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Electoral Insight – Readjustment of Federal Electoral Boundaries

Electoral Insight – October 2002

Community of Interest in Electoral Boundary Readjustments

Community of Interest in Electoral Boundary Readjustments

Professor John C. Courtney
Department of Political Studies
University of Saskatchewan

Politicians, boundary commissioners, and members of the general public with an interest in electoral districts speak freely of "community of interest." Yet the term itself raises several important questions. These range from "what is community of interest?" and "how is it justified?" to "how complex is it to apply?" and "is there clear agreement on what it means?"

What is Community of Interest and How is it Justified?

Community of interest is one of the fundamental principles of the electoral boundary readjustment process because:

  • strict population equality may well mean the splintering of otherwise natural communities of interest into various parts;
  • citizens naturally identify with communities of interest;
  • electors who identify with a community of interest within their riding are more likely to vote;
  • municipal and other local government districts form identifiable building blocks for the construction of larger electoral districts.

"Community of interest" lends itself to multiple interpretations and applications. It serves as a counterweight to unbridled application of the principle of population equality of electoral districts and as one of the least clearly defined and most subjective criteria for drawing electoral district boundaries. It is not always easy to apply or to respect. For some, it has opened up the possibility of creating seats with "minority representation" as the principal objective of periodic redistributions. For others, particularly those who a decade ago sought to increase the number of First Nations representatives in Parliament, "community of interest" served to justify the creation of Aboriginal electoral districts that would be separately constructed and whose members would be elected separately from Canada's other parliamentary seats. For members of Parliament, community of interest has become a concept far more closely tied to place than to people.

Community of interest is based on the recognition and acceptance of the idea that a geographically concentrated group shares a certain attribute in common. That attribute might be defined according to location, as with a neighborhood or a set of municipal boundaries; as the product of a common pursuit, such as an economic interest; or as the presence of a common trait, such as a social, racial, religious, or linguistic characteristic. Drawing constituency boundaries according to a district's communit(ies) of interest is seen as a way of ensuring communication between citizens and their representative and of enhancing the representational process generally.

If the interest were judged to be sufficiently paramount or, alternatively, if dividing it among two or more constituencies would in some sense harm the interests of that community, then, so the theory goes, it could justifiably be kept intact and made part of a particular riding. In that case, community of interest could be said to have trumped the principle of population equality of the districts.

Four reasons can be offered to account for the importance attached to community of interest. The first, in a sense, is a negative reason. If community of interest were not taken into account, and if electoral districts were constructed solely on the basis of equal populations, the results could be both absurd in their territorial design and unfair to individuals, groups, and communities whose "interests" might be divided among two or more districts.

Second, large numbers of people identify with geographically defined communities of some sort. The communities might result from personal or family attachments to a local church, synagogue or mosque. They might stem from membership in a fraternal organization, a club, a local curling rink, a community hall, or a sport team. Based as it is on the principle that neighbourhoods are valuable to maintaining a civic society, the concept of community of interest captures a citizen's identification with a "place" where individuals who live in the same vicinity share a similar interest. Out of that geographic concentration comes a sense of "belonging" and of sharing an identity with others. It is natural to want to extend that sense of being part of a community to try to ensure that the community remains intact when the larger electoral district is constructed.

In some cases, the community is "natural," as with members of an ethnic group whose settlement pattern has led them to live in close proximity to one another. In other cases, as with the lines drawn to create Canada's three prairie provinces, the communities that have resulted from the location of those lines have been the products of a completely arbitrary act of the state.

Third, community of interest can enhance citizen involvement in politics. It has been demonstrated that voter turnout increases when boundary readjustments leave voters in ridings with which they share a strong community of interest. Turnout is negatively affected when boundaries are drawn in such a way as to place voters in ridings where they have less in common.

Fourth, parliamentary electoral districts are frequently constructed to accord with local district boundaries. This makes a good deal of sense, for the local district itself constitutes a perceptible and understandable community of interest for the majority of its residents. City, municipal, or county boundaries may never change in the lifetime of the residents, whereas electoral district boundaries may be altered every decade or so. It is far easier for an individual to identify with the former than with the latter. When the larger electoral district is created without dividing or violating the boundaries of smaller pre-existing ones, the sense of community identification with the larger district is enhanced.

