READJUSTING THE BOUNDARIES
So far we have examined
how the number of seats in the House of Commons is determined and what method is
used to divide that number among the ten provinces and three territories. After
the numbers are established according to the constitutional formula, the second
part of the exercise begins, namely, dividing each province into electoral
districts, each of which is represented by a member elected to the House of
The whole exercise is most properly known as "readjustment of
electoral district boundaries," but is often referred to as "redistribution" and
sometimes, particularly in other countries, as "redistricting." While the
Constitution Act, 1867 specifies that a readjustment
must take place after each 10-year census, the rules for actually carrying out
this enormous task are laid down in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (E.B.R.A.) of 1964. The main elements of the
readjustment process will be outlined following this brief historical note.
Up to and including the boundary adjustment following the 1951
census, the House of Commons itself was responsible for fixing the boundaries of
electoral districts, through a committee appointed especially for that
Several authorities on the subject have documented
the history of the process up to the 1960s. In effect, there were
no rules to guide the exercise. In the words of Professor Norman
Ward (1967, p. 107), the process was a "freelance operation in which
any rational boundary drawing was likely to be the result of coincidence
or accident." Professor Terence Qualter (1970, pp. 99–100) identified
four informal "rules" which parliamentarians seemed to have followed
in those days, namely: if the number of seats had to be reduced
in a given area, 1) retain the incumbents’ districts; 2) eliminate
the districts of members who were not going to run again; 3) reduce
the seats of minority parties; and 4) if there was strong pressure
to increase representation in heavily populated areas, increase
the size of the House rather than reduce the representation in rural
The research done on this period reveals a considerable amount of
political influence on the readjustment process prior to the 1960s. This was
often referred to as "gerrymandering," a term used to describe the manipulation
of riding boundaries so as to ensure, as far as possible, the re-election of the
members of the governing party.
THE COMMISSIONS TAKE OVER
In the early 1960s, it was decided to assign the responsibility
for readjusting electoral district boundaries to commissions independent of
Parliament and parliamentarians, one for each province. Legislation to this
effect was passed in November 1964. In the interest of political neutrality,
each commission was to be chaired by a judge designated by the chief justice of
the province and there were to be three other members. One of these was the
Representation Commissioner, a public servant who was to sit on every
commission. Initially, the other two members were to be political appointees,
one each from the governing party and the official opposition party. However,
objections from the other opposition parties led to amendments of the
legislation, so that the Speaker of the House of Commons was made responsible
for making the two remaining appointments to each commission.
The post of Representation Commissioner was abolished in 1979 and
most of the duties were transferred to the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.
Now each province has a three-member boundaries commission, chaired by a judge and comprising two
other members appointed by the Speaker. As each of the three northern
territories constitute an electoral district, they do not require electoral
The goal of a readjustment process that is genuinely free of
partisan considerations is reinforced by a provision in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act,
which specifies that no sitting
member of the Senate or of a federal, provincial or territorial legislature can
be appointed to a commission. In practice, many commission members, aside from
the chairpersons, have been university professors or non-elected officials of
A judge chairs each boundaries commission.
The rules for readjusting the federal electoral boundaries were
laid down in 1964. Members of the House of Commons realized that, for the
process to be completely fair, it not only had to be free of political
domination but also had to provide opportunities for everyone to express their
views. Consequently, each commission publishes maps in the newspapers and
invites the public to public hearings, which are held at several different
locations chosen to encourage the participation of as many interested people as
Public hearings: a key step in the readjustment of electoral boundaries.
Members of the House of Commons are not by any means excluded from
this process of public involvement. Indeed, it is recognized that they will
invariably have strong views on both the names and boundaries of the proposed
electoral districts. Therefore, members of the House of Commons are not only allowed to appear before a
commission at the public hearings, but the legislation also provides the
opportunity for them to object to the proposals of any of the boundaries
commissions. This process occurs through a committee of the House of Commons
established for the purposes of dealing with electoral matters. The commissions
must consider objections, but are not obliged to make changes based on them.
In all cases, the final
decisions as to where the boundary lines will be placed rest with each
Boundary readjustment must take into consideration the community of interest,
historical pattern and geographic characteristics of each electoral district.
CRITERIA WHERE TO DRAW THE LINES?
