Proposed Electoral Boundaries Shortchange Kenora and Rainy River Districts
Last month the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario released its proposed redistribution of riding boundaries across the province. This is a process that unfolds every 10 years, following the census.
Why does redistribution occur?
The purpose of the review is to account for changes in population. This helps to ensure that the House of Commons provides fair representation for all Canadians. The provincial Commissions strive to distribute riding boundaries so that each MP represents approximately the same number of people.
However, given the uneven distribution of population across the country, some variations from a baseline “quota” are necessary. Without this, some rural ridings would cover an impossibly large landmass.
What is proposed for Northern Ontario?
Since the last redistribution, Northern Ontario has had 10 ridings – 3 in the northwest, and 7 in the northeast. The Commission now proposes to do away with one of these 10 ridings, resulting in just 2 ridings in the northwest, 6 in the northeast, and 1 large far north riding running from the Manitoba to Quebec border.
The proposed Northern Ontario map looks like this (Parry Sound—Muskoka is cutoff at the bottom-right):
The Commission’s recommendation is bounded by a mathematical allocation that would confer an additional riding to Ontario, bring the total Ontario seats to 122. Obviously, population growth is uneven across the province, and given existing disparities from riding to riding, it is apparent that the Commission has chosen to allocate the new seat in the south, but also to reallocate one northern seat to the south.
Using the Commission’s own dataset, here’s a diagram which shows how the current population is redistributed to the new proposed ridings (I note that the Commission’s dataset does not appear to match the per-riding populations in their report, but generally I accept that they show what proportion of each current riding would be sorted into each new riding):
Why are we losing a seat?
In crafting the new electoral map for Ontario, the Commissioner has stated that because of the significant population growth across the province, the population quota per riding has increased to 116,590. Because this population growth is concentrated in the south, this has come at a cost to northern representation.
To illustrate how drastic the changes have been over the past decade, the Commission notes that while the population of Northern Ontario grew by 2.8% from 2011 to 2021, the rest of the province grew by 11.2%.
In creating the proposed redistribution plan, the Commission states that it sought to limit the deviation from the quota across the province to no more than plus or minus 10% per riding (a range of 104,391 to 128,249), and that it achieved this in all parts of the province other than Northern Ontario, where 8 of the 9 proposed ridings have a population of plus or minus 15% of the quota (a range of 99,102 to 134,078).
In the other proposed northern riding (Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk, which spans from Manitoba to Quebec) the Commission concluded that the sparse population across this remote region attracted “extraordinary circumstances”. This region largely overlaps with the recently-created far north provincial ridings of Kiiwetinoong and Mushkegowuk, which were created to respond to some of the unique needs of far north Indigenous communities. The result is a riding that is 68.8% below the quota (at just 36,325).
The map below shows the deviations from quota for each of the current ridings:
Here's how that compares to the proposed ridings:
What does the Commission get right?
There are two elements of the redistribution plan that must be acknowledged.
First, the mathematics of the redistribution are indisputable. So long as the population of southern Ontario continues to grow, the per-riding quota increases, and the total number of seats allocated to the province remains fixed, Northern Ontario will likely continue to lose seats into the future. The only way to address this is to change one of those mathematical variables, or to have Parliament take action to guarantee a fixed number of seats to Northern Ontario (and ideally to the northwest and northeast, as distinct regions).
Second, the Commission is wise to recognize the unique needs of the far north, through the creation of the new riding of Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk. This will help to align federal boundaries with their provincial counterparts, while ensuring that the far north gets a distinct voice in the House of Commons. As all of our institutions strive to answer the call for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, this is a timely move to empower Indigenous leadership and Indigenous people who live in some of most unique and challenging circumstances in Canada. There continue to be valid criticisms that this riding is too large to be manageable for a single MP, let alone campaigning.
That’s mostly where the good news ends, at least for the Northwest.
What does the Commission get wrong?
The Commission’s proposed boundaries in the remainder of Northwestern Ontario are problematic, and this largely centres on the poorly-conceived plan for Kenora—Thunder Bay—Rainy River.
This riding can generally be through of as a merger of the majority of the existing Thunder Bay—Rainy River (currently held by Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski) and the most populous parts of the Kenora riding (currently held by Conservative MP Eric Melillo).
There are 4 significant criticisms of this plan:
First, the proposed boundaries fail to acknowledge the significant distance between Thunder Bay and Kenora. The distance between the two cities is at least 6.5 hours by car. While this alone is likely not a determinative factor, the reality is that Kenora’s economic links are westward, not eastward. It is far more economically tied to Winnipeg, cities in Manitoba, and smaller communities in its own vicinity (some of which are not in-riding, under this proposal). This has been acknowledged in research by the Northern Policy Institute.
