Tory plan would create 22 new ridings, but nobody knows just where

A government bill introduced Wednesday would add 10 federal ridings in Ontario, seven in British Columbia and five in Alberta, but would not dictate where the new ridings go within those provinces.

A federal government bill introduced Wednesday would add 22 seats to the House of Commons — 10 in Ontario, seven in British Columbia and five in Alberta—butwould not dictate where the new ridingsgo withinthose provinces.

Where they show upmaychange political fortunes,but it won'thappenuntil well into the next decade, afterthe 2011 census and an elaborate boundary-drawingprocess.

By law,redistribution ishandled byathree-member Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission set up for each province. The chairman isusuallya judge appointed by the provincial chief justice; the other members are appointed by the speaker of the House, currently Liberal Peter Milliken.

The commissionshold public hearings, pore over mapsand redraw boundaries across each province in an effort tobalance riding populations.If the past is a guide, few of the 308 existingridingswill emerge without changes.

An Elections Canada official, John Enright, stressed on Wednesday that the commissions are independent of the government. MPs can comment on the lines drawn, but the commissions have the final say, he told CBC NewsOnline.

Even so, there will be intense political interest in whether new ridings show up in strongholds of a particular party — in suburban and rural areas where the governing Conservatives tend to do better, for example,orindowntownneighbourhoods where Liberals and New Democrats have more support.

The commissionprocess is Canada's attempt to avoid what is called gerrymandering, or carving out safe seats.The abuseis named for a 19th-century Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, who created a district so intricate it was said toresemble a salamander.

Target date for changes is 2014

If all goes as planned, the job will be done by about 2014 and will take effect in the first general election after that, increasing the number of seats from 308 to 330.

The billtabled Wednesdaywould changea mathematical formula that determines how many seats provinces get. It revives a proposalthe Tories introduced in May butleft inlimbo when theycut short the last parliamentary session in September.

Thelastredistribution, in effect for the 2004 general election, raised the number of seats by seven, giving Ontario three and B.C. and Alberta two each because of their growing populations.

Thenext one was expected to add about seven more —fourfor Ontario, two for B.C. and one for Alberta.

The newformula is considerably more generous to the growingprovinces. In May, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said it takes Quebec as a benchmark,aiming tobring other provincesas close as possible toQuebec's average riding population.

In practice, this meansthat people in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta would move towardthe Quebec level of voting clout. Under a law passed in 1985, no province can lose seats in a redistribution, even if its population shrinks. The territories are guaranteed one riding each, giving their small populationsdisproportionate voting power.

Michael White, Van Loan's communications assistant, saidthe plan has not changed since May. Althoughnobody cansay exactly where anew ridingmightshow up, "basically it's going to go where the population goes," he told CBC News Online.

"There area number of factors, right, but it's based on population, representation by population."

Representation by population

Under the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, which dates from 1964, the boundaries commissions are instructedto keepridingpopulations within 25 per cent of the provincial average exceptin extraordinary cases.

But they may also take into account:

  • The community of interest, community of identity orhistorical pattern represented by a riding.
  • The need for amanageable geographic sizeofridings in sparsely populated, rural or northern regions.

The arguments have already begun.

New Democrat Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay, laments that the new Ontario seats most likely will go to the Toronto area andother southern regions.

He says one seat should go to the North, considering that some of the ridings there are larger than some countries.

"When you talk about representation, it's not just population.Representation really has to take into account the ability of people to meet their members of Parliament," Angus said.