The chances are excellent that when you go about marking your ballot in the upcoming federal election, something quirky and quintessentially Canadian will happen without you even knowing it.
Some votes are going to be substantially more powerful than others, especially those cast in the most remote rural ridings. And if you live in a city — especially one growing as rapidly as Greater Toronto — your vote is more likely to register as less than equal.
Take the electoral district of Labrador, for example. Only 27,197 live there, according to Elections Canada. Yes it is vast — you could fit all of the United Kingdom inside Labrador and still have room for Costa Rica. But compared to a typical riding in Brampton or Scarborough, where riding populations exceed the national average, and the numerical disparity is glaring: it will take about four times as many Toronto-area voters to get the same result, electing a single representative to Parliament.
How is that even possible? It’s a long and complicated story, one that began in the earliest years of Confederation itself. But at the heart of the matter is this fundamental fact: Canada lives with a basic and intensifying representational tension, with too few rural and too many urban dwellers.
Or, as John Courtney, Canada’s foremost scholar on these tensions, likes to say, “To paraphrase Mackenzie King, ‘Canada has too much geography and not enough people living in the more remote northern and rural parts of the country.’ ”
Throughout Canada’s first century and beyond, the historic compromise was to err on the side of rural representation — and in so doing, we veered away from the doctrine of “one person, one vote” that our southern neighbours hold so dear.
And Canadians, at the time, were OK with that. Throughout the 20th century Canada had a concurrent problem with “gerrymandering” — federally and provincially, parties in power routinely proposed redrawing ridings for partisan advantage. But Canada — ingeniously, some would say — finally solved gerrymandering in the 1960s by creating 10 Electoral Boundary Commissions, one for each province, effectively taking the power away from politicians and letting experts draw the boundaries.
“I remember once speaking to the league of Women Voters in Washington, D.C., and they were absolutely stunned to hear that Canada had independent electoral commissions,” said Courtney, professor emeritus of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “They thought it was a great idea.”
“They applauded roundly. But then when I put up a map, they wanted to know the relative populations of the districts and when I told them, they were shocked. They just could not grasp how far we are willing to deviate from representation by population.”
The question of whether or not Canadians were guaranteed voting equality was all but settled in a landmark 1991 Supreme Court ruling that said “deviations from absolute voter parity” may be justified under Canada’s charter.
Writing for the majority in the 6-3 decision, Justice Beverley McLachlin dismissed the “one person, one vote” argument, instead famously coining the phrase “effective representation” as the constitutionally enshrined right of all Canadian voters.
“Relative parity of voting power is a prime condition of effective representation,” McLachlin wrote. But other factors “like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic.”
But if things were settled in 1991, many scholars see them as unsettled today — or in need of legislative tweaking, at the least — given the changing face of Canada’s largest cities and urbanization as a whole.
Courtney notes that the unspoken consent in the 1991 ruling was to allow deviations of plus or minus 25 per cent in population equity, riding by riding. And the provincial commissions, which redistribute voting power every 10 years based on fresh census data, have shaped their maps with what many see as glaring inequity.
University of Ottawa law professor Michael Pal seized upon the issue in 2015, questioning some of the inequities in Ontario in a paper for the McGill Law Journal titled “The Fractured Right to Vote: Democracy, Discretion and Designing Electoral Districts.”
Pal, speaking to the Star, agreed that even to this day, “there is a very strong principled argument in Canada for permitting deviations from representation by population for truly Northern areas — especially considering Canada’s long and storied history of specifically excluding Indigenous people from participation in the House of Commons.”
But Pal argues the Boundary Commissions that set riding boundaries have altogether too much discretion to remap areas that have nothing to do with the North — and he cites the example of the Niagara Falls district, which during the 2015 federal election was the most populous of all 338 Canadian ridings, with 128,357 people. The adjacent riding of Niagara West, by stark contrast, had only 86,533 inhabitants — a “mystifying inequality” of nearly 40 per cent, he notes.
“It is jarring,” said Pal. “I think people in Niagara Falls would be surprised at the degree that their vote is different from their neighbours in Niagara West. There’s no mountain, no body of water, I can’t see anything in those historic ideals that really makes any sense.”
Though the statute that guides the Provincial Electoral Commissions makes no mention of municipal borders, that appears to be something Ontario’s commission cleaved to in its reshaping of many of the province’s federal electoral boundaries. Some politicos see logic in such an approach, even if it is outside the bounds of statute.
Todd McCarthy, the Conservative candidate for Whitby, understands that with a population of 129,000, his district is larger than average — thus, the riding is underrepresented, compared to the national average. But he feels that’s a price worth paying in order to align more evenly with other levels of government.
“What I do like is that the Whitby boundary matches up, federally, provincially and municipally,” McCarthy told the Star. “So as an MP you can work directly with the provincial MPP and the mayor because everyone is representing the same constituents.”
Quite apart from the deviations within provinces are the inequities among provinces — a dynamic that now sees every province except fast-growing Ontario, B.C., Alberta and Quebec now punching well above its weight, electorally. It is a dynamic that tends to dilute the votes of newer Canadian immigrants, particularly visible minorities.
The reason: the number of ridings in slower-growing provinces — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador among them — has been legally grandfathered since the 1980s, even though each district has comparatively fewer people.
