Freelance — A Day at the Electoral Boundaries Commission

Over at, my latest article about the federal electoral boundaries commission hearing — where they heard an earful about their plan to split the Church-Wellesley Village among two ridings — is waiting to be read.

I have to add that going to one of these hearings was a fascinating look at the inner workings of the democratic machine. For those who don’t know, our electoral system is based on picking representatives from geographically based districts. Those districts are meant to each have an approximately equal number of people living in them, so that the system gives each person in Canada a roughly equal say in who they send to Parliament, and roughly equal access to their MP.

Of course, that theory breaks down very easily. Because the total number of ridings is divided among the provinces, and certain provinces have constitutionally mandated numbers of ridings, certain provinces get more than their proportionate share of ridings, and thus their ridings are smaller. Within each province, the electoral commission is allowed to have ridings vary by up to 25 percent from the average riding size. So, the electoral math is something like 30,000 Prince Edward Islanders = ~70,000 Manitobans = ~106,000 Ontarians. Conversely, someone in Toronto, Ottawa, or Montreal, almost certainly has better access to their MP than someone living in a riding like Western Arctic, or in one of the Northern Ontario or BC ridings that’s the size of France.

These problems are the well-known and acknowledged shortcomings of our electoral system.

What’s weirder is what happens when the riding boundaries have to be drawn, which happens every ten years according to new census information and direction from Parliament to create new ridings. Ontario gets 15 new ridings in the current redistricting — which still doesn’t address Ontario’s underrepresentation in Parliament, but goes some way (the conservatives initially proposed 21 new ridings for Ontario). The boundary commission — which is completely non-partisan — then tries to redraw the electoral map following two main principles: keep the ridings approximately equal in population and maintain “communities of interest” within single ridings.

Proposed redistribution (first attempt).

Often these principles come at odds. The average riding is 106,000 people. What do you do when you have a municipality that 130,000 people surrounded by farmland? Do you make this one of your exceptions, as it’s within the legally allowed 25 percent over the average? Do you cut 24,000 people out of the urban riding and put them in a rural riding? Or do you cut the urban area in half, putting 65,000 people in two different “rurban” ridings that join rural and urban areas?

Until recently, the trend was to do the latter, but this year’s commissions tended to maintain the integrity of cities where possible. The old trend tended to favour conservatives by underrepresenting urban areas in Parliament. This is why Saskatchewan is currently represented entirely by Conservatives even though Regina and Saskatoon vote overwhelmingly NDP.

The problem is different in larger urban areas like Toronto, which is now divided among 25 ridings (up from 22 + 1 shared with Pickering). The boundary commission used the city’s former borough boundaries plus a few geographical boundaries like the 401 to delineate most “communities of interest.” In other places, they used major roads. And in many places, it looks like they used blind guesswork and hoped for the best. After all, it’s all one city. It’s not like the people of Eastern North York are that different from the people of Western Scarborough, right?

So it was bizarre to see politicians and activists lining up to repeat their objections to these two streets being shifted from Davenport into St. Paul’s, or for the huge differences between Annex residents and St. Paul’s residents.

It seemed like the entire NDP machine had descended on Metro Hall to persuade the commission to keep the Annex in Trinity-Spadina and instead to cut the Waterfront off of the riding. It doesn’t take a genius to translate MP Olivia Chow’s attestation that the Annex is an integral part of the south of Bloor community while the Waterfront is not into “Please keep these NDP voters in my ward, and remove these pesky Liberal voters who are only getting more numerous.”

I really started scratching my head when several activists started complaining that the CPR tracks north of Dupont are a huge physical obstacle to Annex residents participating in events St. Paul’s. No one seems to believe that’s true in Toronto Centre/Mount Pleasant or Davenport. In fact, Davenport’s MP and MPP showed up to insist that the areas north and south of the tracks are hugely important to them and they’ve worked hard to join those communities. It really devolved into farce when Councillor Mike Layton started insisting that people in one part of the riding have a community of interest because they all shop at Metro, and that people who live on the west side of Ossington go to Dufferin Grove park, while those on the east side go to Christie Pits — so Ossingtonians, you have your boundaries! Don’t ever deviate!

Over the weekend, I took some flack on Twitter for saying that Olivia Chow is a terrible public speaker who would shrivel in the spotlight of a potential massive, year-long mayoral campaign. I’ve seen Chow speak at several events, political and non-political, partisan and non-partisan. My conclusion is not based on her accent — although I can see some people finding her difficult to understand, her accent is only marginally less clear than Joe Pantalone’s or Jean Chretien. It’s that she singularly fails to communicate simple ideas in a clear and concise manner. At one point, Chow was trying to convince the commission to cut off the riding at Front St and the GO tracks, then give the portion west of Bathurst to Davenport and east of Bathurst to Toronto Centre. It took her what felt like eternity to explain this the commission, because she left out key phrases that explained what exactly she was proposing south of the tracks. Worse, when she finally got this across, the judges pointed out that they couldn’t add more people to either riding because they were both at their prescribed limits. Chow had no answer.

