House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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4. The House of Commons and Its Members

Composition of the House

Canada is divided into 301 electoral districts, each of which sends one Member to the House of Commons. [3]  An electoral district can be defined as any place or territorial area in Canada entitled to return a person to serve in the House of Commons. The boundaries of an electoral district are determined by an electoral boundaries commission following each decennial census when the number of seats to be apportioned among the provinces is decided. These districts or constituencies are grouped by province and territory, and the population serves as the main basis for assigning the seat total to each.

The composition of the House has expanded greatly since 1867. At the time of Confederation, representation was based on Quebec having the same number of seats that it had in the Legislature of the Province of Canada, with the other provinces being granted representation in proportion to that number. At the opening of the First Parliament, 181 Members sat in the House of Commons, representing the following provinces: 82 for Ontario, 65 for Quebec, 19 for Nova Scotia, and 15 for New Brunswick. [4] 

Soon after, new provinces began to seek admittance to Confederation; representation in Parliament was considered negotiable and often did not reflect representation by population. [5]  When Manitoba joined Canada in 1870, four Members were added to the membership of the House. [6]  British Columbia and Prince Edward Island each got six Members upon joining Confederation in 1871 and in 1873 respectively. [7]  In 1886, the Northwest Territories received four seats and in 1902, the Yukon Territory was granted one seat. [8]  When Saskatchewan and Alberta were established out of the Northwest Territories in 1905, they were allotted 10 and seven Members respectively. [9]  The Northwest Territories no longer had a seat in the House. Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 and was granted seven seats. [10]  In 1952, the Mackenzie district of the Northwest Territories was granted one seat and, in 1962, the Representation Act was amended to give the entire Northwest Territories one seat. [11]  In 1975, the number of seats in the Northwest Territories grew to two. On April 1, 1999, the Nunavut Territory was established out of the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories and was given one of the two seats. [12] 

Today, there are 301 Members from 10 provinces and three territories: 34 for British Columbia, 26 for Alberta, 14 forSaskatchewan, 14 for Manitoba, 103 for Ontario, 75 for Quebec, 10 for New Brunswick, 11 for Nova Scotia, four for Prince Edward Island, seven for Newfoundland, and one each for the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. (See Figure 4.1 for changes in representation from 1867 to the present.)

Figure 4.1 – Representation Since 1867
Table image depicting the changes in the number of seats in the House of Commons from 1867 to 1999. Each row corresponds to a different year and follows across the page showing the number of seats in Canada, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Newfoundland, Northwest Territories, the Yukon Territory and Nunavut.


The Fathers of Confederation adopted the principle of representation by population. Each province was allotted a number of seats on the basis of its share of the total population in relation to that in the province of Quebec, which had been guaranteed 65 seats, the same number it had in the Province of Canada legislature. [13]  On the basis of this principle, a formula was derived to calculate the number of seats each province would be allocated in the House of Commons. The Constitution Act, 1867 stipulated that in order for the population of each province to be accurately represented in the House of Commons, the number of seats for each province was to be recalculated after each decennial census, starting with the census of 1871. [14]  The total number of seats was to be calculated by dividing the population of each province by a fixed number referred to as the “electoral quota” or “quotient”. This quotient was determined by dividing the population of the province of Quebec by 65. There was one exception to this formula, the one-twentieth rule as it was known, whereby no province could lose seats unless its share of the national population had decreased by at least 5% (one-twentieth) between the last two censuses.

Because of the growing population of the country, the one-twentieth clause caused no problems for the first 25 years of Confederation. In 1872, representation in the House increased after the decennial census of 1871: Ontario received six additional Members, Nova Scotia two, and New Brunswick one. With the readjustment of representation in 1882, Ontario received four extra seats and Manitoba one, bringing the total to 211 Members. However, in 1892, the three Maritime provinces lost four seats in total, causing some concern, particularly in Prince Edward Island. Although the population was growing in the Maritime provinces, it was becoming relatively smaller in proportion to the national total. In 1903, the readjustment of representation saw the number of seats in Prince Edward Island reduced. In arguments before the Supreme Court, Prince Edward Island claimed that it should be entitled to the six seats it was allocated when it joined Confederation. The Supreme Court subsequently upheld that representation must be based on the total population of Canada and that no exception could be made for Prince Edward Island. [15] 

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, there was dissension among some of the provinces whose population was declining. A constitutional amendment was proposed in 1914 and adopted the following year. Still in effect today, the “senatorial clause”, as it is referred to, guarantees that no province can have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate and was added to the Constitution to protect the smallest provinces from losing any more seats because of a declining population. [16] 

