Rep by Pop

Representation by Population is a political system in which seats are allocated in the House of Commons on the basis of population. It upholds a fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy that all votes should be counted equally. "Rep by Pop" was the nickname for a deeply divisive issue among politicians in the Province of Canada during colonial times, and became an important consideration in the lead up to Confederation.

The province of Canada [cartographic material]
The province of Canada [cartographic material], Publisher: James Wyld, England, 1843.

Province of Canada

Rep by Pop first arose as a contentious issue prior to 1841, during the debate over whether to unite Upper and Lower Canada under a single parliamentary government. According to the eventual terms of Union, the two parts of what became the United Province of Canada would be represented in the new legislature by an equal number of representatives. This was in spite of the fact that Canada East (now Québec) had 59 per cent of the population, while Canada West (now Ontario) had 41 per cent.

This arrangement of “sectional equality” (equal seats for the two Canadas) was acceptable to members of the legislature representing the mostly English-speaking and Protestant population of Canada West. They had long-standing feelings of mistrust and prejudice toward the largely Roman Catholic, French-speaking Canadiens of Canada East. People in Canada West felt they needed a legislative safeguard against the more populous Canada East, where they believed a Roman Catholic “priestocracy” wielded too much political influence.

Sectional equality drew protests from politicians representing Canada East. They argued that it left them powerless in the new legislature, and was a ploy for the English assimilation of French Canada. They were the first to demand Rep by Pop.

Francis Hincks and George Brown

A decade later, the census of 1851 revealed that immigration, primarily from the British Isles, had increased the population of Canada West beyond that of Canada East. Now the situation was reversed. Canada East feared domination by Canada West, the preferred destination of most immigrants. The Canadiensnow wished to retain sectional equality. They had a spokesman in Francis Hincks, a moderate Reformer who believed that Anglo-French political relationships and alliances required trust, which had to be based on equality. To give either side predominant influence over mutual politics, he said, could destroy trust in the Union itself.

Fellow Reformer George Brown, from Canada West, considered Hincks a sellout for supporting sectional equality. Brown had become a passionate supporter of Rep by Pop as Canada West grew in population and prosperity, and he believed most of Canada West’s voters shared his view. He resented what he called “French domination” of the Province of Canada, and was infuriated by politicians from Canada West whose alliances with those of Canada East kept sectional equality alive.

Sir Francis Hincks, politician
Hincks was briefly head of the government of the Province of Canada, but was defeated amid accusations of corruption (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-3160).

The debate over Rep by Pop and sectional equality continued for 10 years, constantly threatening the viability of the Union. More radical reformers, whom Brown called “Clear Grits,” were ready to sacrifice the Union in the cause of Rep by Pop. Brown wanted the Union remade, not destroyed.

Macdonald and Cartier

George-Étienne Cartier, leader of the conservative Parti bleu in Canada East, opposed Rep by Pop. Conservatives in Canada West under John A. Macdonald formed a coalition with Cartier. With the added help of moderate Reformers like Hincks, the coalition was able to hold onto power in the legislature — in spite of Brown's widespread popular support in Canada West.

However, through the years of political wrangling, it became clear to Macdonald, Cartier, Brown and other leaders that some sort of compromise between the two sides would be necessary, especially if their mutual goal of Confederation was ever to become a reality.


In political conferences leading up to Confederation — attended by delegates from the United Province of Canada, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — Rep by Pop was once again a hotly debated issue. The Maritime provinces, with their relatively small populations, were aware that Rep by Pop was inevitable in any future federal assembly, as sectional equality with the much larger Canadian provinces would be unmanageable. Fearful that their influence in the new government would be minimal, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia campaigned for some form of balance.

The delegates reached a solution in which the federal Parliament would be composed of two houses. The lower house, or House of Commons, would consist of elected members who would represent their regions according to population: 82 for Ontario, 65 for Québec, 19 for Nova Scotia, and 15 for New Brunswick. However, the upper house, the Senate, would consist of 72 non-elected members: 24 for each of the three regions — Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Under section 51 of the British North America Act, the number of seats allocated to each province would be recalculated after each 10-year census.

Responsible Government Education Guide

Further Reading

  • Donald Creighton, The Road to Confederation (1964, revised 2012); J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe v. 2: Statesman of Confederation 1860-1880 (1989); Christopher Moore, 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal (1997).