Canadians risk being sidelined from a major reconfiguration of the country’s electoral map by new rules brought in by the governing Tories that limit public consultation and dramatically accelerate the pace of the process, critics say.
Ten electoral boundary commissions, one in every province, are quietly at work devising ways to re-jig overpopulated ridings in their region based on new census data.
The chore, which is revisited every 10 years when new population data is released, is made more difficult this time around by the addition of 30 new ridings, seats that will be added at the next federal election in 2015. The Conservative government has argued the additional MPs are necessary to give voters in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec fairer representation.
This is the first part of an ongoing series on the redrawing of Canada's electoral map. Thursday, we'll look at fears the process may be manipulated for political gain and Friday an example of a riding where those fears have become all too real. On Friday, we'll also be looking at some of the most important ridings likely to be affected by the coming changes. As always, you can find these stories and more on HuffPost Canada's Politics page.
The addition of new seats in Canada’s most populous provinces, which will cost $19.3 million annually, made headlines when it was announced last fall, but few noticed the same Tory bill shrunk the timelines for public input by more than two months. The government also limited notice periods and imposed tighter deadlines on the commissions to report their findings.
“It’s just a way of silencing civil society,” said Liberal MP Hedy Fry, who accused the Tories of making it more difficult for people to participate in the process. “It’s just one way of making sure that input isn’t heard.”
The independent three-member panels, which consist of a judge appointed by the chief justice of the province and two commissioners chosen by the Speaker of the House of Commons, face a delicate task.
They must re-draw the electoral map with an eye on each provinces’ electoral quota, the maximum number of electors each riding should have, a figure that ranges from 35,051 in Prince Edward Island to 107,213 in Alberta. All this must be done while taking into account the unity of various communities of interest, such as ethnic and religious groups, linguistic minorities, cultural groups and people of similar socio-economic status. Commissioners must also be mindful of not creating ridings that are too geographically large and therefore unmanageable to represent.
In the coming months, the commissions will each release a draft map suggesting boundary changes for their province. The public will have 23 days, down from 53, to signal their intention to comment during public hearings, which could be held as early as June but will likely begin early this fall. After hearing from residents, commissioners will go back to the drawing board and finalize a list of changes, which they will hand over to MPs just before Christmas. The House of Commons’ procedure and house affairs committee will then study the reports and if MPs who disagree with the commissioners’ changes gather support from ten colleagues they may be able to tweak some of the recommendations. The three-person panels, however, retain final say and are expected to deliver their final reports by next June.
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Because some deadlines could be as short as one week, Fry worries that smaller community groups won’t be able to participate in the process.
“Many people who are going to be coming are local community groups, who don’t have money, (can’t) pay somebody to write a submission for them and are trying to do it on their own, and they don’t have a whole heck of a lot of time,” Fry said.
Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal’s spokesperson Kate Davis said the government has streamlined the process but that commissions have been given the ability to waive notice requirements for those wishing to be present at hearings, allowing for possible exceptions to the 23 day deadline.
“Canadians continue to have the same opportunity to voice their opinions on boundary changes during public hearings held by the commission,”she wrote in an email.
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Northern Ontario MP Claude Gravelle said he’s written to every group he can think of, from the old age clubs and parishes to the Knights of Columbus, urging them to get involved “right now.”
“If the report does come out in July or August, or even June, that’s very problematic for residents of Northern Ontario, that’s prime vacation time in the North,” Gravelle said.
“That’s why I sent out letters, that’s why I’m making phone calls, because most people don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
Residents should get their word in by the end of the month, Gravelle said. “If you don’t do it before the end of April, I guess you are out of the picture,” he said. “(You) can make (your) point but after the map is drawn, it gets tougher to make changes.”
The MP for Nickel Belt said he’s concerned people who traditionally don’t get involved in the process will suffer by not having their voices heard. He believes Franco-Ontarians in his region might be split up and he has encouraged the Nipissing First Nation in Garden Village, Ont., to speak out after the boundary commissioners in 2002 divided their community across two different electoral districts.
Gravelle’s main preoccupation, however, is ensuring that Northern Ontario doesn’t lose one of its 10 seats to faster growing urban centres.
“Every riding got bigger (last time) and when you get bigger it is just impossible to properly serve your constituents,” he said.
Gravelle said he visits the far-flung regions of his 34,160 square km riding at the most three times a year. He’s launched a public campaign, Keep the 10!, with five other NDP MPs in the region, and in February, introduced a related private member’s bill in the Commons (C-396).
Liberal Senator Maria Chaput said she’s worried poor and low-income earners won’t be adequately represented during the redistribution process.
A long time champion of minority linguistic rights, Chaput said communities of interest need to be together in one riding in order to ensure a vocal mass.
“If the boundaries are re-arranged and they split us in two, then our ‘force de frappe’ is less, and that’s what you have to do when you are a minority, minorities always have to fight for their rights,” the Franco-Manitoban said during an interview.
Annick Schultz, the communications director for L’Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario, said she’s trying to keep a close eye on the commission’s work to ensure francophone ridings don’t get swallowed up and lose their linguistic representation.
Because of this year’s shorter time frames, Elections Canada encouraged the boundary commissions to provide Canadians with extra time to voice their concerns before any changes were formalized and the legislation’s timelines kicked in.
The deadlines, in most cases, have either passed or are fast approaching. But some commissions, such as Quebec which fixed a May 1 deadline, were unaware Elections Canada had sent a news release on their behalf asking for public input until HuffPost contacted them.
“We received a few comments after a notice went up on the website … (but) not many,” said Diane Pellerin, the secretary of the Quebec boundary commission. “Some people told us, ‘in our neighbourhood, don’t forget there is such and such a thing that is problematic, etc.’ or ‘Be careful, don’t forget this thing happened 10 years ago,’ these types of things.”
Pellerin said the Quebec commission was scheduled to deliver its first map with proposed changes on May 1 but it won’t be able to meet that tentative deadline, something she suspects other commissions may not be able to achieve either because of staffing issues and the time needed to set up an office.
Justice Alexandre Deschênes, the chairman of New Brunswick’s boundary commission, said this week their map won’t be finished until the summer. He said he’s very concerned about the shrinking timelines for public input and plans to embark on a media tour to try to get more New Brunswickers involved in the process.
“My position is, how can people really respond to any invitation to bring about any input if they don’t know what we are talking about? So my view is that we should at least bring out certain scenarios that may be contemplated as a result of looking at the map and the numbers. Like in New Brunswick for example, we have one riding that is 31 per cent above the provincial quota, and (above) 25 per cent is the outer limit that we can go. So obviously there has to be some intervention there unless the commission feels that there are some extraordinary circumstances,” he said.
Although the New Brunswick commission originally fixed a deadline of April 15 for initial public input, Deschênes said they’ve received little feedback and believes commissioners should ask the public for more information before re-drafting the entire map.
The N.B. Court of Appeal judge acknowledged he is perhaps more concerned than most with giving people a say because the last boundary commission in New Brunswick had its final report overturned by the Federal Court after a group representing Acadians argued their community had unfairly been split in two.
“The experience that the commission had to go through in Acadie—Bathurst is one that I think we need to look at very closely,” Deschênes said. This time around the over-populated riding may need to be split up, the judge added, so he wants residents to be aware that’s one possible scenario and let them comment. “Because the problem in Miramichi (a neighbouring riding) is the same as it was last time around, no population … The question is what do we do this time around?”