Following the census of 1941, a constitutional amendment was adopted to postpone the redistribution process until the first session of Parliament after the end of the war. [17]  This constitutional amendment came about because the Western provinces were concerned that the dislocation of population caused by the war would affect their representation. There was also widespread dissatisfaction among the provinces with the rules for redistribution, which would have seen four of the nine provinces being allocated representation in accordance with their population; the other five provinces would have been guaranteed extra seats either because of the senatorial clause or the one-twentieth formula. [18]  The demand for representation by population, in particular by Quebec, led to the repeal of the one-twentieth clause in 1946. [19]  The total number of seats was fixed at 255, one for the Yukon and the other 254 divided among the provinces on the basis of their share of the country’s total population, rather than on the average population per electoral district in Quebec. [20]

However, under this new formula, it was soon discovered that with provincial populations not increasing at the same rate, representation in some provinces declined. With Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan all scheduled to lose seats after the 1951 census, the Constitution Act, 1867 was amended again to prevent a rapid decline in the number of seats of some provinces. [21]  In this instance, the amendment stipulated that no province could lose more than 15% of the number of seats it was entitled to under the last readjustment, nor could a province have fewer seats than a province with a smaller population. Nonetheless, after the 1961 census, these same three provinces as well as Quebec lost seats, and following the 1971 census, Newfoundland was added to the list of provinces scheduled to lose seats.

In 1974, legislation was introduced to remedy this problem. A new formula, the amalgam formula, was proposed in the Representation Act, 1974 to ensure that no province lost any seats. [22]  As in the original representation formula, Quebec was allocated a set number of seats, 75, and its average constituency population was used to calculate the number of seats in the other provinces. In each subsequent readjustment, there would be an automatic increase of four seats for Quebec to compensate for population growth and decrease the average constituency population in Quebec, the basis on which the allocation of seats among the other provinces would be calculated. In addition, three categories of provinces were created: large provinces (population of 2.5 million or more); intermediate provinces (population between 1.5 and 2.5 million); and small provinces (population under 1.5 million). Only the large provinces would be allocated seats in strict proportion to Quebec; separate rules for calculating the number of seats were established for the small and intermediate provinces. [23]  The amalgam formula was applied only once, in 1976, establishing 282 seats in the House.

Following the 1981 census, calculations revealed that there would be substantial increases in the representation in the House both immediately and after subsequent censuses. Indeed, it was projected that, by the year 2001, there would be 396 Members in the House. The Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections was mandated to study the issue of representation in both the Thirty-Second (1980-84) and Thirty-Third (1984-88) Parliaments [24] , and new representation legislation was passed in 1986. The Representation Act, 1985 [25]  set down a new formula for calculating representation, starting with 282 seats, the number of Members resulting from the previous distribution (see Figure 4.2):

  1. One seat each is allocated to the Northwest Territories, Nunavut [26]  and the Yukon.
  2. The total population of the 10 provinces is divided by 279 to obtain the electoral quotient.
  3. The number of seats to be allocated to each province is calculated by dividing the total population of the province by the electoral quotient. If the result leaves a remainder higher than 0.50, the number of seats is rounded off to the next whole number.
  4. Once the number of seats per province is obtained, adjustments are made by applying the senatorial and grandfather clauses. The senatorial clause guarantees that no province has fewer Members than it has Senators, while the grandfather clause ensures that no province has fewer seats than it had in 1986 when this legislation came into force. [27] 
Figure 4.2 – Calculating Representation in the House of Commons
Image showing the formula used to calculate the number of House of Commons seats allotted to a province. Step One: the number of seats in the territories are deducted from the total number of seats. Step Two: the total population of the provinces is divided by the remaining number of seats to establish an “electoral quotient”. Step Three: the population of a province is then divided by the electoral quotient to determine how many seats will be allocated to the province.

As a result of this new formula, the House grew to 295 seats after the 1988 federal election and to 301 seats following the 1997 election.

Readjustment of Boundaries

While Section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, sets out the formula for the allocation of seats in the House of Commons among the provinces after each decennial census, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act provides for the drawing of the constituency or electoral district boundaries within each province. The boundaries of electoral districts need to be adjusted whenever a province’s representation changes or when there have been significant population fluctuations within a province, such as movement from rural to urban areas. The readjustment of boundaries is a federal matter controlled by Parliament.