The local districts may be counties, as in Ontario and Nova Scotia, rural or urban municipalities and townships, as in parts of the prairies, or county regional municipalities, as in Quebec. They may be school districts, hospital or health regions. These are known to the residents of the area, who have their most immediate and frequent contacts with government at the local level. They can relate to the city or town hall, the county court house, the local hospital, or the nearest school. That is part of their "community."

Failing to take full measure of the relevance of local districts is a risk that boundary readjustment commissions try to avoid, which explains why commissioners repeatedly stress the critical importance of using local "building-blocks" in constructing their boundaries.Footnote 1 Voters are also mindful of the value of using existing district lines. One study found that the second and third most frequently mentioned of 31 factors referred to in public hearings on boundary readjustments (cited in about one quarter of all responses) were the importance of adhering to "county and regional boundaries" and the need to respect "local municipality or ward boundaries" in constructing electoral districts. The single most frequently mentioned factor in public hearings on boundary readjustments (cited in nearly 31 percent of all submissions or testimony to commissions) was the importance of preserving the existing electoral boundaries.Footnote 2

To recapitulate, community of interest is one of the fundamental principles of the electoral boundary readjustment process because:

  • strict population equality may well mean the splintering of otherwise natural communities of interest into various parts;
  • citizens naturally identify with communities of interest;
  • electors who identify with a community of interest within their riding are more likely to vote;
  • municipal and other local government districts form identifiable building blocks for the construction of larger electoral districts.

Community of Interest: A Blank Cheque?

Defining a single or dominant community of interest remains problematic in many areas of the country. This is particularly the case in the inner core of large cities where populations are highly mobile; socially, linguistically, and ethnically diverse; and distinguished by their range of occupations, lifestyles, and ages. Such urban districts have a less easily defined community of interest than rural ones with markedly less mobile and diverse populations. Where a significant portion of the population of a small town or a farming community is relatively homogenous in social and demographic terms and draws its livelihood from one or two local industries, a more obvious and readily agreed-upon community of interest can be identified than in the core of a large metropolitan area.

Independently of one another, the chairs of two federal commissions of the 1990s compared the concept of community of interest to "a blank cheque." The Quebec chair elaborated on his description: "You can write anything that you want on it and take it to the bank. But that's no guarantee that it will be cashed." The bankers, in this case electoral boundary commissioners, are presented with a variety of often competing cheques about communities of interest. It is up to them to determine if there is sufficient reason for cashing them. The principal difficulty that commissioners have in determining the value of those cheques stems from the absence of objective standards by which to judge a community's interest(s). As a result, the matter is reduced largely to making an informed, subjective judgement.

Sometimes what is claimed to be a "community of interest" is, in fact, nothing more than barely disguised political self-interest on the part of a politician, or a highly parochial understanding of the concept on the part of interested members of the public. MPs, for example, are particularly loath to give up their districts. "Community of interest" offers them a convenient way of mounting a case against changing the district boundaries. Local constituency associations and campaign teams have been established in existing ridings. Moreover, having won their seats, MPs object to their borders being changed or to being forced by redistribution to square off in an intra-party nomination fight against another sitting member from a previously adjacent district. As a result, members may invoke the concept of community of interest as grounds for objecting to new ridings, when what is really at issue is a proposal to create a district they find politically unattractive.

Does the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act Help?

The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (E.B.R.A.) does not make matters easy for commissioners. The Act provides no definition of community of interest, nor does it provide any guidelines on how to assess competing claims about community of interest. It simply states that a commission "shall consider . . . the community of interest or community of identity in or the historical pattern of an electoral district" in constructing the ridings. [E.B.R.A. s.15(1)(b)(i)]. This is not much help. If anything, the reference to "the historical pattern" of a district may actually confuse the issue. Does it mean voting pattern? mobility pattern? demographic pattern? some other pattern? And how far back in a district's history is a commission expected to go?

The E.B.R.A. turns commissions into high-wire balancing acts. Commissioners are required to construct districts "as close as reasonably possible" to the population quota, yet they are permitted to depart from that principle when an area's "community of interest," "community of identity," or "geographic size" are deemed to be sufficiently compelling. They are even allowed in extraordinary circumstances to go beyond the maximum +/- 25 percent population variances.

