Cut rural Alberta ridings to increase urban constituencies, commission says

Constituencies in several rural ridings should be consolidated to create three new ridings in urban areas, where the province's population has skyrocketed since 2010, the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission says.

Majority report calls for eliminating 3 rural provincial ridings to increase urban representation

Commission chair Justice Myra Bielby says the populations of current constituencies vary from a low of 17,129 people to a high of 92,148. (CBC)

Several rural ridings should be consolidated to create three new constituencies in urban areas, where the province's population has skyrocketed since 2010, the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission says.

In its interim report released Thursday, the commission recommends Calgary and Edmonton each get one new riding, and that a new riding be created northwest of Calgary to accommodate the population growth in Airdrie and Cochrane.

The commission proposes the boundary of Fort McMurray-Conklin, currently held by Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, be redrawn to include Lac La Biche. That would bring the population of the new riding to 36,112, still 23 per cent below the provincial average.

The commission has to maintain the same number of constituencies, so it recommends consolidating ridings in areas where population growth has been below the provincial average. 

Four constituencies in northeast Alberta (Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills, Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater, Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville and Bonnyville-Cold Lake) are proposed to be consolidated into three.

The commission recommends that seven ridings (Battle River-Wainwright, Drumheller-Stettler, Strathmore-Brooks, Little Bow, Cardston-Taber-Warner, Cypress-Medicine Hat and Vermilion-Lloydminister) be made into six. 

Five constituencies north of Red Deer and west of Edmonton — Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, West Yellowhead, Drayton Valley-Devon, Whitecourt-Ste. Anne and Stony Plain — should become four.

The chair of the commission, Justice Myra Bielby, said Alberta's population has grown by 600,000 in the last eight years. She said the populations of constituencies vary from a low of 17,129 people to a high of 92,148. The provincial average is 46,697.

"Those 600,000 people didn't move equally into each of the 87 constituencies," she said. "They concentrated themselves on Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray. So the result has been that, while eight years ago almost all of the 87 constituencies were pretty close to the provincial average size of 40,000 people at that time, things have gotten out of sync now. Considerable variations have arisen."

Bielby noted these wide variances give people in less-populated parts of the province more say than urban residents. 

"If there was a provincial election held today, a vote cast in the town of Jasper, Alberta, would have about three times the effect of a vote cast in Calgary-South East."

Minority report opposed new big city ridings

Not every member of the five-person commission agreed with the recommendations. In her minority report, Gwen Day argued against adding new ridings in Edmonton and Calgary. 

She said population should not be the only factor in determining electoral boundaries, and consolidating rural constituencies can make them too large for MLAs to provide effective representation.

"Perhaps if we looked at Albertans as a family at the table, at some points in time in our family we extend extra grace for reasons," she said. "I think there are considerable reasons to work with those allowances, work with the deviations that are permitted by law."

Nathan Cooper, the Wildrose MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills, agrees with Day's minority opinion. 

Cooper says rural MLAs often have to travel great distances to do their jobs. For example, he says there are 14 municipalities and more than 100 elected officials in his constituency that he needs to visit. 

"We see rural MLAs with significant amount of distance to travel as well as a number of communities that they are responsible to engage and liaise with, where urban MLAs will only have one municipality, one school board," he said.

"So there is a very distinct difference between rural and urban Alberta and it appears that those haven't been taken as much into consideration as much as population."

The commission will hold another round of hearings in July for the public to consider the recommendations. 

The new ridings are called Edmonton-South, Calgary-Northeast and Airdrie-Cochrane. 

The chair of the commission, Justice Myra Bielby, acknowledged last year's wildfire created uncertainty around the census data for Fort McMurray-Conklin, meaning the recommendation to redraw the boundary could change by the time the final report comes out. 

Many of the homes destroyed or damaged in the fire were in that area, so residents may have simply moved to another part of the city while their homes are being rebuilt. Bielby urged residents to help the commission update its data. 

"Some of those people may in fact still be there," she said. "And so we are asking for people who know about Fort McMurray, who have particular knowledge of the area, to give us some help in deciding whether that's a correct population figure for Fort McMurray-Conklin or whether it should be higher."

Boundaries are redrawn after every second election.

The last boundaries commission was in 2010, which resulted in the creation of four new ridings: one in Fort McMurray, one in Edmonton and two in Calgary.

According to Statistics Canada, Alberta's population grew from 3,742,800 in 2010 to 4,252,900 in 2016.

The commission held its first round of hearings across the province earlier this year.

The government is scheduled to receive the commission's final report by Oct. 31.