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History of Representation in the House of Commons of Canada


illustration of a hand putting a ballot in a polling box with an image of Parliament in the background
The simple act of marking a ballot determines who will represent us in the House of Commons.

One of the crucial questions faced by the Fathers of Confederation in 1867 was how to ensure equal representation in the House of Commons of Canada, while at the same time guaranteeing that each region of the country had a fair say in the daily workings of the new federation. They adopted as a basic working principle the idea of “representation by population,” by virtue of which each province was allotted a number of seats that directly corresponded to its proportion of the total population in relation to Quebec's. Around this principle they designed a formula for distributing the number of seats in the House of Commons among the provinces.

From the start, however, they recognized the geographic, cultural, political and demographic diversity of the new provinces, as well as population size and rural and urban characteristics. As more provinces entered Confederation and as some regions grew and developed more than others, the diversity became more pronounced and a certain degree of compromise had to be built into the formula. As a result, the basic principle of representation by population was adopted by Canada.

Many observers have commented that the history of Canada itself is one of compromises. Certainly, the question of provincial representation in the House of Commons is a case in point. Yet in spite of this, it is fair to say that even today the principle of representation by population remains at the root of the electoral system in Canada, as in many other countries.

The following pages briefly describe the evolution of the representation formula. This description is followed by an explanation of the present formula, how it is applied to determine the number of seats in the House of Commons, and how these are then divided among the provinces and territories.

Representation Since 1867
Number of Seats
Year Canada Ont. Que. N.S. N.B. Man. B.C. P.E.I. Sask. N.W.T. Alta. Y.T.
1867 181 82 65 19 15                
1871 185 82 65 19 15 4              
1872 200 88 65 21 16 4 6            
1873 206 88 65 21 16 4 6 6          
1882 211 92 65 21 16 5 6 6          
1887 215 92 65 21 16 5 6 6   4      
1892 213 92 65 20 14 7 6 5   4      
1903 214 86 65 18 13 10 7 4   10   1  
1907 221 86 65 18 13 10 7 4 10   7 1  
1914 234 82 65 16 11 15 13 3 16   12 1  
1915 235 82 65 16 11 15 13 4 16   12 1  
1924 245 82 65 14 11 17 14 4 21   16 1  
1933 245 82 65 12 10 17 16 4 21   17 1  
1947 255 83 73 13 10 16 18 4 20   17 1  
1949 262 83 73 13 10 16 18 4 20   17 1 7
1952 265 85 75 12 10 14 22 4 17   17 2 7
1966 264 88 74 11 10 13 23 4 13   19 2 7
1976 282 95 75 11 10 14 28 4 14   21 3 7
1987 295 99 75 11 10 14 32 4 14   26 3 7
1996 301 103 75 11 10 14 34 4 14   26 3 7
2003 308 106 75 11 10 14 36 4 14   28 3 7

*Nunavut became a territory separated officially from the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999.

**On December 6, 2001, the name of the province of Newfoundland was changed to Newfoundland and Labrador.

History of the Formula

Confederation to 1915

At Confederation in 1867, the British North America Act, 1867 (renamed in 1982 the Constitution Act, 1867) established a parliament composed of two houses. The upper house, or Senate, was to consist of 72 non-elected members, or 24 representing each of the three regions – Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes. The lower house, or House of Commons, elected by eligible voters, was to comprise 181 members representing the four founding provinces – 82 for Ontario, 65 for Quebec, 19 for Nova Scotia and 15 for New Brunswick.

In order that each province's representation in the House of Commons continued to reflect its population, section 51 of the Act stated that the number of seats allocated to each province would be recalculated after each 10-year (decennial) census, starting with the 1871 census. 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 quota was to be obtained by dividing the population of the province of Quebec by 65, the number of seats guaranteed for Quebec by the Constitution in the House of Commons.

This simple formula was to be applied with only one exception, “the one-twentieth rule,” under which no province could lose seats in a redistribution unless its share of the national population had decreased by at least five percent (one twentieth) between the last two censuses.

1915 – The senatorial clause

In 1915, the first change was made to the original representation formula, by the adoption of the “senatorial clause.” Still in effect today, this clause states that a province cannot have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate. In 1915, it had the immediate effect of guaranteeing four seats to the province of Prince Edward Island, instead of the three it would otherwise have had. It has had four seats ever since.

