British Columbia: Far and Away Federalism

I will be writing occasional commentaries for Air Quotes media, a hub for political commentary. Air Quotes also produces the Herle Burly and Curse of Politics podcasts. Here’s my latest:

Has any province got it worse than British Columbia when it comes to representation in Ottawa? And is there anything to be done about it?

First, it’s a tough gig for a BC Member of Parliament, travel-wise. Three time zones away.  The far-out Eastern Fringe, Newfoundland and Labrador, is a mere one and a half away.

It’s not like an MP can pack up the car and head home for the weekend.  It’s 4,442 km to Vancouver or 4,900 km to Prince Rupert. Or, practically speaking, a 6-hour flight to Vancouver, and longer for those BC MPs requiring a connection to Vancouver Island or BC’s Interior.

Given the distance, one would think BC might get a break on the size of its constituencies. Nope.  Unlike most provinces, BC doesn’t have a senatorial clause or grandfather clause guaranteeing it representation. Thus, this furthest flung province also has the distinction of representing the highest number of constituents, on average, than any other province, except Ontario, with which it is virtually tied.

Our mothers and fathers of Confederation have deemed it fit for far-flung BC to be under-represented compared to seven other provinces: the average Quebec riding has 91% of the population of the BC average, followed in descending order by Manitoba (82%), Nova Scotia (74%), Saskatchewan (69%), New Brunswick (65%), Newfoundland & Labrador (61%), and, of course, PEI (34%). You would think the CBC would care when Anne of Green Gables has three-times the voting strength than Relic from the Beachcombers. 

Compounding this disorder of asymmetrical federalism, take a look at the Senate when it comes to BC. The Constitution Act, 1915 expanded the Senate by giving Western Canadian provinces 24 Senators, to put it on par with Ontario (24), Quebec (24), and the Maritimes, then just New Brunswick (10), Nova Scotia (10), and PEI (4).  For BC, deemed one-quarter of the ‘West’, it means its share is six out of a total of 105 Senators (5.7%).  The idea of the Senate bringing regional balance certainly does not apply to BC, especially when it is already under-represented on a rep-by-pop basis, and is located the furthest distance from the capital.  (Mind you, most British Columbians couldn’t name a BC senator, and the latest vacancy went unfilled for almost three years without much notice). 

Continuing on with this extended grievance, let’s take a look at BC’s contributions to national leadership.  We can at least fall back on the glorious reign of BC’s one true born-and-bred prime minister who served ably as the 19th to serve the office.  For 132 days, Port Alberni-born Kim Campbell ruled from coast to coast to coast only to have her government exterminated and her political party ultimately extinguished.  And there it ends for true-BC prime ministers.  About one-third of one year out of 155+ years of Confederation.  Sure, BC can lay partial claim to John A. MacDonald who represented Victoria, despite never visiting, John Turner, who had a strong association with the province though principally from Eastern Canada, and Justin Trudeau, who has lived here though, like Turner, not really from here.  We simply don’t churn out those national leaders.  

Distance is part of it, and more importantly, it’s language.  French is not a day-to-day reality in BC.  It takes a motivated and ambitious politician to choose national office.  Next door in Alberta, Joe Clark and Stephen Harper had the foresight to be bilingual.  In BC, among Liberals and Conservatives, only E.Davie Fulton comes to mind as a BC-raised national leadership contender who spoke French, and no other for the contending parties in the past half-century.  

As the third largest province, what’s BC’s place at the federal cabinet table? BC has not been especially influential at the federal cabinet table either.  Sure, we’ve had some strong ministers over the years, but have never produced a finance minister.  Huh.

BC usually has the middle-weights, and they are not especially high-profile in BC either.  We aren’t sitting back at home watching what our federal ministers are up to on the 6pm news.  They are seldom on it.  Our sport in BC over the years has been provincial politics.  Federal politics is that faraway place in Ottawa dealing with issues that aren’t the bread and butter of BC daily life.  The idea of the mythical “BC Minister” or “BC Lieutenant” calling the shots for BC at the federal cabinet table isn’t reality, or if it is, it isn’t the perception. 

Now, having laid out the case for why BC has a shabby deal, and how BC returns the favour with ambivalence toward its federal institutions, I turn my attention to the recent proposal to continue with a hybrid parliament.

If there’s any group that should benefit from more flexibility, it’s BC MPs.  I get it that there is no replacement for the real thing.  Even BC MPs will benefit from spending lots of time in Ottawa, building relationships, spending time in the House of Commons, and mastering how these arcane institutions work.  But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  The travel for BC MPs is gruelling, and, as mentioned, they get no breaks on the size of their ridings.  

In the major parties from BC, women are very under-represented: three of 15 Liberals, and two of 13 Conservatives.  In both cases, this works against cabinet representation from BC.  The NDP are much better represented by gender, but they aren’t looking to form a cabinet anytime soon.  All parties combined, BC lags behind the national average in terms of representation of women from BC (27%).  Are the challenges of representing BC constituencies a factor in this gender imbalance? My decades of observing candidate recruitment suggests, strongly, yes.  

Not only is representing BC in Ottawa tough on any MP, it is especially hard for those with kids at home – mothers or fathers.  You either move the family to Ottawa or you accept there will be prolonged absences.  It’s a terrible trade-off that a hybrid parliament can ameliorate.  There are countless stories of BC MPs who hit the bottle, or worse.  We expect a lot from MPs, however, the workplace conditions of a BC MP is borderline ridiculous. Fly home on a Friday (10 hours transit time), work Saturday in the constituency, fly to Ottawa on Sunday (10 hours).  You have to really love it to do it. 

The hybrid parliament offers a release valve, providing the option to take some meetings or House duty virtually from the constituency office on a Friday or even spending a week in the constituency instead of the Capital when it’s warranted.  A forced march to Ottawa benefits those most with the geographical advantage, and puts the most strain on those with the most travel. 

Virtual help notwithstanding, BC gets short shrift when it comes to representation.  If we were sticklers for rep-by-pop in Canada, BC would have four more seats based on a 343 seat House.  

But, we ought to think a little harder how we can get more people from BC into federal office, and help them be more effective once they get there.  Regional alienation characterizes the federal-provincial debate between Ottawa and Alberta-Saskatchewan.  Regional ambivalence in BC could be a greater concern.  If we fail to recruit and elect those who aspire to fully represent BC in Parliament, the idea of Canada out here in British Columbia may someday be greeted with a collective shrug.

See also: When it comes to Leaders, B.C. is ‘Barely Chosen’ (2015)