Whose Interests Matter? Representational Priorities among Members of Parliament in communities with high rates of COVID-19.

AuthorFeldmann, Gabrielle

Through interviews with Members of Parliament (MPs) and an analysis of Statements by Members, this research paper examines the representational priorities and influences of Members of Parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic. It identifies four main representational priorities: the economy and businesses, people with service needs, vulnerable and marginalized populations, and health and long-term care. Through these four priority issues and constituencies, it demonstrates that MPs' representational priorities are varied, and are influenced by riding characteristics, descriptive characteristics, and MPs' previous experiences and priorities. It finds that representational priorities are largely resilient to the pandemic, but that the pandemic has led to the emergence of new priority constituencies for MPs.


It is well-established that political representation requires balancing competing interests. (1) However, this trade-off is often conceptualized as balancing homogenous local and national interests. The more nuanced reality of competing interests and constituencies at all levels is often obscured, despite significant implications for democracy. If local constituencies are given one representative at the national level, which interests within the local community are prioritized?

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique vantage point from which to examine this question. It has overwhelmingly dominated public life since early 2020, and has affected all communities across Canada. This focusing event can be used to examine which interests and constituencies political representatives prioritize when faced with the same broad challenge; this is especially interesting when considering the pandemic's unequal impacts across neighbourhoods and sociodemographic lines. The same groups who have borne disproportionate health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic have been underrepresented in Parliament (2), raising questions about how these groups' interests have been prioritized during the pandemic.

The body of literature on Members of Parliament's (MPs) representational activities indicates variation and agency across MPs based on riding context and descriptive characteristics (3), highlighting the potential for representational prioritization. Political representation literature demonstrates that representatives prioritize certain interests and constituencies.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this research seeks to understand both the representational priorities of MPs and the factors influencing those priorities by employing interviews with MPs and analysis of Member's Statements (S031s) to do so. Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racialized people in Canada, particular attention is paid to racialization as a descriptive characteristic.

Four major representational priorities were identified through this analysis: the economy, service needs, vulnerable and marginalized groups, and health. However, significant diversity in MPs' priorities exists. By exploring the four priority areas, this research will highlight the factors that appear to shape representational priorities. This research aims to deepen the concept of political representation in Canada by explicitly introducing the concept of representational priorities to allow for greater exploration of how various interests are represented in Canadian politics.


Beginning with Pitkin's dichotomy between descriptive and substantive representation and the trustee-delegate model (4), political representation literature has focused primarily on the task of translating public preferences into legislation. Yet, legislative-focused conceptions of representation do not necessarily reflect the Canadian context, where party discipline severely constrains MPs' ability to respond to local constituent preferences. This has led to broader definitions of representation in Canada; Koop, Bastedo, and Blidook's Representational Connections Framework (RCF), distinguishes four types of representational connections: policy connections, service connections, symbolic connections, and party connections. (5) Notably, this framework also identifies factors shaping MPs' representational styles: their personal goals and backgrounds, constituency (riding) contexts, and experiential learning as an MP. (6)

The RCF is useful in expanding the definition of representation, and is central to informing the methodology of this research. It makes clear that there is significant variation in MPs' representational activities and that MPs have agency in deciding their representational styles; these underlying assumptions suggest that MPs have agency to prioritize chosen constituencies. Though the RCF remains focused on how MPs represent constituents, it provides useful foundations for exploring which interests are represented.

The question of which interests are represented can be further explored through Rehfeld's expanded trustee-delegate model, which identifies three dimensions of representation: a representative's aims (who they seek to benefit), sources of judgement (how they determine their preferred constituency's interests), and responsiveness (to local riding sanctions). (7) Separating these dimensions is helpful because it highlights the underlying question of who representatives are seeking to benefit, who they listen to, and who they answer to. Rehfeld provides a useful framework to consider how representatives might go about prioritization of specific interests and issues.

Importantly, the heterogeneity of interests at both the local and national levels cannot be ignored. There is evidence that the powerful win in representatives' prioritizations; in the U.S., low-income constituents have less influence over politics (8), while organized interest groups can sway representatives to deviate from constituent interests. (9) Unsurprisingly, this dynamic is observed along racial lines; Harden notes that "the wealthy and whites get their policy views represented more than do the poor and minorities". (10)

In the context of international literature, it is worth examining how MPs prioritize constituent communities, particularly those who structurally hold less power. This is especially relevant considering the COVID-19 pandemic's disproportionate impact on marginalized communities; questions of whether these communities' interests are being adequately represented have significant ramifications for their immediate well-being and for the broader dynamics of political representation.

Within this context, the literature suggests that both descriptive representation and riding characteristics may have an impact in determining whether marginalized communities'--particularly racialized communities--interests are represented. Racialized MPs have been shown to actively champion the interests of racialized groups, and these constituencies' interests are generally supported by MPs who have a significant racialized population within their riding. (11) Yet, some literature suggests that substantive policy representation is not impacted by racialized representatives (12), though descriptive representation may still matter in symbolic (13) and service (14) contexts.

Based on the existing literature, variations in MPs' representational priorities can be expected. It is also clear that racialized and otherwise marginalized constituencies are often de-prioritized by representatives, but that descriptive and riding characteristics may influence whether these constituencies' interests are championed. Given the trends in the literature and the lack of research on representational priorities in Canada, this work will begin to fill an important gap by uncovering the representational priorities of MPs during the pandemic.


MP Case Selection

This research uses the COVID-19 pandemic as a focusing event to examine how MPs' representational priorities vary within a similar context. Given this scope, focus is on MPs who represent cities that have consistently experienced high COVID-19 cases at the time of writing.

Since Canada does not have a uniform mechanism of reporting COVID-19 data, case selection requires a degree of extrapolation. The focus of this research was on cities in Ontario, Quebec, and...

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