Remarks to the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission
On October 4, 2022, the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario held a public hearing in Kenora about its proposed federal electoral boundaries. I was one of seven speakers to present submissions to the Commission. The Commission will use the public feedback it receives to generate its final report. You can read more about the redistribution process here. My remarks from the October 4 consultation are reproduced below. Check against delivery.
Good evening, Chair and Commission Members.
My name is Douglas Judson. My pronouns are he/him. I am a municipal councillor with the Town of Fort Frances and a lawyer serving clients across the Northwest.
I also serve on the boards of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and the Northwest Community Legal Clinic. I have previously worked for both an MP for Thunder Bay—Rainy River, an MPP for Kenora—Rainy River, and for Grand Council Treaty #3. While I do not speak for any of these organizations or individuals tonight, my experiences with them inform my views on this redistribution proposal. I hope my comments will assist the Commission.
Tonight I want to speak about what effective representation looks like for the Northwest region. I use those words – “effective representation” – because those are the words that the Supreme Court of Canada used when it considered our democratic rights under section 3 of the Charter in the Saskatchewan Electoral Boundaries reference.
What the Supreme Court told us, in that decision, was that Canadians are not entitled to equality of voting power per se, but the right to “effective representation”. The court has specifically written that that constitutional right to vote comprises many factors, including equity.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said that deviations from absolute voter parity may be justified on the grounds of practicality or where more effective representation must take into account geography, community history, community interests, and minority representation. The court stated that “Notwithstanding the fact that the value of a citizen’s vote should not be unduly diluted, it is a practical fact that effective representation often cannot be achieved without taking into effect countervailing factors.”
Those factors for effective representation – geography, community history, community interest, and minority representation – define this region. Yet they remain woefully under-appreciated by the proposed electoral map. What I submit to you tonight is that the proposed electoral boundaries that has been crafted for this region do not confer effective representation in the eyes of those who live here, or through the lens of the court’s guidance.
I’d like to walk you through my concern for effective representation in 3Ps – practicality, policy, and politics.
First, the practical.
We are situated tonight in what would become the new riding of Kenora—Thunder Bay—Rainy River, which merges the larger population centres of the existing Thunder Bay—Rainy River and Kenora ridings. That merger is the source of the seat that is being taken away from northern Ontario.
While the Commission’s recommendation appears to take the view that these communities belong together by virtue of their road access – which contrasts with the far north – our “southern-northern” communities are, on their own, far more dynamic and complicated, with their own internal divisions and unique, competing interests.
Obviously, there are practical, geographic constraints that many people have spoken about. The Kenora—Thunder Bay—Rainy River riding would span from Lake Superior to the Manitoba border, taking more than 7 hours to cross east to west. It covers two time zones, multiple Indigenous treaty territories, and dozens of First Nations.
The newly-elected Member of Parliament in this riding would not be able to spend a day in each community in the riding if they had a month to do so. The nearest major airports are in Winnipeg and Thunder Bay. When I worked for the MP for the current riding of Thunder Bay—Rainy River, it was difficult to make time to visit just one of the communities outside of Thunder Bay more than once every two months.
And this is where the practical bleed into the second P – policy.
Frankly, the real mischief of this map is that it defies the reality on the ground of our communities.
Despite stereotypes in the south and assumptions made in Toronto and Ottawa, our communities in the Northwest are not similarly situated. Research by the Northern Policy Institute has confirmed that the Kenora and Rainy River districts are in distinct economic zones from the City of Thunder Bay. We are not economically or demographically linked to one another in the way a common riding ought to.
As municipal leaders, we also know, anecdotally, that our economic interests here are often in direct conflict with the City of Thunder Bay. In Fort Frances, we have seen this recently with the allocation of Crown forestry rights, for example, shuttering a viable industry in the Rainy River District to benefit one in Thunder Bay.
