At the time this article was written Gerald
Schmitz was a political scientist in the Political and Social Affairs Division,
Research Branch, Library of Parliament.
The number of members in the House of
Commons has increased steadily since Confederation but there are still several
huge, sparsely populated federal constituencies in Ontario, Quebec, and the
four western provinces, as well as in the north. These constituencies present
special problems for both residents and representatives. This article looks at
the situation In Canada's largest constituency and makes a number of
suggestions to meet the special requirements of other isolated electoral
districts both federal and provincial.
As legislative office becomes an
increasingly onerous full-time-job, recognition has also grown of the needs of
legislators with respect to the provision of professional staff, facilities,
and support services. In recent decades great strides have been made in
members' services at the federal level. though these have just barely kept pace
with the burgeoning demands on parliamentarians. The average Member of
Parliament can expect this trend to continue.
The term "average" implies that
there is a significant divergence in the burdens carried by individual Members
of Parliament This is so simply because of the wide differences in the
characteristics of federal electoral districts. The nature of Canada is such
that it is much more difficult to represent some areas in Ottawa than others.
For some electors, their Member's office is within walking distance. For
others, such as residents of the high Arctic, it is practically inaccessible.
In these cases special cost allowances for member, are justified if the
principle of equivalent services to all Canadians is to be upheld.
Nunatsiaq Riding Profile
Prior to 1905 the Northwest Territories was
represented in Parliament simply as an appendage of the territorial districts
comprising most of what is now Alberta, Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba.
From 1905 to 1947 it had no parliamentary representation at all! Between 1947
and 1962 it was again represented, but only as part of the electoral districts
of Yukon Mackenzie and Mackenzie River. After 1962 the Northwest Territories
formed a single riding until 1976 when it was divided, for federal electoral
purposes, into the constituencies of Western Arctic and Nunatsiaq.
Nunatsiaq covers roughly all of the
territories north of the tree line. This vast eastern Arctic expanse also
corresponds roughly to the aboriginal territory of "Nunavut" which is
the subject of comprehensive land claims negotiations between the Federal
Government and the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. Nunatsiaq is by far the largest
electoral district in Canada, geographically speaking. It covers an area of
2,232,133 square kilometers. This is almost twice the size of the next largest
district, Western Arctic, over four times the size of the Yukon Territory, and
nearly nine times as large as the largest northern British Columbia riding,
But Nunatsiaq is also the smallest federal
district in terms of population: 14,786 according to the 1976 census. Nunatsiaq
accounts for 22% of the Canadian land surface; .06% of the Canadian population.
Its density is only one person for every 150 square kilometers. This contrasts
rather graphically with the constituency which is smallest in area, the
Montreal riding of Laurier: 3.2 square kilometers with a population of 76, 190.
Moreover, Nunatsiaq's tiny population is scattered among farflung settlements
with great distances in between and even greater distances between these
centres and Ottawa.
Nunatsiaq is the only constituency in which
the majority of citizens have a mother tongue other than one of Canada's two
official languages. The language of the majority in Nunatsiaq is Inuktitut.
Again according to the most recent census data available 75% of the population
falls into this "others" category. Only 20% of Nunatsiaq residents
have English as their first language, and only 1.5% French. With more than half
the population under the age of 18, Nunatsiaq reflects the problems of an Inuit
culture in transition.
Nunatsiaq is not only physically distant and
ethnically "other", it is also the only Canadian constituency without
any roads or rail lines. All travel must be by air, although there is no
reliable regularly scheduled air service within the riding. One company,
Nordair, has a monopoly over the few commercial air links with the rest of
Canada. Travelling to and within Nunatsiaq is expensive, time-consuming, and
requires generous quantities of ingenuity and luck. In short, serving the needs
of the people of Nunatsiaq has always been a tremendous challenge for the
federal elected Member.
The Existing Allowance Structure
Despite the uniqueness of constituencies
such as Nunatsiaq there is no federal statutory allowance or reimbursement
which applies to a member from a single area. However, a telephone-radio link
with Nunatsiaq has recently been installed in the Member's parliamentary
office. This service is a welcome recognition of a special problem as is the
recommendation of the Standing Committee on Management and Members' Services
that Nunatsiaq be provided with a Zenith telephone service to the Ottawa office.
The members for Nunatsiaq and Western Arctic also receive an enriched expense
allowance $19,500 in July 1981 as compared to the normal $14,700. Otherwise
their indemnity, travel allowances, and office budget are the same as for any
Comparisons with other electoral districts
are few out worth noting. In Saskatchewan the members for Athabasca and
Cumberland receive annual indemnities of $12.669 compared to the norm c
$10,908. These members. however. receive a slightly lower expense allowance
($9,516 compared to $9.729). In the Yukon MLA from outside Whitehorse receive
an expense allowance of $9.250, members from Whitehorse $7,250. With respect to
travel. the Saskatchewan MLAs for Athabasca and Cumberland are also entitled to
two trips per year to each community within their constituency, In the
Northwest Territories members of the Territorial Assembly receive a travel
allowance sufficient to reimburse them for expenses incurred in making two
visits per year to each settlement in their electoral district in addition to
five constituency capital round trips per year. In the Yukon 12 such round
trips are allocated per year with additional reimbursements for travel expenses
during legislative sessions and for committee meetings. Special arrangements do
not exist for office support services, although legislators in the Northwest
Territories assembly receive an allotment of $75 per month for an interpreter.