Rosario Marchese, the riding’s NDP MPP, also proposed cutting off the waterfront (and the entertainment district) from the riding (creating a single new riding across the entire waterfront and abolishing the proposed Mount Pleasant riding), although he came across as less self-serving. After all, he’s best known in Ontario for his attempts to amend the laws around condos to help the very residents he’s trying to remove from his riding. His logic is that the condo communities have very specific and common needs that it would be helpful to have a single MP represent. Moreover, they’re the ones directly affected by the federal works and laws regarding the waterfront development, the port, and the airport, and it really doesn’t make sense that the Toronto Islands are in a different riding than their ferry port. This was backed up by the submission from Liberal St. Paul’s MP Carolyn Bennett, who was oddly the only federal Liberal there.

There were a few other reasonable proposals about as well. Many wanted to make sure that BIAs and Neighbourhood Associations generally were kept intact in single ridings, to simplify dealings with an MP or MPP (technically, the boundary commission shouldn’t be concerned with provincial issues, but Ontario has a peculiar law that makes Southern Ontario provincial ridings the same as federal ones, so their work has knock-on effects). Only one person made the very reasonable suggestion that the handful of University of Toronto student residences and buildings currently in Toronto Centre ought to be part of Trinity-Spadina with the rest of the University (odd that no one from the NDP said as much, given how important they all felt it was to keep the Annex since so many students and teachers live there). Concerns from Davenport (which, honestly, took up half the meeting) centered on making sure every person of Portuguese origin was kept in its boundaries.

Several people came from Toronto-Danforth and Beaches-East York to thank the commission for not altering their boundaries and to state that they had no suggestions for changes. How on earth do these people have the time  to spend a whole day at Metro Hall waiting to tell them nothing useful at all?

Toronto-Danforth MP Craig Scott did ask the commission to rejoin the Village into a single riding, noting it was important to him “as the only gay MP, sorry, the only out gay MP from Ontario.” Why, gee, Mr. Scott, to whom could you be referring?

Ok, this is a long post, so one final point. Our riding names need work. Ideally, a riding name should give both residents and outsiders a good idea of where it is geographically. It helps to avoid having to write sentences like “Olivia Chow, the MP for the downtown Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina…” In most Canadian cities, this is accomplished by incorporating the city name in the riding: Missisauga South, Calgary-Elbow, etc.

Even in Toronto, all the Etobicoke, Scarborough, Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan, and Markham ridings work like that. But not the core or North York ridings. North York’s ridings are particularly confounding, because they use “York” instead. York Centre is not in York Region or the old city of York (which is split among York South-Weston, Eglinton-Lawrence, Davenport, and Parkdale-High Park), it’s not even the central part of North York. So here are my proposed fixes:

Trinity-Spadina = Toronto-Spadina
St. Paul’s = Toronto-St. Paul’s
Davenport = Toronto-Davenport
Beaches-East York = Toronto-Beaches
Parkdale-High Park = Toronto-Parkdale or Toronto Southwest

Eglinton-Lawrence = North York-Lawrence or North York South
York South-Weston = North York-Weston or North York Southwest-York West (Ok, I’m taking the piss with that one)
York West = North York-Black Creek or North York West
York Centre = North York-Downsview
Willowdale = North York Centre or North York-Willowdale
Don Valley North = North York-Don Mills
Don Valley East = North York-Don Valley

Alternatively, since the North York/Toronto/York/East York boundaries are not maintained in these ridings, simply use “Toronto” for all of these ridings instead of “North York.” It’s probably more clear and accurate anyway (North York Centre = Toronto-North York Centre or Toronto-Willowdale).

It’s a small problem, but it would make my life fractionally easier.


2 thoughts on “Freelance — A Day at the Electoral Boundaries Commission

  1. I like the historic riding names. We are always so quick to ditch our historical references in this city.

    Second, the submissions of the Danforth residents were not useless. If everyone else is complaining, it can open everything else up, even boundaries that were not initially proposed for changes. Better to speak up now rather than waiting for modified proposals that are usually even harder to change.

    • My point is that the historic names could be clearer. There’s little difference between “Davenport” and “Toronto-Davenport”. York Centre, York West, York South-Weston are geographically inaccurate and therefore don’t really help with history either. Willowdale is only a small part of the Willowdale riding. More accurate naming may actually revive other aspects of a riding’s history, like “Black Creek” or “Downsview.” Trinity-Spadina may not include the Trinity neighbourhood after redistribution. An even better name might be “Toronto-University” or “Toronto-St. George.” Ultimately, I don’t think riding names make as good history lesson as they do a geography lesson.

      (At the other extreme is Quebec, where the ridings are frequently not named for places, but for people. That solves the dilemma of geographic accuracy by using something completely unrelated. I don’t think that’s helpful for obvious reasons.)

      You’re right that proposals might have knock-on effects to other ridings; T-Danforth may even have part of the waterfront stripped out to create a new Waterfront riding (which would actually make a good deal of sense, if the point is to put all the new development communities in the same place). I just find it hard to believe that in a city like Toronto, that any riding is so static that it couldn’t bear *any* changes to its boundaries.

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