House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

House of Commons Procedure and Practice - 4. The House of Commons and Its Members - Composition of the House


Canada is divided into 308 electoral districts, each of which sends one Member to the House of Commons.[11] 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. Following each decennial census, the number of seats to be apportioned among the provinces is decided on the basis of population figures. The boundaries of each electoral district are then determined by provincial electoral boundaries commissions.

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.[12]

Soon after, new provinces began to seek admittance to Confederation. Representation in Parliament was considered negotiable and often did not reflect representation by population.[13] When Manitoba joined Canada in 1870, four seats were added to the membership of the House.[14] British Columbia and Prince Edward Island each got six seats upon joining Confederation in 1871 and in 1873 respectively.[15] In 1886, the Northwest Territories received four seats and in 1902, the Yukon Territory was granted one seat.[16] When Saskatchewan and Alberta were established out of the Northwest Territories in 1905, they were allotted 10 and seven seats respectively; the Northwest Territories no longer had a seat in the House.[17] In 1947, the electoral district of Yukon–Mackenzie River, comprising all of the Yukon Territory plus the western portion of the Northwest Territories, known as the Mackenzie District, was created and allotted one seat.[18] Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 and was granted seven seats.[19] In 1952, the electoral district of Yukon–Mackenzie River was revoked; the Mackenzie District of the Northwest Territories was granted one seat and the original Yukon electoral district was restored.[20] In 1962, the Representation Act was amended to give the entire Northwest Territories one seat.[21] In 1975, the number of seats in the Northwest Territories grew to two.[22] On April 1, 1999, the Nunavut Territory was established out of the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories and was given one of its two seats.[23]

Today, there are 308 Members from 10 provinces and three territories: 36 for British Columbia, 28 for Alberta, 14 for Saskatchewan, 14 for Manitoba, 106 for Ontario, 75 for Quebec, 10 for New Brunswick, 11 for Nova Scotia, four for Prince Edward Island, seven for Newfoundland and Labrador,[24] 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).


Table image depicting the changes in the number of seats in the House of Commons from 1867 to 2004. 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 and Labrador, Northwest Territories, the Yukon Territory and Nunavut.

*   Representation

In 1867, the Fathers of Confederation adopted the principle of representation by population. 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. Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were each allotted a number of seats on the basis of their 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.[25] As provinces and territories joined Canada and the country’s population distribution evolved, Parliament amended the formula for calculating the number of seats on numerous occasions.

Historical Perspective

At Confederation, 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.[26] 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, known as the one‑twentieth rule: 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 seats, Nova Scotia two, and New Brunswick one. Following the 1881 census, 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 for Prince Edward Island further 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.[27]

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, there was dissension among some of the provinces whose population was declining. A constitutional amendment was proposed in 1914 to protect the smallest provinces from losing additional seats because of a declining population and it was 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 does in the Senate.[28]

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 because the Western provinces were concerned that the displacement of population caused by the war would affect their representation.[29] Many of the provinces were also dissatisfied with the redistribution rules, which would have seen four of the nine provinces being allocated representation in accordance with their population while the other five provinces would have been guaranteed extra seats either because of the senatorial clause or the one‑twentieth formula.[30] The demand for representation by population, in particular by Quebec, led to the repeal of the one‑twentieth clause in 1946.[31] 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.[32]

However, under this new formula, it was soon discovered that with provincial populations not increasing at the same rate, representation would be reduced in Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Thus, in 1952, the Constitution Act, 1867 was amended again to prevent a rapid decline in the number of seats of these provinces.[33] 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 slated to lose seats.

In 1974, the Representation Act, 1974 provided a new formula, known as the amalgam formula, for calculating the number of seats in the House to ensure that no province lost any seats.[34] 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, Quebec would automatically receive four seats to compensate for population growth and to decrease its average constituency population, 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 were allocated seats in strict proportion to Quebec; separate rules for calculating the number of seats were established for the small and intermediate provinces.[35] 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,[36] and new representation legislation was passed in 1986. It is still in force today.

Current Formula

In amending section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, the Representation Act, 1985 set down a formula for calculating representation, starting with 282 seats as established by the 1976 amalgam formula (see Figure 4.2):[37]

1.      One seat each is allocated to the Northwest Territories, Nunavut[38] 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 the Representation Act, 1985 came into force.[39]

As a result of this formula, the House grew to 295 seats after the 1988 federal election and to 301 seats following the 1997 election. As a result of the 2001 decennial census, the number of seats in the House was readjusted to 308 for the 38th general election held in 2004. The next readjustment is scheduled to occur after the 2011 census.[40]


282 Seats






Population of Provinces




Electoral Quotient

Provincial Population


Electoral Quotient


Provincial Seat Allocation


Top of Page

[11] Constitution Act, 1867, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 5, s. 40. Until the 1968 general election, some electoral districts were entitled to return two Members to the House of Commons. In each two‑Member constituency, voters were entitled to cast two votes; the two candidates with the most votes won. For further information, see Ward, N., “Voting in Canadian Two‑Member Constituencies”, Voting in Canada, edited by J.C. Courtney, Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice‑Hall of Canada Ltd., 1967, pp. 125‑9.

[12] Constitution Act, 1867, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 5, s. 37.

[13] Ward, N., “A Century of Constituencies”, Representation and Electoral Systems: Canadian Perspectives, edited by J.P. Johnston and H.E. Pasis, Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice‑Hall Canada Inc., 1990, p. 207.

[14] An Act to amend and continue the Act 32 and 33 Victoria, chapter 3; and to establish and provide for the Government of the Province of Manitoba, S.C. 1870, c. 3.

[15] Journals, March 31, 1871, p. 198; May 20, 1873, p. 402.

