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Electoral Insight – Readjustment of Federal Electoral Boundaries

Electoral Insight – October 2002

Community of Interest and Electoral Quota

Community of Interest and Electoral Quota

Professor Réjean Pelletier*
Department of Political Science
Université Laval, Quebec

* The author was a member of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Quebec in 1994.

If democracy is fundamentally based on the concept of the sovereignty of the people, it is implicit in our own representative democracy that people participate in the exercise of political authority by choosing those who will represent them. The choice is made through competitive elections based on certain rules, that is, an electoral process that is truly democratic. Universal suffrage, the nature of the electoral system and the division of the electoral map are constituent elements of that process. It is, therefore, important to carefully define who has the right to choose representatives, the procedures and the territorial framework for the choice. It follows that the determination of electoral boundaries is a process that is just as important as the definition of the electoral system.

Legal framework

The Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Quebec wrote in its report, published in 1994, that it had tried:

  • “to acknowledge the existence and personality of every major region of the province;
  • not to shift existing electoral boundaries without a valid reason;
  • to respect the sense of belonging and community of interest of the residents of a region or sub-region, as well as their commercial, industrial, residential, agricultural or other focal points;
  • where necessary, to ignore the purely mathematical aspects of demography, so that in the same region, there may be notable population differences that are both justified and desired by the persons concerned;
  • by establishing a reasonable ratio between the two factors of territory and population, to facilitate the work of members of Parliament, who are ultimately responsible for listening to their electors and for being accessible to them in all circumstances.” (Report, 1994: 52-53)

The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (E.B.R.A.) provides only general guidelines for updating the electoral map. It names three factors that must be taken into account: the electoral quota – the population must not vary by more than 25 percent from the median population for the electoral districts of the province; the community of interest; and the geographic area – an electoral district must not be too vast.

These criteria must be considered in association, giving each its due. The criterion of geographic area is infrequently applied, while the electoral quota and community of interest must always be considered. The latter two factors are of almost equal importance; however, the quota must be given the most weight, to prevent excessive distortions in electoral representation. This is an essential tool for ensuring parity in representation for the population of different electoral districts and the closest approximation to voting equality for citizens. In practice, however, perfect equality among districts is probably not desirable, because then other factors such as community of interest could not be considered. Parliament has, therefore, given commission members great latitude in authorizing a difference of 25 percent more or less than the electoral quota.

The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized the importance of community of interest, and the various elements that can be included under that heading. In a majority ruling on Reference re Provincial Electoral Boundaries (Saskatchewan), it found that the right to vote guaranteed in section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not equality of voting power per se, but the right to "effective representation". This right to vote, it adds, comprises many factors, of which equity is but one.

The Court explains further that "such relative parity as may be possible of achievement may prove undesirable because it has the effect of detracting from the primary goal of effective representation." It is important to note that the Court itself cites a number of factors that may be considered when deciding on electoral district boundaries: "Factors like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic," while adding that this does not constitute an exhaustive list.

Beyond these key guideposts established by the E.B.R.A. and the Supreme Court, what is meant by this notion of community of interest?

Community of interest

First of all, it should be kept in mind, as posited by John C. Courtney (2001: 207), that this concept suggests "a variety of possibly competing factors". The E.B.R.A. speaks of the community of interest or community of identity or the historical pattern of an electoral district, which can give rise to differing, often contradictory interpretations. Is the community of interest primarily economic, sociological, linguistic or cultural in nature? Is the community of identity geographic, demographic, or of some other type?

The Quebec Election Act lays down some more specific guidelines which may enlighten us: "An electoral division represents a natural community established on the basis of demographic, geographic and sociological considerations, such as the population density, the relative growth rate of the population, the accessibility, area and shape of the region, the natural local boundaries and the limits of local municipalities" (section 15). The federal commission members probably take implicit account of most of these criteria in their work, with the possible exception of the relative growth rate of the population.

The Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Quebec wrote in its report, published in 1994, that it had tried:

The very notion of community of interest raises a question that is fundamental to the work of boundaries commission members: do the people residing in an electoral district share common interests, which a representative might be called upon to defend, or do they experience common problems which a representative might be called upon to resolve? To answer this, we must look at a number of factors that imply the population of a given territory does share certain interests, problems and attributes.

