The Prime Minister Does Not “Represent All Canadians” – the House of Commons Does


Responsible Government and the Loyal Opposition

Many of the subtle misinterpretations of the nature of responsible government derive from what some (and perhaps some of you, dear readers!) would consider “quibbling”, constitutional pedantry, or “debates over semantics.” I would argue, however, that these small differences matter, and the language that one uses to describe parliamentarism reveals much about his implicit understandings (and misunderstandings) of how the system operates. For instance, as I described in detail in the previous two posts, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Civil Service serve the Crown and do not “serve the people,” but to varying degrees, “attend to the public good” based on the policies and mandates determined by Cabinet. So too, the Prime Minister “governs for all of Canada” but most certainly does not “represent all Canadians.”

Survey on Why “Quebeckers See Themselves Less in the Canada of Stephen Harper”

Justin Trudeau demonstrated his total ignorance of the purpose and function of loyal opposition a few weeks ago. Now the Le Journal de Montreal ran an article called “Les deux solitudes s’eloignent: Les Québécois se reconnaissent moins dans le Canada de Stephen Harper” that promotes the same narrative: that Quebeckers “do not see themselves” in Canada in general, or in the Harper government in particular. Both analyses conflate the government with the State and try a specious distinction between policy and values in the operation of government.

First, Canada is not the property of any individual Prime Minister. This is not “Stephen Harper’s Canada”, as the headline in French asserts, simply because the Harper Ministry currently governs Canada. The Canadian federal State exists because of the Crown and the Constitution, not because of the government of the day.

Second, this article contains an inherent tautology in the assertion that “Quebeckers see themselves less in Stephen Harper’s Canada”: obviously, Quebeckers do not possess “a significant spokesman” in the Harper government: they choose to elect candidates representing the New Democratic Party, which has necessarily “confined Quebeckers to the Opposition in the House of Commons.” If Quebeckers had elected more Conservatives, then they would have received commensurately more representation in Cabinet.

When electors in any given province choose to vote overwhelmingly for a party that occupies the Opposition benches, they will in turn “not see themselves” in the government. During the 1990s, most Western Canadians “did not see themselves” in the Chretien government because they choose to elect Members of Parliament from the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance and the New Democratic Party. They made the decision to elect Members of Parliament who would most likely end up in Opposition rather than form the Government. Then in 2006, when Stephen Harper formed a Conservative Ministry, many Western Canadians found their Members of Parliament inside the Government and on the government’s side of the House. In addition, Professor Louis Massicotte laments that “the program of the Harper government ‘reflects the priorities of electors other than those in Quebec.’” Yes, obviously, Massicotte’s tautological reasoning has stumbled upon the correct conclusion. Why does the paper report on these statements as if they were profound revelations?

Conclusion: Quebeckers Do Not “See Themselves in Canada” Because the PM and Government Do Not “Represent All Canadians”

I suspect that these Quebeckers lament that they “do not see themselves” in the Harper government based on an inherent misunderstanding of the true nature of responsible government.

Namely, the Prime Minister and Cabinet “govern all of Canada”, but they most certainly do not “represent all Canadians” in the sense of “reflecting their values”, as Professor Massicotte mentioned. The Government of Canada could only “represent all Canadians” if all Canadians voted for the same political party and elected a Parliament composed entirely of one political party!

The Prime Minister and Cabinet can and does “govern all of Canada” or represent all Canadians in the sense of articulating what they consider Canada’s interest and promoting it; however, the Prime Minister and Cabinet most certainly cannot “represent all Canadians” in the sense of “reflecting their values in government.” The nationalistic phrasing of Quebeckers “not seeing themselves in the government” in this case necessarily refers to the latter concept.

In short, the Sovereign represents and is the Crown and the Country, the House of Commons as a whole represents all Canadians, and the Prime Minister and Cabinet govern for all Canadians. Within the House of Commons, the loyal opposition represents “the political minority” and makes the representation of political dissent integral to Westminster parliamentarism.[1] Therefore, no Prime Minister could ever “represent all Canadians” unless the Prime Minister’s party won all 308 seats in the House of Commons and Canada became a one-party State.

