Representation by Population
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An Act to provide for the Suspension of the Readjustment of Electoral Boundaries
An Act to provide for the establishment of Electoral Boundaries Commissions and the Readjustment of Electoral Boundaries
Date: 1994 and 1995
Bills: C-18 and C-69
Sponsors: Hon. P. Derek Lewis (NL)
Hon. Sharon Carstairs (MB)
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Canada is divided into electoral districts (also known as constituencies or ridings) for the purpose of electing MPs to the House of Commons. The boundaries of electoral divisions are adjusted from time to time to ensure that they reflect our fundamental principle of representation by population. Readjustments take place roughly every ten years following a major census so that increases and shifts in population can be taken into account. Currently, Canada has 308 MPs.
Since 1964, arms-length Electoral Boundaries Commissions (EBCs) have taken over the responsibility for drawing electoral boundaries from elected MPs, which has insulated the process from political interference. An EBC is appointed in each province and consists of a chairperson, who is normally a provincial court judge appointed by the Chief Justice of the province, and two residents of the province appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
In 1994, the government proposed to overhaul the way electoral boundaries are redrawn by, in effect, re-politicizing the process. First, on March 18, it introduced Bill C-18 to eliminate existing EBCs, negate the maps they’d already drawn and suspend the old process for two years so new electoral maps could be substituted. Secondly, on April 19, it passed a motion in the House instructing a Commons committee to draft a bill for new redistribution rules no later than mid-December of that year.
Summary: Bill C-18
The Senate began 2nd reading of the government's Bill C-18 on April 19. Supporters of the bill claimed it would streamline the redistribution process and allow time to introduce needed reforms. Critics of the bill declared it would destroy impartiality, an important feature of the process since 1964. As Senator Murray (ON) said,
Representation by population was one of the pillars of the
Confederation agreement of 1867…. [but the pre-1964] partisan
dominated system of redistribution … was a travesty of democracy.
One of the most notorious examples in relatively modern times
was the attempt in three consecutive redistributions … to gerry-
mander John Diefenbaker out of a seat in the House of Commons.
He went on to point out that a two year delay in redistribution would also violate equality of voting power, which the courts had declared to be an essential feature of representation by population.
This bill dilutes in a serious way the democratic right of millions
of Canadians … Their right to vote and their right to a relative
equality of voting power is being treated with contempt in this bill.
Moving quickly through the Senate, Bill C-18 was passed on May 25, 1994, but only after it had been substantially amended to preserve these principles. Instead of completely dismantling the existing arms-length process, the re-written bill
* shortened the moratorium on boundary changes from two years
to a date by which new rules could be enacted (thought at first to
be February 6, 1995, though later changed to June 22);
* temporarily stopped the work of existing Electoral Boundaries
Commissions (EBCs) but did not abolish them or the work they
had already accomplished; and
* discarded the provisions that would have allowed the cabinet to
appoint new EBCs.
These amendments were embedded in the law when the bill was given Royal Assent on June 15, 1994.
Summary: Bill C-69
The government introduced new redistribution rules the following year (February 16) in the form of Bill C-69. This bill also sought to cancel the work of existing EBCs; by now, however, the EBCs had held public hearings all across the country and had produced maps with electoral district boundaries based on public input.
Bill C-69 was passed by the House of Commons and reached the Senate on May 2, 1995 where it was immediately subjected to an in-depth review. Senators identified several concerns:
* membership on a provincial EBC was not restricted to residents
of that province;
* provincial EBCs were to be appointed only if the number of
seats changed, regardless of population shifts within a province;
* MPs were allowed to overturn EBC appointments made by the
* the new rules created a presumption in favour of existing
boundaries rather than relative equality of voting power; and
* riding populations were allowed to deviate from a provincial
average by plus or minus 25%.
The Senate passed Bill C-69 on June 8, 1995 with amendments that addressed these concerns. It did not, however, seek to stop the bill even though it meant that the work of existing EBCs would be discarded. On this point, it deferred to the will of the House of Commons.
The House of Commons rejected almost all of the Senate’s amendments to Bill C-69, insisting that the will of a majority of elected Members of Parliament should prevail. It informed the Senate of its decision on June 21st, one day before existing EBCs would be reinstated according to the terms of Bill C-18. Because new rules had not yet been enacted, the old rules prevailed and the EBCs’ redistribution maps were tabled in the House of Commons on June 22nd.
On June 28th, the Senate decided to refer Bill C-69 back to committee for further consideration because it was unclear whether the bill had lapsed since redistribution maps had already been filed. The committee reported back on July 8, but requested more time. Debate shifted to whether the Senate should defer to the House of Commons, or insist on its own amendments. All Senators acknowledged that electoral boundaries affected elected MPs directly, and senators not at all. Some Senators felt that MPs should therefore have the final word on electoral boundary issues. Others thought the opposite. Quoting a Montreal Gazette columnist, Senator Prud’homme (QC) declared that
The senators, with no personal interest at stake, can stand up
and defend the public interest, the interest of all citizens, against
the narrow self-interest of the MPs.
Bills C-18 and C-69 generated widespread interest in academic as well as journalistic circles. Academic articles generally agreed that elected members of the House of Commons participated in redistribution to the extent that their own ridings were affected. Professors Eagles and Carty, for example, concluded that “MPs’ concern about boundary readjustment is driven by their perceived political self interest”; while Richard W. Jenkins was of the view that “the new legislation was about an MP's relationship to the constituency, not about the representation of voter characteristics.”
In the end, the issue never came to a direct vote in the Senate, since it remained in committee stage for the rest of the year despite various procedural attempts to move it forward. Bill C-69 died on the Order Paper when Parliament was prorogued on February 2, 1996 and was never revived. The redistribution went forward as originally planned.
Electoral district boundaries were last adjusted in 2003, following the 2001 census. The 1964 system of redistribution has continued unchanged.