After receiving maps and documentation on the relevant population
data from the most recent decennial census from the Chief Electoral Officer of
Canada, commissions have one year to make proposals, hold public hearings and
finalize their reports. Guidelines for this enormous task are found in the
Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, R.S. 1985, c. E-3, from
which it is evident that the readjustment exercise is not simply a mathematical
computation, but rather a delicate balancing act that must take into account
human interests as well as geographic characteristics. In the course of their
work, the commissions receive professional, financial, technical and
administrative assistance from the Chief Electoral Officer and the staff of
The commissions are charged with dividing the territory assigned
to them into a specified number of electoral districts, so that the population
of each one will correspond "as closely as is reasonably possible" to the predetermined average (or
"quotient"). In determining the electoral district boundaries, they must take
into consideration "the community of interest or community of identity in or the
historical pattern of an electoral district … and a manageable geographic size
for districts in sparsely populated, rural or northern regions …."
To accommodate these human and geographic factors, the commissions
are allowed to deviate from the average population figure when setting their
boundaries. While restricted in most cases to a tolerance of 25 percent either
way, a commission may exceed this limit "in circumstances viewed by the
commission as being extraordinary." Such circumstances are primarily prevalent
in northern and sparsely populated electoral districts.
THE PROCESS OF READJUSTMENT
While the work of the commissions is indeed a crucial part of the
readjustment exercise and may take up to one year or more to complete, in fact,
it is only one part of the exercise. The whole process takes two years or more,
from the time the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada receives the census data
from the Chief Statistician of Canada to the time at which the new boundaries
can be used at a general election.
The following chart identifies and explains the main stages in
readjusting federal electoral boundaries. The relevant sections of the
legislation are mentioned at each step.
ALLOCATION OF SEATS
E.B.R.A.,* sections 13 and 14
After each 10-year census, the Chief Statistician of Canada
provides the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada with population data for each
province broken down by electoral districts and census enumeration areas.
Using these figures and the formula in sections 51 and 51A of the
Constitution Act, 1867, the Chief Electoral Officer of
Canada calculates the number of seats to be allocated to each province and
publishes the results in the Canada Gazette.
ESTABLISHMENT OF COMMISSIONS
E.B.R.A., sections 3, 4, 5 and 6
The members of the boundaries commissions are selected and
appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the chief justice of each
Within 60 days from the time the Chief Statistician of Canada
supplies the population data to the government and to the Chief Electoral
Officer of Canada, the 10 electoral boundaries commissions must be established
and charged with determining the boundaries of new electoral districts.
The commissions are officially established by the Governor in
E.B.R.A., section 19
Each commission provides a redistribution plan. This is followed
by the publication of newspaper advertisements that contain maps of the proposed
electoral boundaries, as well as the time(s) and location(s) of public hearings,
at least 60 days before the first hearing is scheduled.
A commission must hold at least one public hearing before
completing its report.
Interested individuals, groups and members of the House of Commons
and senators may appear at the hearings to express their views on the
commission’s proposals, after notifying the commission in writing of their
intention to do so.
COMPLETION OF REPORTS
E.B.R.A., section 20
No later than one year after receiving the population data, each
commission must complete its report on the new electoral districts.
The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada may grant an extension of up
to six months when necessary.
PARTICIPATION BY MEMBERS OF
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
E.B.R.A., section 21 and subsections 22(1) and (2)
Each commission’s report is sent through the Chief Electoral
Officer of Canada to the Speaker of the House of Commons, who must ensure that
it is tabled and referred to a committee of the House of Commons designated to
deal with electoral matters.
Written objections, each signed by at least 10 members of the
House of Commons, may be filed with the committee within 30 days of the tabling
of a report.
The committee has 30 days, or a longer period if the House of
Commons is not sitting, to discuss any objections to a report and return it to
the Speaker of the House of Commons.
THE RESULTS OF REPORTS TO THE COMMISSIONS
E.B.R.A., subsection 22(3) and section 23
The reports are then returned to the commissions, accompanied by
the minutes of the House of Commons committee. The commissions then decide
whether to modify their reports.
E.B.R.A., sections 24 to 27
The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada drafts a document called a
"representation order" describing and naming the electoral districts established
by the commissions and sends the document to the Governor in Council
Within five days of receiving the draft representation order, the
Governor in Council must publicly announce the new boundaries in a proclamation
which must then be published in the Canada Gazette within
another five days from that date.
The new boundaries cannot be used at an election until at least
one year has passed between the date the representation order was proclaimed and
the date that Parliament is dissolved for a general election.
*Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, R.S. 1985, c. E-3.
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