[16] North-West Territories Representation Act, 1886, S.C. 1886, c. 24; The Yukon Territory Representation Act, 1902, S.C. 1902, c. 37.

[17] An Act to readjust the Representation of the Provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in the House of Commons, and to amend the Representation Act, S.C. 1907, c. 41.

[18] The Representation Act, 1947, S.C. 1947, c. 71.

[19] An Act to approve the Terms of the Union of Newfoundland with Canada, S.C. 1949, c. 1.

[20] British North America Acts, 1867 to 1952, S.C. 1952, c. 15; The Representation Act, 1952, S.C. 1952, c. 48.

[21] An Act to amend the Representation Act, S.C. 1962, c. 17.

[22] Northwest Territories Representation Act, S.C. 1974-75-76, c. 28.

[23] Nunavut Act, S.C. 1993, c. 28; An Act to Amend the Nunavut Act and the Constitution Act, 1867, S.C. 1998, c. 15.

[24] In 2001, the province’s name was changed to Newfoundland and Labrador (Journals, October 30, 2001, p. 764). See also the Constitution Amendment, 2001 (Newfoundland and Labrador), SI/2001‑117.

[25] In 1865, at the time of the Confederation debates, then Attorney General John A. Macdonald (later Canada’s first Prime Minister) explained that Quebec was chosen as the pivotal province because it was “the best suited for the purpose, on account of the comparatively permanent character of its population and from its having neither the largest nor the least number of inhabitants …” (Canada, Legislative Assembly, Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of British North American Provinces, 3rd Session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada, Québec: Hunter, Rose & Co., Parliamentary Printers, 1865 (hereinafter referred to as Confederation Debates), February 6, 1865, p. 38).

[26] R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 5, s. 51. A less detailed census takes place every five years. See also Constitution Act, 1982, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 44, ss. 41, 42 and 44.

[27] Ward, N., The Canadian House of Commons: Representation, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950, pp. 39‑41.

[28] Constitution Act, 1867, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 5, s. 51A. This clause was enacted as the Constitution Act, 1915, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 23. Prince Edward Island was guaranteed four seats and Nova Scotia and New Brunswick 10 each. At the time of Confederation, the Senate had 72 appointed members, 24 members each from Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes (12 for Nova Scotia and 12 for New Brunswick). When Manitoba joined Confederation in 1870, it was given two Senators; in 1871 British Columbia received three and in 1873 Prince Edward Island four (two from each of the other Maritime Provinces); Alberta and Saskatchewan were granted four Senators each in 1905. The Senate was reconstituted at 96 by the Constitution Act, 1915 (R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 23). Six more Senators were added when Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949 and one Senator each was added for the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories in 1975. In 1999, one Senator was added for the new territory of Nunavut. The Senate ordinarily has 105 members.

[29] Journals, July 5, 1943, pp. 582‑4.

[30] Only the provinces of Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia would have had seats in proportion to their population. See Ward, The Canadian House of Commons: Representation, p. 53.

[31] British North America Act, 1946, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 30. For further information, see Ward, The Canadian House of Commons: Representation, pp. 54‑5.

[32] The entry of Newfoundland in 1949 increased this total to 262.

[33] Constitution Act, 1952, S.C. 1952, c. 15, s. 1. This was the first constitutional amendment passed by the Parliament of Canada after the amending procedure for the Constitution was modified in 1949.

[34] S.C. 1974‑75‑76, c. 13. The President of the Privy Council, Mitchell Sharp, noted during second reading of this bill: “The amalgam method was devised as a means of ensuring that the population size of constituencies in Canada would not grow to a point where a Member’s ability to represent his constituents would be impaired, nor the access of constituents to their Member unduly restricted” (Debates, December 2, 1974, p. 1846). For further information, see Dawson, 6th ed., p. 91.

[35] See Debates, December 2, 1974, pp. 1845‑7 where Mitchell Sharp, President of the Privy Council, outlined the amalgam formula.

[36] Journals, January 13, 1981, pp. 1138‑9; July 8, 1982, pp. 5132‑3; October 1, 1985, p. 1051; November 21, 1985, p. 1251.

[37] S.C. 1986, c. 8, s. 2.

[38] As enacted by An Act to Amend the Nunavut Act and the Constitution Act, 1867, S.C. 1998, c. 15, s. 25.

[39] In April 1994, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was instructed to prepare and bring in a bill respecting the system of readjusting electoral boundaries and to consider a formula to cap or reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons (Journals, April 19, 1994, pp. 368‑70). In its Fifty‑First Report, presented to the House on November 25, 1994 (Journals, p. 939), the Committee concluded that a cap or reduction in the size of the House would not be feasible because of certain constraints set out in the Constitution, notably the senatorial clause, which can only be changed with the unanimous agreement of all provinces. Capping or reducing the size of the House, while maintaining the senatorial floor, would lead to certain provinces losing a significant number of seats while others would be protected. In addition, capping the size of the House would require repealing the grandfather clause which guarantees that provinces with declining populations maintain the same number of seats they had in 1986 (Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, November 25, 1994, Issue No. 33, pp. 5‑11).

[40] During the First Session (2006-07) of the Thirty-Ninth Parliament, the government introduced legislation to amend the constitutional formula for the decennial readjustment of seats with the intent of improving representation for the faster-growing provinces while protecting the number of seats for the provinces with slower-growing or declining populations (Bill C-56, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Democratic Representation) and Journals, May 11, 2007, p. 1394). The session was prorogued shortly thereafter. The bill was re-introduced in the Second Session (2007-08) as Bill C-22 (Journals, November 14, 2007, p. 151) and was debated at second reading on one occasion (Journals, February 13, 2008, pp. 433-4). The Thirty-Ninth Parliament was dissolved on September 7, 2008 without the House proceeding further on the bill.

Top of Page