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Electoral Insight - Reform of Election Financing: Canada, Great Britain and the United States

Electoral Insight – May 2002

Readjustment of Federal Electoral Boundaries

Readjustment of Federal Electoral Boundaries

Herschell Sax
Assistant Director, Parliamentary Representation, Elections Canada

The process of readjusting federal electoral district boundaries to reflect changes and movements in Canada's population has begun. The readjustment (often referred to as "redistribution" and sometimes, particularly in other countries, as "redistricting") takes place, in accordance with the Constitution Act, 1867, after each 10-year census. This time, the process began when the Chief Electoral Officer received the 2001 census return from the Chief Statistician of Canada on March 12, 2002. The rules for carrying out this complex project are laid down in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (E.B.R.A.), R.S.C. 1985, c. E-3, as amended.

To remove the process from any political interference, completely independent commissions carry out the task of readjusting electoral boundaries. Under the provisions of the E.B.R.A., Elections Canada provides a variety of professional, technical, administrative and financial services to the commissions. Each province has its own three-member boundaries commission, consisting of a judge designated by the Chief Justice of the province to head the commission, and two other members appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. As the Yukon, Northwest and Nunavut territories each constitute one electoral district, they do not require electoral boundaries commissions.

After a series of public hearings and not later than one year after the receipt of the certified return of the Chief Statistician, each commission issues a report outlining whatever boundary changes it considers necessary. Once objections from members of Parliament (channelled through a parliamentary committee) have been dealt with by the commissions, the Chief Electoral Officer transmits a draft representation order, based on the commission recommendations, to the Minister designated for the purposes of the E.B.R.A. The draft representation order stipulates the number of members of the House of Commons for each province and divides each province into electoral districts. It also describes the boundaries of each district and specifies its population and name. Furthermore, it is important to note that the district boundaries used for federal elections in Ontario are also adopted for use in provincial elections in Ontario.

The projected schedule for the next redistribution indicates that a new representation order could be proclaimed as early as 2003. The representation order will come into force with the first dissolution of Parliament to occur at least one year after that proclamation. Therefore, any federal general election called more than one year after the proclamation would be conducted using the boundaries and electoral district names in the new representation order. The time frame is dependent upon when the commissions complete their work and when the appropriate committee of the House of Commons completes its disposition of any objections raised.

The Process of Readjustment

The following explains the main stages in the readjustment of federal electoral boundaries. The relevant sections of the E.B.R.A. are mentioned at each step.

1. Allocation of Seats – E.B.R.A., Sections 13 and 14

The redistribution process begins after each 10-year census, when the Chief Statistician of Canada sends the certified census return to the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada and the Minister designated for the purposes of the E.B.R.A. The return gives population data for each province, broken down by electoral districts and enumeration areas. Using the census information and the formula in sections 51 and 51A of the Constitution Act, 1867, the Chief Electoral Officer calculates the number of seats to be allocated to each province and publishes the results in the Canada Gazette.

2. Establishment of Commission – E.B.R.A., Sections 3-6, 13, 15 and 20

Within 60 days from the time that the Chief Statistician of Canada supplies the population data to the Government and to the Chief Electoral Officer, the 10 electoral boundaries commissions must be established and charged with fixing the boundaries of new electoral districts.

The chairs of the boundaries commissions for each province are selected by the Chief Justice of each province and the other two members are chosen and appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The commissions are officially established by the Governor in Council (Cabinet).

After receiving maps and documentation on the relevant population data from the most recent decennial census from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, the commissions have one year to make proposals, hold public hearings and finalize their reports. From the guidelines in the E.B.R.A., 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.

The commissions are charged with dividing the province assigned to them into a specified number of electoral districts. The population of each electoral district is to correspond "as close[ly] as [is] reasonably possible" (s.15 E.B.R.A) to a predetermined average or quotient obtained by dividing the total population of the province by the number of electoral districts to be created in that province, as calculated by the Chief Electoral Officer at the beginning of the process. But, in fixing 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 generally restricted to a tolerance of 25 percent either way, a commission may exceed this limit "in circumstances viewed by the commission as being extraordinary."

3. Public Participation – E.B.R.A., Section 19

Canadians are represented in the House of Commons on a geographic basis. An elector's vote is tied to his or her place of residence in an electoral district
Canadians are represented in the House of Commons on a geographic basis.
An elector's vote is tied to his or her place of residence in an electoral district.

When they first laid down the rules for readjusting federal electoral boundaries in 1964, members of Parliament realized that, for the process to be completely fair, it not only had to be free of any political association but it also had to provide an opportunity for people to express their views. Consequently, each commission invites interested individuals, groups and members of Parliament to express their views on its proposals (including the names of the electoral districts), after notifying the commission in writing of their intention to do so. Public hearings are held at several different locations chosen to encourage the participation of as many interested people as possible. Previously, "of the arguments presented in submissions and at public hearings calling for changes in commission proposals, 50 percent were based on community of interest, 18 percent on historic grounds, and 1215 percent on the basis of geography." Footnote 1

Newspaper advertisements, showing maps of the electoral boundaries proposed by the commissions, as well as the times and locations of public hearings, are published at least 60 days before the first hearing is scheduled.

A commission must hold at least one public hearing before completing its report.

It is recognized that members of Parliament will invariably have strong views on both the names and boundaries of the proposed electoral districts. Therefore, not only are members of Parliament allowed to appear before a commission at the public hearings, but the legislation also provides an additional opportunity for them to object to the proposals of any of the boundaries commissions when the reports are tabled in the House of Commons (s. 22, 23 E.B.R.A.).

4. 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.

5. Participation by MPs – E.B.R.A., Section 21 and Subsections 22(1), (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 the committee 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 sitting days to discuss any objections to a report and return it to the Speaker of the House of Commons.

6. Results of Parliamentary Review Sent 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. They must consider any objections, but are not obliged to make any changes as a result. In all cases, the final decisions as to where the boundary lines will be fixed rest with each commission.

7. New Representation Order – 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 designated Minister.

Within five days after the receipt by the Minister of the draft representation order, the Governor in Council shall publicly announce the new boundaries in a proclamation. The representation order and the proclamation declaring it to be in force shall be published in the Canada Gazette within five days from the issue of the proclamation.

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.

Current Representation Order

Table 1 - Present Number of Federal Electoral Districts per Province and Territory
British Columbia 34
Alberta 26
Saskatchewan 14
Manitoba 14
Ontario 103
Quebec 75
New Brunswick 10
Nova Scotia 11
Prince Edward Island 4
Newfoundland and Labrador 7
Yukon Territory 1
Northwest Territories 1
Nunavut 1
Total 301

The current representation order was proclaimed on January 8, 1996, and took effect at the dissolution of Parliament on April 27, 1997, for the 36th general election. It increased the number of seats in the House of Commons from 295 to 301, with four additional seats for Ontario and two additional seats for British Columbia, largely due to population growth in those provinces. The upcoming redistribution will add seven more seats, including three in Ontario, two in Alberta and two in British Columbia.

Additional information on the readjustment process can be found on Elections Canada's Web site (


Footnote 1 John C. Courtney, Commissioned Ridings, Designing Canada's Electoral Districts, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001, p. 208.


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