Tory MPs argue Saskatchewan riding changes 'dead wrong'

MPs weigh in on controversial changes to federal electoral boundaries in Saskatchewan at a parliamentary committee today, with Conservatives lined up against a commission's recommendations.

Ritz 'very concerned about voter apathy' if ridings shift around

Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost is one of the Conservative MPs who will testify about changes to federal electoral boundaries, which will redraw some of the province's urban-rural ridings. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Controversial changes to federal electoral boundaries in Saskatchewan are before a parliamentary committee Tuesday, with Conservative MPs lined up against a commission's recommendations.

The Saskatchewan Boundaries Commission is recommending five new urban ridings be created, with three in Saskatoon and two in Regina.

Seven Saskatchewan MPs have asked to appear before the procedure and House affairs committee currently reviewing the proposed boundary shifts.

Right now federal ridings in those two cities are part rural and part urban. The changes propose more distinctly urban and rural ridings, rather than the pie-shaped ridings around urban centres that characterize Saskatchewan's electoral map today.

"I'm very concerned about voter apathy as we constantly shift and change where people should go to vote," said Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who represents a Saskatchewan riding.

"A lot of communities – satellites around Saskatoon and Regina – are served by the city water and sewer, gas systems and so on. [The proposed changes] don't reflect those trade corridors of interest at all," Ritz told the committee.

NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen, who sits on the committee, didn't seem to buy the argument that these kind of rural-urban ridings make sense.  

"All of the mining outfits that work in my part of the world all have their head offices in Vancouver. But we would never imagine it would be tenable to have some extension riding which had a little bit of down town and a lot of rural," Cullen said. 

"Saskatchewan did increase its population to the tune of 54,448. If you divide that into 14 ridings it's 3,889 people per riding. Now that's not a significant increase in population," Conservative MP Ed Komarnicki said during his testimony. "Certainly [it] wouldn't justify a fundamental shift in what has been the history in Saskatchewan."

"The commissioners were wrong, dead wrong.  And we should not accept that," Komarnicki urged.   

Tory caucus strongly opposed from outset

Conservatives currently hold all but one of Saskatchewan's federal seats. Tory MPs have been critical in the media for months, ever since the electoral commission first proposed the riding adjustments.

"So much of our economy is rural based. Mining, agriculture, the forestry sector — a lot of that is done in the rural areas, but managed from the cities," Conservative MP David Anderson told reporters Monday.

The opposition parties have accused the Conservatives of being afraid of losing the new urban seats in the next election.

But Saskatoon-Humboldt MP Brad Trost said that's not the case.

"If you look at the current map situation, we're still the favourites in 12 of the 14 constituencies," Trost said.

Robocalls stir opposition

It's more than just Conservative MPs who are against the proposed new ridings.

The federal Conservative party was behind a series of robocalls in January that said the new ridings were against Saskatchewan values, then asked callers to press 1 if they agreed.

The only riding not held by the Conservatives is Wascana, held by Liberal MP Ralph Goodale.

Goodale said urban ridings make sense now that 40 per cent of the population lives in Regina and Saskatoon. He said the concerns of urban voters is increasingly different from rural ones.

"The way the boundaries are structured, they almost dictate that one must dominate the other. And whichever side of the debate you're on, someone ends up getting the short end of the stick," Goodale told CBC News.

Goodale says along with the five new urban seats, the commission is also recommending there still be three ridings with an urban-rural mix, while the remainder would be predominately rural.

"At the moment, it's 14 to nothing, which seems a bit one-sided and unfair and unrealistic, given the growth in the population and the urbanization trend," Goodale said.

All but one Saskatchewan Conservative MP has filed an objection with the parliamentary procedure and house affairs committee. The remaining one is Andrew Scheer, who must remain neutral as Commons Speaker.

The Saskatchewan Boundaries Commission will consider those objections before making is final decision later this year.

Similar commissions are considering changes to electoral boundaries in other provinces to reflect recent population shifts.

The Commons is also preparing to add 30 new seats in time for the next election. Ontario will get an additional 15 seats, Alberta and British Columbia six each and Quebec three.