In the early years of Confederation, the government would introduce a bill describing the boundaries of each electoral district and then have the bill adopted like any other piece of legislation. This was subject to criticism as being a highly biased task focussed on maximizing the governing party’s electoral successes, often referred to as “gerrymandering”. [28]  In 1903, this legislative process was altered by Sir Wilfrid Laurier when the readjustment of constituency boundaries was placed in the hands of a special committee of the House of Commons on which Members from all parties were represented. [29]  Each time a redistribution was to occur, as provided for by the Constitution Act, 1867 and the latest census, the government brought in a bill which would not contain any details on individual ridings. After the bill was read a second time, it would be referred to a special committee instructed to “prepare schedules to contain and describe the several electoral divisions entitled to return Members to this House”. [30]  This process remained highly partisan and was lacking guidelines to instruct Members on how to base their decisions. [31]  This system remained in place until 1964 when non-partisan electoral boundaries commissions were established to draw and readjust the boundaries of electoral constituencies.

Even before Confederation, suggestions had been made to place the drawing of electoral boundaries into the hands of an impartial body, and not with Members. [32]  This continued to be a concern after Confederation and, on a number of occasions, it was recommended that the process be moved away from Members into the hands of judges. [33]  In 1963, the decision was taken to assign the drawing of electoral boundaries to non-partisan commissions operating under specified general principles and, in 1964, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act as passed. [34]  Today, there is an electoral boundaries commission appointed for each province. No commission is appointed for the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories or Nunavut. Each commission consists of a chairman, normally a provincial court judge, who is appointed by the chief justice of the province, [35]  and two other individuals appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons “from among such persons resident in that province as the Speaker deems suitable”. [36]  No sitting member of the Senate or of the House of Commons or of a provincial or territorial legislature can be appointed to a commission. [37] 

As soon as possible after the completion of each decennial census, the Chief Statistician provides the Chief Electoral Officer, an officer of Parliament who is responsible for the administration of federal elections, with the population figures. [38] The Chief Electoral Officer then calculates the total number of House of Commons seats and their distribution among the provinces and territories. [39]  This information is published in the Canada Gazette [40] and then the process begins to appoint the chairman and members of each commission. When the electoral boundaries commissions have been established, the Chief Electoral Officer provides the chairman of each electoral boundaries commission with the population figures. The commission has up to one year from that date to recommend constituency boundaries. [41] 

Each commission is required to draw constituency boundaries in such a way that the population of each constituency is as close as possible to the quotient obtained by dividing the provincial population by the number of seats allocated to the province. No constituency is permitted to have a population smaller than 75% of this figure or greater than 125%, although in extraordinary circumstances a commission may exceed this limit. Commissions may vary the size of constituencies within this range on the basis of special geographic considerations, such as density of population in various regions of the province, and the accessibility, size and shape of such regions. Because accessibility, transportation and communications are often seen as obstacles both to effective representation and to ease of campaigning, electoral boundaries commissions generally draw boundaries so that there are fewer voters in rural constituencies than in urban constituencies. Variations may also occur on the basis of a special community of interest or the historical background of a particular district. [42] 

Before writing its report, each commission publishes in the Canada Gazette, as well as in newspapers in the province, a map or drawing showing the proposed electoral boundaries for the province and invites electors and Members of Parliament to public meetings held in locations that will encourage the attendance of as many interested people as possible. The commission’s proposals must be published at least 60 days before the date of the first hearing. Interested persons wishing to make a representation must submit their notice in writing to the commission within 53 days after the date of publication of the commission’s advertisement. [43] 

Following the hearings, each commission reviews its proposals, prepares a report and forwards it to the Chief Electoral Officer before the end of its one-year mandate, unless the Chief Electoral Officer has granted an extension of not more than six months. [44]  The Chief Electoral Officer transmits a copy of each report to the Speaker of the House of Commons who tables them in the House and ensures that they are referred to a committee designated to deal with electoral matters. [45]  If reports are received between sessions, the Speaker of the House will have the reports published in the Canada Gazette, and a copy of that Canada Gazette will be sent to the Members representing the electoral districts inthat province. [46] 

Members of Parliament have 30 days following the tabling or publication to file objections in writing with the clerk of the committee designated to deal with electoral matters. Members must specify the provisions objected to in the reports and the reason for the objection. These representations are made in the form of a motion signed by at least 10 Members. [47]  Following the filing deadline, the committee has 30 sitting days to review the Members’ representations, [48]  unless the committee asks the House for an extension. [49]  At the conclusion of its consideration of the reports and the objections thereto, the committee returns the reports to the House along with a copy of the objections and its minutes of proceedings. The reports and attached documents are then sent by the Speaker to the Chief Electoral Officer for distribution to the various electoral boundaries commissions. [50]  No discussion of the reports or the objections thereto takes place in the House. [51] 

The commissions must consider the objections but they are not compelled to make any changes as a result of the objections. Each commission then submits a final report, with or without amendment, to the Chief Electoral Officer who forwards it to the Speaker of the House. [52]  Tabled in the House by the Speaker, [53]  the commission’s decision is final and without appeal.

