Bloc had chance to guarantee Quebec seats, but blew it

By defending the court challenges program, the languages commissioner could get caught in nasty political battle

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Friday, May 18, 2007

It's one thing for the House of Commons to recognize Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada. It's quite another to demand special treatment in Quebec's representation in the House of Commons.

This is exactly what the Quebec National Assembly, in a unanimous resolution, and the Bloc Quebecois in question period, has been asking for this week in demanding the Conservatives withdraw a bill, C-56, to increase the membership of the House from 308 to 330 seats.

Heaven only knows where will they put these 22 new members. As National Post columnist Don Martin pointed out, the place is already quite full, bursting at the seams. They would have to push back the front door of the House into the members' lobby and add a couple of rows under the visitors' gallery.

All 22 new seats will go to Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, which are growing as a percentage of the national population. None of the new seats will go to Quebec, whose share of the Canadian population is slowly shrinking below its historical level of 25 per cent. Hey, that's how it works.

All week, in a rather obvious attempt to demonstrate he is still relevant, the former future Parti Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe has been demanding that Quebec receive more seats in any expansion of the House. And in Quebec, as an indication of how this minority legislature will play out, each party outbid the next in its attempts to be seen as defenders of Quebec's interests.

"The marginalization of Quebec within Canada continues," said Sylvain Simard in presenting a PQ motion supported by all sides. "Since 1985, 48 seats will have been added to the House of Commons, none for Quebec." The revenge of the cradle, in reverse.

The House of Commons is a "rep-by-pop" legislature. By convention, Quebec receives no fewer than the 75 seats it has held in the House since 1979. Equally, under the constitution and ever since confederation, Quebec's seats constitute the baseline for calculating any expansion of the House. And the number of Quebec's seats cannot be reduced.

As the House has grown from 264 seats at the start of the Trudeau years, to 282 seats at the beginning of the Mulroney years, to 301 seats during the Chretien years, to 308 seats today, Quebec's number of seats has remained constant, though its share is incrementally in decline.

As recently as the 2000 election, Quebec's 75 seats constituted a 25-per-cent share of the 301- seat House.

For Quebec to have a 25-per-cent share of the current 308-seat House, it would need 77 seats rather than 75.

And for Quebec to have a 25- per-cent share of a 330-seat House, its representation would be increased to 82 seats.

This is what the Bloc has been demanding: That Quebec's share be fixed at 25 per cent.

This is hilarious. There was a brief moment in time, called the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, when Quebec obtained exactly that gain in a constitutional agreement. In Ottawa, the Bloc Quebecois led by Lucien Bouchard, opposed it. In Quebec, the PQ led by Jacques Parizeau, equally opposed this historic gain for their own province. How important was this at the time? It was absolutely the deal-maker for Robert Bourassa, who had been finally brought back to the table in the summer of 1992, two years after the death of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990. What Bourassa got at Charlottetown, what Brian Mulroney agreed to give him, was a constitutional guarantee that Quebec would have no less than one-fourth of the seats in the House of Commons in perpetuity. In vitam aeternam. Forever and ever. Amen. Now who is back 15 years later, demanding similar guarantees for Quebec? The same guys who helped kill it at Charlottetown. This surpasses the usual allowances for hypocrisy in politics. Quebec will never have fewer than 75 seats in the House, and never a lower percentage than its share of the population. Even at 75 seats out of 330, it would still have a 23-per-cent share, its current share of the national population. But isn't it worth contemplating that under the Charlottetown guarantee affecting this proposed expansion, Quebec would have another seven seats, rather than none? This is what the Bloc and the PQ, the great defenders of Quebec's interests, gained by opposing Charlottetown. Nothing.

 
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