Alberta, with its population surge, commands 34 seats in the House of Commons and not a single district has fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, according to Elections Canada. Every riding in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, meanwhile, has fewer than 100,000 inhabitants.
And then there’s Prince Edward Island, the anomaly of anomalies, with four electoral districts, each with fewer than 40,000 people. P.E.I. will elect four MPs on Oct. 21, thanks to a historic provision that stipulates no province can have fewer MPs than it has senators. That adds up to more than four times the electoral wallop of the Alberta riding of Edmonton-Westaskiwin, Canada’s largest, according to the most current Elections Canada data, where 158,749 residents will elect only one MP.
Get The Lead newsletter
Start getting your whip-smart guide to Canada’s 2019 federal election in your inbox.
University of Saskatchewan’s Courtney acknowledges the P.E.I. anomaly has always been a quirk of electoral history, guaranteed to baffle outsiders.
“The short answer is there is a constitutional floor — you cannot have a province with fewer electoral districts than you have senators,” said Courtney. “But beyond that, if people ask ‘Why is Prince Edward Island a province?’ I say, well, why is Rhode Island a state? There are ridings in Brampton that have greater populations. But it’s just a quirk of history. It’s part of the enigma of Canadian representation, not easily explained.”
Canada’s rural/urban electoral tensions, says, Courtney, exist within the academic community as well. As a Saskatchewan-based scholar, though widely admired by his peers for his prodigious body of work, he acknowledges that he occupies a place of caution, compared to many in the field based in more populous parts of the country, who often embrace wholesale electoral reform.
“One of the important points I make with my students when we’re talking about the 1991 Supreme Court ruling is about Justice Beverley McLachlin. Where did she come from? She didn’t come from Toronto or from the lower mainland of British Columbia — she came from (Pincher Creek), a little town in Alberta where she would go out on the weekends hunting gophers with her friends,” said Courtney.
“She knew what an isolated, remote community was about. And some of my colleagues from the bigger universities in the bigger cities who have never really known what it is to be in an isolated community don’t always seem to appreciate that. They may pay it lip service, but when push comes to shove, I think they are much more interested in things like electoral reform and proportional representation, because it will do this, that and everything all at once.”
Proportional representation — or a variation thereof — was among Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s campaign promises four years ago, going so far as to declare the 2015 election would be Canada’s last under the first-past-the-post system. Yet here we are again, one broken promise later, back at the drawing board.
Canada’s system provides for enlargement of the House of Commons every 10 years, based upon decennial census data. Ontario gained the lion’s share in the last such expansion in 2014, adding 15 seats to offset chronic underrepresentation due to rapid population growth.
It appears another similar trove of new Ontario seats is likely in 2024, when the next round of redistribution happens. Based upon new census estimates released by StatsCan, Ontario was home to 38.8 per cent of the country’s 37,589,262 people on July 1, 2019 — proportionally worth 131 seats (10 more than the current 121) of the 338 in the House.
Both Courtney and University of Ottawa’s Pal argue that without the political will to open the constitutional quagmire of such wholesale change, an easier fix, for now at least, would be to simply narrow the scope of allowable deviations from voter equity — instead of allowing riding populations to vary by 25 per cent, why not limit the deviations to, say, 15 per cent?
Courtney went through precisely this exercise in research he undertook last year for a conference at McMaster University exploring ways to increase the share of Canada’s visible minorities and Indigenous people election to Parliament.
“My research worked on a two-part solution: first, if you carve out the most northern, remotely populated areas in the provinces — not the territories, but the provinces, and move them into a separate category, you can then reallocate the districts in the south more easily.
“And second, if you impose the condition that the districts now must be plus or minus 15 per cent the average population, you get interesting results. I focused specifically on Brampton and Scarborough for this exercise and the data showed that you would have had another three seats in the last election, which would have definitely improved visual minority representation in Ottawa.”
Pal, for his part, notes that there are lessons to be learned from the United States, despite its evident continuing difficulties with politicians determined to gerrymander.
“There are some states that, as incubators, do interesting things. Colorado, for example, provides a hierarchy of instructions to its Electoral Commission that makes vote equity a priority,” said Pal. “I think the essential problem with our Boundary Commissions in Canada is they don’t get much guidance at all. They aren’t told how to balance the factors of community and history and the need for equity.”
The other way forward, said Pal, is litigation. “Americans are so incredibly litigious about voting rights and electoral boundaries. But we in Canada are probably not litigious enough. Some of these boundaries should have been challenged, and then we’d have the Canadian courts further interpreting our charter rights.”
As it happens, one such charter case has only just emerged, with the announcement of the Charter Challenge for Fair Voting — an effort intended to put the system itself on trial.
Filed on Thursday with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the challenge argues that the federal first-past-the-post format falls short of meeting the requirements of the Canadian charter on two fronts: the Section 3 right to “effective representation” and the Section 15 right to participation without discrimination on the basis sex, race and ethnicity.
Backed by two non-profit reform groups, Fair Voting BC and Nova-Scotia-based Springtide, there’s no guarantee the challenge will gain legal traction. The challengers themselves acknowledge that even if it does, it could take two to four years to reach the country’s highest court.