Outside of Canada even fewer comparisons are
possible. in Australia a charter fly/drive allowance is provided for federal
parliamentarians based on constituency size: $9,000 (1980) per annum for those
100,000 square kilometers and over (a dividing line less than one-twentieth the
area of Nunatsiaq) ranging down to only $3,000 per annum for those 10,000 to
30.000 square kilometers. Senators for the Northern Territory, Queensland and
Western Australia, receive a similar allowance of $9,000 and $6,000
respectively. Other Senators, such as from New South Wales, receive only $3,000
per annum. With regard to support facilities, the members of the House of
Representatives for Kalgoorlie and the Northern Territory are provided with two
constituency (electorate) offices and two secretaries to staff both of these
Bridging the Services Gap
At present federal members who represent
ridings like Nunatsiaq are at a considerable disadvantage in reaching their
constituents on even an occasional basis when compared to more urban
legislators Although they are allowed up to fifty-two trips per year between
Ottawa and their constituencies the main air routes leave a good deal to be
desired. A bigger problem is travel within the riding something which is
absolutely essential yet difficult at the best o times. For example, members
may be forced to use some of their "points" for special trips across
Canada (10 of the 52 trips may be so designated) for the purpose of normal
local constituency business The frequent unavailability of regularly scheduled
service may mean scrambling to obtain space on aircraft chartered by government
departments or native organizations.
The absence of road and rail links in
Nunatsiaq means that the rail pass and the reimbursement for auto mileage
within the constituency is meaningless. In other large ridings train and auto
allowances may be of little assistance to Members in performing their
constituency duties or attending local functions.
As of April 1, 1982 there will be a
supplementary allowance for air or water travel expenses of Members in rural or
urban-rural ridings. However, those cases in which conventional transportation
facilities are almost completely lacking, merit further attention. Perhaps some
Members should receive, in lieu of the standard auto mileage reimbursement, and
in addition to their fifty-two trips, a travel allowance sufficient to allow
them to visit (by air taxi or scheduled service, if available) each community
in the constituency at least twice per calendar year. This would be a similar
principle to that already used for Members of the Northwest Territories Legislative
Assembly and for the two northernmost Members of the Saskatchewan Legislature.
The global office and staff budget of large
ridings is the same as for every other constituency. Again it is a case of
equality in principle resulting in inequity in practice. At the constituency
level members usually maintain an office, staffed by one person, in the largest
community. Obviously this office cannot serve the entire region on a
face-to-face basis. For this the members need personal representatives to act
as liaisons for the outlying communities and settlements. The far corners of
huge constituencies cannot be served adequately from one central location. Yet
the alternative is an expensive proposition which cannot be managed
satisfactorily within the existing constituency budget. The present budget for
staff also fails to make allowances for the extremely high living costs in the
North. Thus the situation for constituency employees of northern members does
not compare favourably with that of federal public servants who have higher
salaries and special benefits.
The problem for local staff who want to get
around the constituency also applies to Ottawa staff brought to the riding
under new provisions of the basic travel allowance whereby nine of a member's
alloted total of fifty-two "points" may be converted into trips
between the constituency and Ottawa for the member's spouse and/or designated
alternate or staff. For obvious logistic and financial reasons such persons are
unlikely to travel beyond the main population centres in order to acquaint
themselves with the problems and needs of the constituency as a whole.
The allocation of up to nine points for
staff travel within the overall travel allowance structure is a substantial
amelioration, but fails to meet important concerns. One suggestion would be for
members from large areas to be provided with a supplementary constituency
operations allowance permitting them to hire other local assistants as
required. The member's Ottawa staff would also be able to utilize the allotted
nine points so as to permit them to visit each community in the riding. Such an
internal round trip would be counted as one point.
The Need for Flexibility
Nunatsiaq is probably the best example of a
riding with a unique situation not covered by present rules and guidelines
relating to members services. Although more and more Inuit now understand
English and have access to southern media. the Inuit language and culture still
predominate. This fact is crucial if the integrity of Inuit society is to be
maintained for future generations. But it also places a great burden on the
Member of Parliament and his staff. The member for Nunatsiaq is in some sense
an ambassador for an Inui civilization which often feels justifiably threatened
by the growing pressures impinging upon it from the outside.
Members need to communicate effectively with
their constituents in their own language but for those from ridings with a high
concentration of native voters it is difficult to retain bilingual staff it no
allowance for these skills is made within the regular staff budget. For much of
the office correspondence, household mailings, and community radio and
television programming, translation is essential. In the absence of
Ottawa-based bilingual personnel the Member must attempt to obtain translation
services as best he can on a contract part-time or occasional basis. And he
must attempt to cover these very considerable extra costs with funds from the
standard global budget.
Perhaps members who represent ridings with a
high percentage of native people should be provided with a special translation
allowance permitting them to hire bilingual staff in their Ottawa offices as
needed, or, alternatively, reimbursement for their actual translation costs relating
to constituency business. Such proposals have in the past been rejected due to
cost. However, to the extent that translation is essential in ridings with
large native populations. these costs should be eligible under an improved
reimbursement formula. Indeed the report of the McIsaacBalcer Commission on
members' salaries called for an expanded and more flexible system of
accountable expense allowances.