REGINA - A move to rejig federal ridings in Regina and Saskatoon has widened a rift between urban and rural voters in Saskatchewan.
It has also split the commission charged with redrawing the electoral boundaries and led to charges the Conservatives are trying to protect their rural base.
The existing ridings — four in Regina, four in Saskatoon — spread out like slices of a pie, pulling in a corner of each city and a bigger rural area of towns, villages and farms.
A commission reviewing those boundaries tabled a report in the House of Commons this week saying population shifts call into question the "continued suitability" of mixed urban/rural ridings.
The report wants a change to urban-only ridings in the cities — two in Regina and three in Saskatoon.
But only two of the three commission members support the report.
"I strongly disagree with the proposed electoral boundary changes," commission member Dave Marit wrote in a minority report.
Marit, the head of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, has urged the parliamentary committee reviewing the changes to reject the proposal.
"I would also ask that the committee request the commission to redraft the federal electoral boundaries report in order to come back with fairer representation for Regina and Saskatoon and to revisit the blended urban-rural ridings."
Marit argues, among other things, that changing the boundaries "so drastically and causing voter confusion" will diminish turnout at the polls.
He says cities are connected in many ways to rural Saskatchewan and suggests the proposed changes make rural ridings too big while reducing the number of seats in Regina and Saskatoon.
The 2011 census pegged the population of Saskatchewan at 1,033,381 — an increase of 5.56 per cent over the previous census.
Saskatoon and Regina have 222,189 and 193,100 people, respectively. Saskatoon and Regina comprise 40 per cent of the province's total population and are both growing at a record pace. Regina's population increased by 8.34 per cent and Saskatoon's by 12.89 per cent over the previous census.
The urban-only proposal, backed by Justice Ron Mills and political science professor John Courtney, returns to an earlier period between 1933 and 1966. Mixed urban-rural ridings were introduced in the 1966 redistribution.
The overall number of seats in Saskatchewan would remain at 14, although boundaries change in every riding.
The Conservatives currently hold 13 of the 14 ridings in Saskatchewan. Liberal Ralph Goodale holds the lone non-Conservative seat, the Regina area riding of Wascana.
Goodale says the dissenting opinion reads "more like a political rant" and that the commission — which looked at population numbers, communities of interest and geographic size — got the changes right. The arguments are logical, compelling and non-partisan, he says.
"Where the political chips fall is not part of their consideration. Their consideration is what is the most fair and most effective way to represent Saskatchewan's reality," Goodale says.
"Their view is, and it's a view that I agree with, that when you have such a large chunk of Saskatchewan that is now urban-based, and that's a change from historically ... there should be some voice for that base in the Parliament of Canada."
There has also been debate over whether Conservatives, with a stronghold in rural Saskatchewan, could hold onto urban seats.
Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, who represents the current riding of Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre, objects to the changes.
In the proposed system, the urban seat of Regina-Lewvan would take on more of the southern part of the city, while the rural riding of Moose-Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan would expand north and encompass Moose Jaw.
Lukiwski notes 77 per cent of the voters in his current riding are in Regina and 23 per cent are in the rural area.
"I really am almost insulted when people say that because I only represent 77 per cent of Regina residents, that they are disenfranchised, that I'm not working on their behalf. That's absolutely false," he says.
Politicians and political scientists alike say they can't recall another redistribution that was so divided.
"I think this is the only time since this process has been established a number of decades ago that there's been a dissenting report filed," says Lukiwski, who sits on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee that will ultimately deal with the commission's report.
"I do not think the boundaries map as proposed is right for Saskatchewan, is the best for Saskatchewan citizens, but it is ... more than a bit unusual where the commissioners can't come to agreement."
A similar attempt to redraw the political map was proposed in 2002, but the commission at that time ended up backing away from the changes after facing similar criticism.
"This has been a pretty passionate debate here in the province," says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Dave McGrane.
"There was definitely a lot of arguments on one side and there's a lot of arguments on the other side, so the fact that the commission split is maybe not that surprising."
McGrane says several people have emailed him this week to report getting robocalls on the issue.
He says the company making the calls used the name Chase Research and asked a leading question that essentially suggested redistribution would destroy Saskatchewan and pit rural against urban: "Press one if you agree, press two if you don't agree."
McGrane says he had not heard of Chase Research, could not find a website for the company and calling back the number left on caller ID went to an automated answering machine.
"The question is, who's this behind this all, who's doing this," he says.
The parliamentary committee will hear from MPs who object to the proposed changes, likely in early March, then draft a report for Elections Canada. Lukiwski says he believes all of Saskatchewan's Conservative MPs will object.
Elections Canada will send the report back to the Saskatchewan boundaries commission for final changes, if any.
The commission doesn't have to make any more changes if it doesn't want to.
"I suppose if the MPs' objections are particularly persuasive, if maybe there's sort of a massive public outcry in the next little bit here, maybe Courtney and Mills could change their minds," says McGrane.
"They've been through the ringer on this thing and I'm pretty convinced there's no argument out there they haven't heard. Every single argument, from every possible angle has been made on this issue, so I find it very hard to believe that somehow the MPs are going to come up with some brand new angle that we haven't heard before."
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