In the case of Quebec, with which we are specifically concerned here, we must recognize a natural boundary that divides the territory in two, namely the St. Lawrence River. The communities of interest are generally defined on either side of the river. It should, therefore, be accepted as a rule that in no case should the boundaries of an electoral district cross this natural barrier, even in a region such as Trois-Rivières to the north and Bécancour to the south, where economic exchange and trade have become increasingly frequent since the construction of a bridge.

Another physical factor, the immensity of the land mass of Quebec, plays an important role. The north of the province is vast and sparsely populated. This situation is not peculiar to Quebec, but it is more accentuated there because the province extends further north than the other Canadian provinces. In particular, this vast northern territory raises the question of the common interests of the Aboriginal communities living there, and hence the problem of representation of those interests.

In 1994, in an interesting and well-documented brief, the Makivik Corporation, which is responsible for the defence and promotion of Inuit interests, called for the creation of an electoral district north of the 55th parallel that consisted, at the time, of 7 693 people. The Commission's initial project was to divide the Inuit territory into two districts, Manicouagan and Abitibi. Since it was impossible to create the requested district, the Commission, with the consent of the Inuit representatives, decided to include all the Inuit in one electoral district, that of Abitibi. This district is the largest of all the provincial electoral districts in Canada (the territories excepted); it also includes many Cree villages. As for the district of Manicouagan, it constitutes the only case in Quebec where the "extraordinary circumstances" clause is applied: the Commission went below the lower population limit permitted by the Act.

Of course, it is not easy for the MP to provide services and ensure full representation of districts that are immense in size. We should remember what Munroe Eagles had to say on this subject. Recognizing that "the boundary determination process itself is a blunt and unimaginative instrument for addressing servicing concerns," he added: "A more direct means of redressing the issue would be to provide members from remote or sparsely populated regions with greater allowances for additional staff, and telecommunications facilities to deliver satisfactory levels of representation and service." (Eagles, 1991: 180)

Beyond these factors, which partake of physical geography but appeal to the notion of community of interest as well, it is also important to consider the sense of belonging to a particular municipality, where ties among citizens are established or, in the big cities, belonging to a particular neighbourhood, where relationships are built among those living in close association. To this we can add consideration of the economic interests uniting the people of a region, such as the ties between a city that serves as the economic hub of a region (e.g. Rimouski, Joliette, Drummondville, etc.) and its hinterland, or the economic links that have developed in a region such as the Beauce.

In 1994, the Federal Commission for Quebec tried to harness this dual reality – membership in a particular municipality and common economic interests – by taking into account the regional county municipality (MRC) structure that is peculiar to Quebec. Outside the large urban communities of Montreal, Quebec City and the Outaouais, which are home to just over a third of the population of Quebec, all the rest of the province's territory (except for the most northerly part) is divided into 96 MRCs. Each MRC constitutes a supramunicipal unit encompassing a number of municipalities that normally have certain affinities, particularly of an economic nature; the MRCs deal with land use planning, economic development and pooling of municipal services. To the extent possible, the Commission strove to preserve the boundaries of the MRCs and incorporate them as a block in a given electoral district, thereby protecting their economic interests. In certain regions, such as the Eastern Townships, it was not always possible to do so.

For Quebec, as for the other provinces, the depopulation of the rural areas and outlying regions to the benefit of the cities and central regions raises another issue. This has been an acute problem in the Gaspé and in eastern Quebec generally. It should be a bigger issue this year in the region of Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean. It was clear from the outset in 1994 that the three existing electoral districts in the Gaspé could not be maintained, since each would have been far removed from the electoral quota of 91 946 inhabitants, and even well below the maximum difference of 25 percent allowed by the Act. It seemed impossible to justify any attempt to maintain the status quo and create three exceptions, since this would have penalized the more populous electoral districts of Montérégie south of Montreal and the Laurentians to the north. Moreover, what the region lost (an electoral district) could not be regained in the adjacent region, namely the Lower St. Lawrence, itself in demographic decline.

And subsequently, there remained the creation of new electoral boundaries for the Gaspé Peninsula. Initially, the Commission proposed to redraw the electoral map along the east-west axis. This proposal was debated from Percé to Rimouski. Those attending the hearings indicated that they favoured a north-south redistribution, which they felt would better respect the communities of interest and the territorial integrity of the peninsula's MRCs. The final report took these observations into account.

