Untangling the Politics of Electoral Boundaries in Canada, 1993-1997

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Introduction

On 18 March 1994, the government introduced Bill C-18, An Act to Suspend the Operation of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (EBRA). Ultimately, the suspension expired and the redistribution based on the 1991 census was completed. The events leading up to and during the suspension, including the drafting of new legislation, have important lessons for us in how we understand redistribution and parliamentary practice. Following a discussion of the redistribution events and politics between 1993 and 1997, this paper argues that there were three related but independent parts of a complete explanation: a parliament, a politician, and a representation story. The parliament story is about the Senate-House conflict that the suspension triggered and, as such, is not about redistribution per se. The politician story is about the role of self-interest in motivating the suspension and the character of the proposed new legislation. Many commentators do not go beyond this important but narrow explanation. A third story--representation--about the importance of place relative to equality of voting power in Canadian redistribution legislation, is necessary to account for the character of the politics of redistribution in Canada.

The Historical-Legal Framework of Electoral Boundaries in Canada

The Constitution requires a boundary readjustment after every decennial census, but it does not mandate how this readjustment should take place. Committees of the House of Commons tackled this function for the six redistributions between 1921 and 1952 (Ward 1967). All subsequent redistributions have been completed by independent commissions established under the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, 1964. The use of independent commissions reflects a desire to remove political considerations from the process (Courtney 1985) and, to be legitimate, all future legislation must appear to be free from obvious political manipulation or gerrymandering.

The legislation requires that, after the decennial census, commissions be established in each of the provinces with membership determined by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The commissions are required to publish their proposals and then engage in a public consultation process before finalizing the new boundaries. Finally, a parliamentary committee hears objections from M.P.'s and writes a report with recommendations to the commissions for further amendments. Commissions are free to reject this advice or make whatever changes they feel justified.(1) The new boundaries come into force one year from the completion of the process. The process that began with the completion of the 1991 census eventually proceeded through each of these stages, but it did so with considerable disruption and only because of the failure to amend the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.

Besides establishing the process and institutional form of redistribution, the EBRA provides general instructions about how the electoral map should be drawn. What stands out about the Canadian legislation is the degree to which the population of districts can deviate from strict equality compared with the United States and Australia (Courtney 1988). Districts can vary up to plus or minus 25 percent from the provincial quotient (population / number of seats) and can go beyond this if the commission feels there are exceptional circumstances. Commissions can depart from voter equality to accommodate community of interest and geographical considerations.

In Canada, wide discrepancies in district size and, consequently, voting strength occur both inter- and intraprovincially. Despite the entrenched commitment to proportional representation by province, interprovincial divergence from equality has been a continuous aspect of Canadian constitutional practice (Roach 1991). One explanation for the practice of interprovincial inequality is "related to the failure of the Senate to ensure effective and democratic regional representation" (Roach 1991, 11). …