1946 – Changing the formula

Changing political circumstances and relationships, however, led to the development of a new set of rules, adopted in 1946 when the British North America Act was amended. These new rules divided 255 seats among the provinces and territories based on their share of Canada's total population, rather than on the average population per electoral district in Quebec.

1951 – The 15 percent clause

illustration of people holding hands in front of Parliament
The history of representation is one of seeking a fair voice for all parts of Canada in the House of Commons.

Since the population of all provinces had not increased at the same rate, certain provinces lost seats. Because Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan were all to lose seats after the 1951 census, the “15 percent clause” was adopted to prevent a too rapid loss of seats in some provinces. Under these rules, no province could lose more than 15 percent of the number of Commons seats to which it had been entitled at the last readjustment. The same three provinces, plus Quebec, however, all lost seats after the 1961 census. These same four provinces, plus Newfoundland, would also have lost seats after the 1971 census, so legislation was introduced to resolve this particular situation in 1974.

1974 – The “amalgam” formula

In 1974, concern over the continuing loss of seats by some provinces prompted Parliament to adopt the Representation Act, 1974, which, among other things, guaranteed that no province could lose seats.

In February 1974, the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections established that:

  • The objective must be adequate and realistic representation of all Canadians bearing in mind the historic undertakings arising out of Confederation and its responsibilities. The allocation of seats (in the House of Commons) is at the very heart of the Confederation compromise.

  • A “compromise” was therefore proposed to deal with representation in the House of Commons. The new formula, the third in our history, was more complicated than earlier ones. As in the pre-1946 rules, Quebec was used as the basis for calculations, but there were three differences. First, Quebec would henceforth be entitled to 75 seats instead of 65. Second, the number of seats assigned to Quebec was to grow by four at each subsequent readjustment in such a manner as to slow down the growth in the average population of an electoral district. Third, three categories of provinces were created: large provinces, those having a population of more than 2.5 million, intermediate provinces, namely, those with populations between 1.5 million and 2.5 million, and small provinces, with populations under 1.5 million. Only the large provinces were to be allocated seats in strict proportion to Quebec; separate and more favourable rules were to apply to the small and intermediate provinces.

The amalgam formula was applied once, leading to the establishment of 282 seats in 1976.

The Present Formula

Following the 1981 census, calculations revealed that the amalgam formula would result in a substantial increase in the number of seats in the House of Commons both immediately and after subsequent censuses (369 seats were projected after 2001). Effectively putting a hold on the process already underway to reassign seats, Parliament passed the Representation Act, 1985. It came into effect in March 1986.

The adoption of the Representation Act, 1985 greatly simplified the formula described in the amended section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867 for calculating representation.

282 Seats1 (Y.T.)1 (N.W.T.)1 (Nunavut) = 279

Population of provinces ÷ 279 = Electoral quotient

Provincial population ÷ Electoral quotient = Provincial seat allocation

Application of the "senatorial clause" and "grandfather clause".

The present formula for calculating representation in the House of Commons.

The current formula for representation is applied by carrying out the following four steps:

1 – Allocation to the territories

Starting with the 282 seats that the House of Commons of Canada had in 1985, one seat is allocated to the Northwest Territories, one to the Yukon and one to Nunavut, leaving 279 seats. This number is used to calculate the electoral quotient.

2 – Calculation of the electoral district average

The total population of the ten provinces is divided by 279 to obtain the “electoral quota” or “quotient”, which is used to determine the number of seats for each province.

3 – Distribution of seats to each province

The theoretical number of seats to be allocated to each province in the House of Commons is calculated by dividing the total population of each province by the quotient obtained in step 2. If the result leaves a remainder higher than 0.50, the number of seats is rounded up to the next whole number.

4 – Adjustments

After the theoretical number of seats per province is obtained, adjustments are made in a process referred to as applying the “senatorial clause” and “grandfather clause.”

As we have seen, since 1915, the senatorial clause has guaranteed that no province has fewer members in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate. The Representation Act, 1985 brought into effect a new grandfather clause that guaranteed each province no fewer seats than it had in 1976 or during the 33rd Parliament.

Appended to this text is a table demonstrating how the latest formula has been applied to the 2001 census figures. At the beginning of this section is a table illustrating representation in the House of Commons from the 1867 beginning of Confederation to the 2003 Representation Order.