Second, the proposal continues to place a large portion of the City of Thunder Bay with a massive rural area and numerous small municipalities and First Nations. The result of this is that Thunder Bay interests will still politically “steer” this riding, as they have in Thunder Bay—Rainy River since the last redistribution. By anchoring a large outlying area with an urban core, the Commission is effectively disenfranchising the voters in the rural areas. While it appears that the eastern boundary of the riding has shifted under the proposal, the reality is that a substantial percent of the riding’s population continues to be centred there. (A similar criticism could be made of Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk, where about half of the population resides in the Sioux Lookout area.)
Third, as mentioned above, the new boundaries cut off Kenora from communities of mutual interest. The municipalities of Ear Falls, Red Lake, and Sioux Lookout and the surrounding Indigenous communities each have strong economic, social, and historic ties to Kenora and Dryden, which are now cleaved off into a separate riding. These communities have more in common with the Rainy River District population centres than their far northern counterparts.
Fourth, the proposed ridings fail to respect other established boundaries. For instance, the proposed division cuts up numerous Indigenous treaty regions, districts, and electoral boundaries. An alignment along the existing provincial boundaries, the boundary of Treaty #3, or even the Central Time Zone would provide greater cohesion to these communities.
What could be done?
As mentioned, one goal of the redistribution process is to maintain general fairness – so that electors have more or less than same “clout” and MPs represent approximately the same number of electors.
However, in court cases that have reviewed electoral boundaries have determined that how we draw the electoral map is related to Canadians’ democratic rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 3 of the Charter states that “[e]very citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”
In the 1991 Saskatchewan electoral boundaries reference, a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada stated that the purpose of the right to vote is not equality of voting power but the right to “effective representation”. Deviations from absolute voter parity were determined to be justifiable on the grounds of “practical impossibility or the provision of more effective representation”, with “[f]actors 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”.
It is from this starting point that we know there remains a basis in law to part from a strict quota-based drawing of lines on the map to account for broader criteria. For Northwestern Ontario, there are many electoral possibilities and compromises that could emerge from this principle.
An appropriate distribution for the Northwest is one that accounts for the unique economic and community interests across the region. I would draw the lines based on economic regions, the urban-rural divide between Thunder Bay and the rest of the region, and the unique needs of the far north. But this isn’t the only reasonable proposal – and options that keep various treaty regions together are also good ones.
Some Alternatives, for Illustrative Purposes
Several current and past MPs for Northern Ontario ridings – from all parties – have called for the Commission to maintain 10 ridings in the north. Without doubt, this would be the preference of most northerners. But what if that’s not in the cards? For argument’s sake, I crunched the numbers for 2 alternatives – again using the Commission’s own data set – for a landscape in which we must still lose one riding.
Here’s what the population distribution would look like if the new proposed map had the following features:
All of the City of Thunder Bay and its immediate surrounding within Thunder Bay—Superior North (so everything east of Shabaqua, though the time zone cut-off would be a convenient marker too);
All of the Rainy River District and Kenora-, Red Lake-, and Sioux Lookout-area in a new “Kenora—Rainy River” (using the Treaty #3 boundary as a northern limit); and
All remaining communities in a new (and much smaller) Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk.
This map would look something like this (see the yellow super-imposed boundary):
The problem with this rendering (apart from my poor drawing skills) is that we end up with a distribution that creates a far north riding that is even further from the quota:
This is a result of removing the Sioux Lookout-area from that riding, which accounts for about half of the population.
That said, the numbers we get for the new, enlarged Thunder Bay—Superior North aren’t terrible. At 134,000, the riding is still within the 15% deviation threshold set by the Commission.
To account for these challenges – and again, entirely for argument’s sake – I redrew some lines that would meet some of the same goals with more defensible population results per riding. For this rendering, I made the following changes:
I moved all of the Sioux Lookout-area population back into the far north riding (which makes some sense, as the community is economically positioned as a hub for the far north as it is); and
I grouped all of the rural communities surrounding Thunder Bay with their counterparts in the Rainy River and Kenora areas.
This riding map would look something like this (green superimposed boundaries):
The population flows from the existing ridings are far improved from the previous iteration:
This map places the new Thunder Bay—Superior North at just above quota.
In either case, the riding containing the Kenora and Rainy River-area communities would need to be identified by the Commission as one entitled to "exceptional circumstances" in order to stray from quota. There are numerous historic, economic, social, and cultural reasons to do so.
Opportunities for Participation
The Commission is accepting public comment on its proposals until September 25. All of the information is available here. Public hearings will take place in Sioux Lookout and Kenora on October 3 and 4, respectively.