After each commission has submitted its final report, the Chief Electoral Officer prepares a draft representation order. The draft representation order specifies the number of Members to be elected in each province and territory, divides each province and territory into electoral districts, describes the boundaries of each district and specifies the population of and the name to be given to each district. [54]  Within five days after its receipt by the Minister designated by the Governor in Council as being responsible for implementing the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, the draft representation order must be proclaimed by the Governor in Council. [55]  The new boundaries cannot be used at the time of an election unless one year has passed between the date the representation order was proclaimed and the date that Parliament is dissolved for a general election. [56] 

The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act also requires the Chief Electoral Officer to publish maps showing the new electoral district boundaries resulting from the readjustment process. [57] 

Suspension of the Readjustment Process

In each decade since the 1960s, Parliament has adopted legislation either to suspend or to amend the redistribution process for one reason or another. After both the 1971 and 1981 censuses, the readjustment process was suspended to permit amendments to Section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867,setting out the formula for representation in the House and to make some changes to the readjustment process itself. [58]  The redistribution process has been suspended twice since the 1991 census.

In 1992, Parliament agreed that in light of the proposed changes to the Canada Elections Act made by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, as well as the probability that the readjustment process could not be completed before the next federal election, the Act should be suspended. [59]  In 1994, the government believed that it was time for a full review of the Act, given the dissatisfaction being expressed by Members about certain aspects of the process and the continual increase in the number of seats in the House after each census. [60]  The readjustment process was subsequently suspended by the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Suspension Act, 1994, which provided for the suspension of the readjustment process until the earlier of the enactment of new electoral boundaries readjustment legislation or June 22, 1995. It also temporarily discharged the existing electoral boundaries commissions of their duties once their reports to the House of Commons on electoral districts had been completed. [61]  In the interim, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was instructed to draft a bill respecting the system of readjustin electoral boundaries. [62]  The Committee was also asked to consider a formula to cap or reduce the number of seats in the House and to review the method of appointing members for electoral boundaries commissions, the rules surrounding their powers and methods of proceeding, and the involvement of the public and the House of Commons in the work of the commissions.

On November 25, 1994, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs presented its report which included draft legislation to repeal the existing statute and to abolish the electoral boundaries commissions. [63]  While the Committee did not recommend a change in the manner of assigning seats among the provinces after each decennial census nor a formula for capping the number of seats in the House, it did propose a new method of drawing electoral boundaries. As a result, Bill C-69, Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, 1995, was introduced by the government on February 16, 1995. [64]  The objective of the bill was to stop the redistribution plans and to start the process all over again, allowing the next election to be held on the basis of the 1981 boundaries. The bill would have also brought about a redistribution every five years in provinces where the shift in population warranted it, a new triggering mechanism for holding a decennial redistribution which would have eliminated an unnecessary redistribution in provinces without a significant change in population, and parliamentary oversight of appointments to electoral boundaries commissions. However, amendments subsequently proposed to the bill by the Senate and rejected by the House prevented the bill from being passed. [65]  Since new electoral boundaries readjustment legislation had not been passed by the stipulated June 22, 1995 deadline, the Speaker tabled the reports of all the electoral boundaries commissions in the House as required and the electoral boundaries were adjusted accordingly. [66]  The general election of 1997 was held on the basis of the post-1991 redistribution and revision of boundaries.

Naming of Constituencies

At the time of Confederation, the electoral districts for each province were established in the Constitution Act, 1867[67]  The electoral districts existing at that time were named after counties, cities, parts of cities, and towns in each province. From 1872 to 1964, the names of the ridings were provided in legislation to enact seat redistributions and to fix electoral boundaries.

Since 1964 and the adoption of the modern process for drawing electoral boundaries, the names of electoral districts are decided by the electoral boundaries commissions and included in their reports. The names are set down in the representation orders giving legal effect to those reports. The alteration to the name of an electoral district after the publication of the representation order can be effected by the passage of a private Member’s bill. A Member usually introduces legislation to change the name of the electoral district in response to concerns expressed by constituents that the name does not accurately describe the boundaries of the riding. [68]  Such a bill is typically entitled “An Act to change the name of the electoral district of (electoral district)”. Once the bill is before the House for second reading, it is dealt with quickly, typically being read a second time, considered in a Committee of the Whole, reported without amendment, concurred in at the report stage, read a third time and adopted in the same sitting by unanimous consent. [69] 

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