, with the scale of inequality apparent by comparing the least populous federal electoral district (riding) to the most populous. Labrador (NL), which had a 2011 population of 26,728, was the smallest, while the most populous was the Ontario riding of Oak Ridges-Markham, which had a population 2011 of 228,997.[1] Although each riding had equal representation in the House of Commons (one representative for each riding), one resident’s voice from Labrador was 8.6 times louder in the House than a resident from Oak Ridges-Markham (228,997 divided by 26,728).

In 2011, the riding of Vancouver Centre had a population of 137,269 people, meaning that the voices of Vancouver Centre are 21 percent under-represented in parliament (108,691 divided by 137,269 minus 1). Thus, relative to someone in downtown Vancouver, a person in Labrador would essentially get to vote five times in federal politics for every one time someone in Vancouver Centre votes.

Broadening the focus a bit wider, relative to the 1,813,102 people who live in the three Maritime provinces, 14 ridings in the Vancouver CMA have a combined population of roughly the same scale (1,812,057 residents). With the Maritimes covered by 25 ridings, they have 1.78 times the representation of residents in these 14 Vancouver ridings. Roll in Newfoundland and Labrador and you have Atlantic Canada, with a total population of 2,327,638 in 32 federal ridings. This is just about the same as the 2,295,605 residents in the Vancouver CMA; however, with only 18 ridings, Atlantic Canada has 1.77 times the representation of the Vancouver CMA. No matter how one looks at the numbers, people in Atlantic Canada have a far greater voice federally than people in metropolitan Vancouver, with an overall average of 1.8 votes for each person on the East Coast compared to one vote for someone here.

It is not surprising the folks in the City of Vancouver have, and will likely continue to have until the next election, trouble getting their voices heard in Ottawa, as equal voices do not prevail in federal politics. On a per capita basis the federal government gets 75 percent more seats from the folks in Atlantic Canada, and 50 percent more from the folks in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, than they do from the folks in Vancouver, so it is not hard to guess who will get heard first. It is this landscape of political inequality, with some having many times the votes of others, that is the focus of the Fair Representation Act, which will introduce new seats in the House of Commons for the next election as an attempt to rebalance electoral power amongst provinces in Canada.

III. Proposed Redistricting

The work of the provincial boundary commissions has largely been completed at the provincial level, with electoral maps of five provinces approved. The result of the new redistribution formula is that, with 30 additional seats to work with, the Territories, Atlantic Canada, Saskatchewan and Manitoba would each retain their current number of seats, Quebec would pick up three, Ontario 15, Alberta six, and British Columbia six more federal seats. This would clearly reduce the extent of inequality in federal representation, as the range from the most populous ridings to the least would fall to 34,475 residents (Atlantic Canada’s 72,739 average persons per riding versus Alberta’s 107,213) after redistribution. That said, the folks in Atlantic Canada would still have 49 percent more voting power than those in Alberta, and 44 percent more than here in British Columbia, after redistribution.

According to the Report of the 2012 Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for British Columbia, redistribution would bring an additional seat to the City of Vancouver, four to the metropolitan region, and five to the Lower Mainland. This will significantly reduce (but not eliminate) the under-representation of the City and its region, taking it to an overall under-representation of four percent compared to its current 12 percent under-representation. The additional seats in the rest of metropolitan Vancouver will move the region towards (but not to) proportional representation, from its current 15 percent under-representation to only four percent with the new boundaries and additional seats.

Of course, all of this is based on the 2011 Census population count as a yardstick; by the time the redistribution takes effect for the next election (scheduled for 2015), population growth will have eroded much of the re-distributional benefit the Act sought to achieve. In the longer run, the redistribution is simply a holding action, as pattern of population growth amongst provinces will bring things almost back to the current situation by the time the next electoral commission sets out to do its work after the release of the 2021 Census counts.

IV. Conclusion

While the work of the 2012 Federal Electoral Boundary Commissions will move things towards less inequality, it will not bring things anywhere near fair representation. If the work of the Commission were to achieve proportional representation, holding the number of federal seats constant at 308 and redistributing them to achieve representation by population would result in British Columbia picking up four seats, Alberta increasing by six and Ontario by 12. All of the other provinces in Canada would lose seats: Saskatchewan would lose four; Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick would each lose three; Quebec and Newfoundland Labrador would each lose two; and the three Northern territories would lose two of their three seats.

While intellectually interesting, representation by population is all but an impossibility under the current system, as the Canadian Constitution has within it a Representation Formula[2] that effectively says that no province will have fewer seats[3]; if over-represented previously a province cannot have a number of seats less than its proportionate share of the population[4]; and that only 30 seats can be added to help move towards fair representation.

The political reality for the City of Vancouver is that we are, and will continue to be, a relatively small player, demographically speaking, on a very big and crowded national stage. Layer on top of this under-representation due to the current and future distribution of federal ridings, and the City will continue to have a relatively small voice.

Therefore, for the City to be better heard in the Federal House, it must be able to express its concerns not as local, but as regional, provincial or even national ones. To do this, to be bigger and more important than it actually is, the City must build broad, strong and inclusive partnerships with local, regional, and provincial governments and organizations. A task, given our size and municipal political structure, that will be much more work to achieve here than in other regions in Canada. With federal elections no more than two years away, perhaps now is a good time to start such discussions—or we could just continue to gripe about being under-appreciated.

[1] Statistics Canada.  Population and dwelling counts, for Canada and federal electoral districts (2003 Representation Order), 2011 and 2006 Censuses.

[2] As amended by the Fair Representation Act of 2011.

[3] The senatorial clause guarantees that no province has fewer seats in the House than it has in the Senate. The grandfather clause guarantees each province no fewer seats than it had in 1985.

[4] If a province would now be under-represented based on the calculations above, it will be given extra seats so that its share of House of Commons seats is proportional to its share of the population.