The rapid development of the suburbs and the emptying of city centres raise a similar problem. In this vein, the Commission proposed in 1994 to abolish one electoral district on the island of Montreal and to create two new ones in the greater metropolitan area, one to the south in Montérégie and the other to the north in the Laurentians. This proposal led to substantial changes in the Montreal island and metropolitan area districts. But in this case, unlike the Gaspé case, the proposal to transfer a district to the suburbs caused less controversy because the city centre's loss was the suburbs' gain.

Finally, two other points are worthy of mention. The first concerns the presence of common social characteristics in a given area, such as the sharing of a minority language or membership in a cultural community. These are social factors that can create a genuine community of interest. Should we then favour the cultural community or linguistic group, and guarantee it an electoral district where it would be in the majority, even if it means introducing a form of "gerrymandering" aimed at social advancement or affirmative action? This second assumption should be rejected; however, we should be sensitive to the first part, on the condition that the linguistic minority or ethnic group in question is sufficiently large and concentrated in a specific area. In this way, the electoral districts in western Montreal can more easily be majority Anglophone than the immense district of Gaspé, and the districts in the centre of Montreal can have, if not a majority, at least a substantial minority of people who belong to an ethnic group. In both cases, as much account as possible must be taken of these situations in dividing up the electoral map.

Finally, the community of interest can be the result of a previous division of electoral districts. Citizens do not appreciate regular changes of districts, and their representatives normally prefer the existing boundaries of their districts (unless the proposed change is more favourable to them...). This was pointed out by Alan Stewart (1991: 151-153) when he wrote: "Existing boundaries are relevant, not only because they were designed according to a previous commission's finding that they reflected community of interest, but because the enactment of a particular set of boundaries creates a community of interest among those who participate in politics at any level (including voting) in that jurisdiction." The parties are organized on the basis of the electoral districts; and the same applies to a number of associations intent on influencing the political life of their community, thereby contributing to the development of common interests.

Conclusion

As long as the current system is in place, that is, a system based on the election of a member of Parliament by simple majority in an electoral district, the territorial framework will always be a fundamental element. Within the territory to be divided, it is important to take into account the sociodemographic and economic factors that define a community of interest.

But that community of interest cannot ignore the electoral quota defined by the Act, even though that quota may be exceeded within reasonable limits (25 percent more or less), keeping in mind that the "extraordinary circumstances" clause must be used sparingly. Thus delimited, a community of interest can be neither too extendable nor too small.

The disappearance of an electoral district, especially in regions other than the big cities, will always raise a great many objections: its opponents usually feel that the commission members have confined themselves to demographic criteria only, without considering the other principles set out in the Act. In support of their demands, they argue the notion of community of interest, a notion that can embrace just about anything, from the advantages of the old district to the idea of natural boundaries, not to mention rural or urban character, ties among municipalities, neighbourhood life in the city, economic interests, or linguistic or ethnic character.

Obviously, the often contradictory proposals of stakeholders in any region complicate the work of the commission members, sometimes preventing them from making far-reaching changes. To this, we can add the fear of a domino effect from one electoral district to another. It is for this reason that changes are often minor, and usually concern municipalities on the outskirts of an electoral district.

We can conclude that it is the primary responsibility of commission members to strive to comply with the demographic criterion set out in the Act, though without neglecting communities of interest, and to thereby ensure, to the extent possible, that citizens are equal when the time comes to vote.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Canada (1985). Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, R.S.C. (1985) chapter E-3, as amended by R.S.C. (1985), chapter 6 (2nd supplement) and others (1985-2000).

Canada (1994). Report of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for the Province of Quebec. Minister of Supply and Services Canada.

Courtney, John C. (2001). Commissioned Ridings: Designing Canada's Electoral Districts. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Eagles, Munroe (1991). "Enhancing Relative Vote Equality in Canada: The Role of Electors in Boundary Adjustment," in David Small (ed.), Drawing the Map: Equality and Efficacy of the Vote in Canadian Electoral Boundary Reform. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, pp. 175-220.

Quebec (1989). Election Act (1989). R.S.Q., chapter E-3.3 and amendments (1990-2001).

Stewart, Alan (1991). "Community of Interest in Redistricting," in David Small (ed.), Drawing the Map: Equality and Efficacy of the Vote in Canadian Electoral Boundary Reform. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, pp. 117-174.

Supreme Court of Canada (1991). Reference re Provincial Electoral Boundaries (Sask.), [1991] 2 S.C.R. 158.


Note: 

The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.