All Canadians possess and should exercise their right to peaceful political dissent and their liberties of expression. However, no group in Canada should complain when “their values aren’t represented in the government” when they chose to elect parties that occupy the Opposition benches! “The supreme benefit of parliamentary government is that it protects political opposition, the right to dissent.”[2] The Opposition thus fulfills an integral and vital democratic function within Westminster parliamentarism, and by complaining in such a manner, these Quebeckers featured in the newspaper article are in fact (though probably unintentionally) denigrating the necessary and proper role of loyal opposition within the system of responsible government. The views of Quebeckers are well-represented in the New Democratic Party as Official Opposition, and that’s what matters.

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[1] Janet Ajzenstat, “Bicameralism and Canada’s Founders: The Origins of the Canadian Senate,” in Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew, ed. Serge Joyal (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003): 3, 7.

[2] Ibid., 7.

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10 Responses to The Prime Minister Does Not “Represent All Canadians” – the House of Commons Does

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  5. I don’t see how you can argue that any voter chooses “to elect parties that occupy the Opposition benches”. You cast one vote for one candidate – and I don’t think ANYONE does so hoping their candidate of choice will end up in opposition – you vote for someone because you want them, and by extension, their party – to win/form the government. There is no choice involved with regards to the outcome of how one casts their ballot (unless you live in Alberta maybe). If we had a better, more representative voting system, maybe you could make that argument. But with FPTP? It’s a total crapshoot.

    • Most voters of course don’t *hope* that they will elect an MP in Opposition, but during most elections, they can use probability and POR to draw conclusions on what side of the House their MP will likely sit.

      Obviously, Quebeckers who voted for the Bloc know that they’re electing Opposition MPs. Similarily, Westerns voting for the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, or New Democratic Party in the 35th, 36th, and 37th general elections knew (unless they never paid attention or lived under a rock) that if they were voting for the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, or the New Democratic Party that probably, they were electing Opposition MPs. I don’t see the problem with my statements above.

  6. “…the Prime Minister and Cabinet govern for all Canadians.” Given the argument, I’m not sure what that “for” means – it can’t mean “on behalf of” since that would imply the responsibility for whole-nation representation you’ve argued away. Surely, the PM and Cabinet govern *for* the winning party (who, after all, actually chose their party leadership, etc.). That, at least, seems to be the logical outcome of saying I can’t expect to see my interests & values espoused by Canada’s Defense Minister unless I voted with the majority on election day.

    In my grandfather’s day, voting wrong meant that you could expect to lose out on government contracts and employment opportunities for the next 3 to 5 years. In his grandfather’s day, voting wrong meant you could expect little justice in the courts and a likelihood of religious and/or ethnic persecution. I rather hoped we were past that winner-take-all system, however traditional it might be.

    You can tell me I’m wrong about how the system works now. You can’t tell me not to complain about it lest I denigrate Westminster parliamentarism.

    • It depends on what you mean by “representation” and “represent.” Perhaps I should have differentiated these concepts more clearly, but the French-language newspaper is clearly referring to “representation” in the superficial sense of identity politics and nationalistic self-affirmation; in this case, “representation” means “sharing, affirming, and reflecting our values”. In the true and legal sense of the word, “representation” means that the Government speaks for Canada on the world stage, and at the local level, it means that each individual MP takes responsibility for speaking for his constituents in Parliament when they have difficulty in dealing with the Government, etc.

      Just as an example, I’m right-wing, but I live in Ottawa-Center, so the New Democrat Paul Dewar is my MP. Now, Dewar doesn’t “represent” me in the sense of affirming my values, because he and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But Paul Dewar does represent me in the Parliament of Canada because he is the properly elected MP for the riding in which I live. So if I want to attend QP, I call his office. If I encounter problems with my passport, I would call his office so that he can help me deal with the Government. This is what I call “substantive representation.”

  7. B. Thomas Hall says:

    What would you say about Prime Ministers’ attempts to build ministries composed of representatives from all provinces?

    • I did write in the entry, “If Quebeckers had elected more Conservatives, then they would have received commensurately more representation in Cabinet.”

      I think that my comment to Wendell Dryden responds to your question as well. Your question rests of what “representation” means. In the future, I’ll ensure to better articulate the differences between what I call superficial vs substantive representative.

I invite reasonable questions and comments; all others will be prorogued or dissolved.

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