How is an elected official supposed to advocate for one community if the things they stand to lose benefit another in the same riding? While all communities will have competing interests with their neighbours, this reality is more pronounced in a region consisting of single-industry towns and long distances for basic services like healthcare – a region which, under the proposed redistribution, will have no MP solely committed to represent those living in such circumstances.
The fact is that Thunder Bay is a census metropolitan area. It has different industries, demographic trends, and growth opportunities than smaller cities like Fort Frances, Kenora, and Dryden. It has even more stark differences from the smaller rural centres like Sioux Narrows, Atikokan, and Emo, and the numerous First Nations here in Treaty #3.
This brings us to the third P – politics.
The raw reality is that by carving out new ridings in a way that gives primacy to a population quotient, the rural Northwest will have less effective representation than ever before. This will occur because, in practical terms, our only two MPs serving the Northwest will always come from Thunder Bay. There is no political incentive for a candidate or MP to spend time outside of Thunder Bay in this proposed riding. By extension, nomination meetings, leadership visits, and political activities will continue to be focused in Thunder Bay, where a plurality of votes are located. While before the MP for Kenora could be relied on to voice issues outside of Thunder Bay, this proposal takes that away from us too. There is no other elected voice in the region, and Kenora-Rainy River will be effectively disenfranchised in the political process.
This outcome leads us into a future where the concerns of the broader Northwest are less represented, and less understood.
What is undeniable, and ought to figure most prominently in your considerations, are that so many of Canada’s political challenges turn on an urban-rural divide. We see that with transportation, high-speed internet, mobile service, education, and healthcare. Having elected officials that live with those concerns – rather than juggle them with others – is critical to advocating for solutions. What the Commission needs to understand is that unlike other cities that share a riding with a rural area, the rural Northwest is not a bedroom community for the City of Thunder Bay. Not in the same way that Middlesex County is tied to London, or Essex County to Windsor.
And that is the equity in play in this process. If we are committed to effective representation, as articulated by our Supreme Court, equity calls on the Commission to enact electoral boundaries that do not completely dilute rural voters and small towns with urban populations. This is especially true in outlying regions like this one, where there are so few voices already.
If we fail to recognize that the political math underlying this map will only elect MPs from Thunder Bay, the Commission’s recommendation will not only disenfranchise our municipalities, but will be disempowering numerous Indigenous communities, at a time when we strive to answer the call of reconciliation.
My concerns tonight are shared in unison with others. Many of us feel that the proposal feeds into the false notion that our region is monolithic in interest, in culture, and in need. This is recognized by virtually every municipality in the Kenora and Rainy River districts. Almost every single council has adopted a resolution opposing the proposed redistribution, and more than half of those resolutions specifically point to concerns about losing effective representation and of amalgamating our communities with a Thunder Bay riding.
Some of the comments you have received from municipalities rightfully ask that the Commission to consider placing the City of Thunder Bay in a stand-alone urban riding. Others emphasize Indigenous treaty regions and the commonality of interests between Kenora-Rainy River communities. These are all parts of a valid, worthy, and workable solution.
As you consider this feedback, I leave you with the words of Chief Justice McLachlan in the Electoral Boundaries Reference that I started with tonight. She wrote in that decision that “Ours is a representative democracy. Each citizen is entitled to be represented in government. Representation comprehends the idea of having a voice in the deliberations in government as well as the idea of the right to bring one’s grievances and concerns to the attention of one’s government representative.”
This premise animates the concept of effective representation – whether we can get the attention of our representatives. That will be lost in the map you have prepared for our region. A representative democracy that is only formulated on raw population scores is an impoverished one that will fail to reflect the true diversity and struggle of the public it serves.
The upshot is this: if the Commission is not prepared to restore the seat it is taking away from our region, it needs to consider crafting an electoral map for the Northwest that differentiates its urban and rural components. Otherwise, our rural and Indigenous communities’ representation will be skewed and obscured by the politics of the boundaries you have drawn.
The people you are hearing from in the north are not asking for special treatment. They are asking the Commission to respect the equity – recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada – that underlies our Charter right to have effective representation.