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Canada doesn’t have a gerrymandering problem — but that doesn’t mean the riding map is perfect

Section 51(1) of the Constitution Act says that, every ten years, the allotment of seats in the House of Commons and the map of federal ridings are to be “readjusted” to reflect changes in Canada’s population.

This decennial process tends to cause some consternation – particularly among those MPs whose political fortunes, workloads and communities are directly affected by it.

“It’s pretty well inevitable that some concerns will be expressed. There’s no doubt about that,” said John Courtney, professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan, who has studied the redistribution process extensively. “It’s as regular as clockwork every ten years.”

Right now, Liberal MPs in Toronto are upset about a proposed map that would see the city reduced from 25 ridings to 24. Northern Ontario MPs are similarly upset that their region could lose an MP, while Bloc Quebecois MPs and one Liberal cabinet minister don’t like how the map has been drawn for Quebec.

You could be forgiven for wondering how objective MPs can be when it comes to riding boundaries. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the process of drawing electoral boundaries in Canada is that it’s ultimately not up to MPs.

That separates the Canadian system from the situation in most parts of the United States, where partisans draw the maps and gerrymandering (named for Elbridge Gerry, former governor of Massachusetts) is still considered a normal part of politics.

For the most part, the system serves Canada well. But it’s not perfect.

How an electoral map is drawn

The chief electoral officer is responsible for applying a legislated formula to determine how many seats will be allotted to each province. The work of drawing the electoral map in each province is then given to independent electoral boundary commissions.

Each three-person commission is chaired by a judge who is selected by the chief justice of the province. The Speaker of the House of Commons appoints the other two members. Members of Parliament, senators and members of provincial legislatures are not eligible to serve on these commissions.

Under the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, commissioners are asked to ensure that the number of voters in each riding is within a certain range, based on the provincial average. They also can draw boundaries to account for communities of “interest” or “identity” and historical divisions, or to ensure “manageable geographic size.” They can make exceptions for what the law calls “extraordinary” circumstances.

It’s not up to MPs

Each commission prepares a proposed map and is required to hold at least one public hearing to solicit feedback; the current commission for Ontario has scheduled 17 hearings. The commissions then report to the Speaker, who refers the reports to a committee of the House.

MPs can file formal complaints through that committee, which are then relayed to the commission for consideration. But the final word still goes to the commissions — and they are under no obligation to bend to the will of MPs.

It hasn’t always worked this way. Federally, independent commissions weren’t put in charge of drawing riding boundaries until 1964, following Manitoba’s decision to adopt non-partisan panels in 1955.

While the boundary commissions prevent gerrymandering, it’s not uncommon for the proposed maps to draw criticism.

canada doesnt have a gerrymandering problem but that doesnt mean the riding map is perfect
Conservative MP Kelly Block was one of several Saskatchewan MPs to push back against new riding maps in 2012. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In 2012, for instance, the 13 Conservative MPs in Saskatchewan objected when the province’s commission decided to eliminate some blended urban-rural ridings around Regina and Saskatoon. A cynic might have suspected that those objections were based on how the urban-rural design tended to give an advantage to Conservative candidates, but the complaints raised publicly were largely framed in terms of community interests and democratic representation. 

The commission acknowledged and considered the stated concerns but ultimately stuck to its changes. (In the 2015 election, the Conservatives lost three seats in Saskatchewan to the NDP. But the Conservatives took all 14 of the province’s seats in 2019 and 2021.)

The rules could still be tweaked

While some amount of fussing over the lines on the electoral map is inevitable, it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously proposing to go back to the way things were before 1964. The United States is an object lesson in the abuse and dysfunction that follows when independent authorities aren’t in control of the electoral system.

But there are parts of the process that still could be improved.

Michael Pal, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, has pointed to the relatively wide latitude given to commissions to decide which criteria they prioritize when drawing boundaries. Pal argues that has led to inconsistencies across the country.

canada doesnt have a gerrymandering problem but that doesnt mean the riding map is perfect 1
Special ballot officers count ballots from national, international, Canadian Forces and incarcerated electors at Elections Canada’s distribution centre in Ottawa on federal election night on Sept. 20, 2021. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Courtney suggests a certain number of seats could be set aside for the more sparsely populated northern regions of each province, while commissions could be given a mandate to ensure the remaining ridings are closer in population. Currently, the population of a riding can be 25 per cent larger or smaller than the provincial average. Courtney would reduce that range to 15 per cent to promote greater equality for ridings and voters.

Pal would reduce that range even further, to five per cent. He also would change the redistribution formula — which has been adjusted in the past and was tweaked again this spring — so that the House of Commons grows to better represent some of the larger provinces.

Currently, voters in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta are slightly underrepresented in the House of Commons, while all other provinces are slightly over-represented. Ultimately, Pal said, those gaps can be traced to the underrepresentation of voters in some of Canada’s biggest cities.

Some disparities are baked into the Constitution. Prince Edward Island, for instance, is guaranteed four seats, despite a population that is just slightly larger than the average riding in Toronto. Ensuring regional representation might also be a worthy goal. But tinkering with the formula can minimize the differences.

So while MPs are poring over the new maps in search of unfairly drawn lines, they might consider whether some more fundamental tinkering is necessary.

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