One way of understanding how commissions have responded to the rules set out in the law is to examine how much weight they have attached to the Act's requirement that electoral districts should be constructed with populations "as close as reasonably possible." The evidence suggests they have taken that rule seriously, possibly even at the risk of offending the principle of community of interest. From the establishment of the first federal commissions in the 1960s through to the most recent redistribution, commissioners have responded to the high-wire balancing challenge by constructing an increasingly greater share of the districts near their province's average per district population size. Of the 298 non-territorial ridings created in the 1994 redistribution, fully three quarters (74.8%) had populations within 10 percentage points of their province's average population size. That compares with slightly less than one half (48.0%) of the 262 seats created in the 1960s at the time of the first federal independent redistribution.

If politicians from rural and relatively isolated parts of the country and the public had their way, the reverse would be the case. With particular and local interests to advocate, rather than general and province-wide interests to balance, politicians who object to the riding proposals of commissions, and citizens who believe their local interests have been badly served by the commissions, see the purpose of the boundary readjustment process differently from commissions. This tension between local and parochial interests on the one hand and province-wide interests on the other was captured in the report of one federal commission. The 1983 commission for Ontario concluded that "almost invariably those making representations were preoccupied with their local communities of interest and quite unconcerned with the electoral quota.... Perhaps this is as it should be. All the more reason why the commission itself must be responsible for overseeing the process and for maintaining the principle of 'representation by population' within the province."Footnote 3 That observation was confirmed by a study that analyzed the 470 representations to Ontario's federal and provincial boundaries commissions in the 1980s. It found that almost three quarters (74.2%) of proposals from the public and politicians would have resulted in greater population inequality among electoral districts. At the other extreme, only two percent of the 470 proposals explicitly recommended that population equality be given more weight in constructing ridings.Footnote 4

The Community of Interest Debate of the 1990s

Mindful of the difficulties surrounding the concept, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (the Lortie commission) concluded a decade ago that community of interest can only be interpreted on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, it recommended that commissions be empowered to consider communities of interest and that they "justify their boundary proposals with reference to community of interest objectives." This could be accomplished if commissions were directed by the E.B.R.A. to consider electoral districts as representing communities established "on the basis of demographic, sociological and geographic considerations" and if commissions took into account "the accessibility, area and shape of a region, its natural local boundaries and ecology, and the boundaries of local government and administrative units, as well as treaty areas." It favoured the idea that commissions should examine sociological and demographic profiles of constituencies because minority groups stood to "maximize their electoral influence" whenever their "community of interest is respected in drawing constituency boundaries."Footnote 5

After considerable debate, MPs settled on a different version of community of interest when, in the mid-1990s, they attempted to overhaul the E.B.R.A. with Bill C-69. Although the House of Commons approved the bill in 1994, it died on the Order Paper a year later, after it failed to receive Senate approval. C-69's provision regarding community of interest was a good deal more explicit than the terms of the existing E.B.R.A. It contained references to municipal and natural boundaries, Indian reserves, and access to means of communication and transport. It included "existing or traditional boundaries of electoral districts" and "the economy" as factors making up a community of interest, but it made no mention of either sociological or demographic factors as part of the definition. MPs opposed Lortie's recommendation to use electoral redistricting to enhance the representation of minority groups. They feared that "ghettos" or "ethnic enclaves" would be created and that the implementation of a provision adding a reference to Canada's plural society would lead to a form of "segregation."

A major concern of the MPs was to make certain that the "spatial characteristics of the single-member plurality system" were included in the guidelines that formed a part of the legislation. They did this by ensuring that the definition of community of interest contained in C-69 was primarily territorially-driven. In addition to its provision relating to community of interest, C-69 would also have obliged commissions to consider in determining electoral boundaries both "manageable geographic size" and the "probability of . . . substantial future population growth" in an electoral district. Only when those three factors were considered by a boundary readjustment commission to be "sufficiently significant" to warrant changes to the existing electoral district boundaries were ridings to be altered. The MPs had constructed a provision of the ultimately unsuccessful bill that accepted the continuing importance of "community" and "territory." It also acknowledged the Members' unease with having to regroup their political forces and resources into newly defined districts every ten years or so.Footnote 6


Nearly a decade ago, MPs wrestled with competing notions of community of interest and settled on one in C-69 that focussed on economic and territorial factors. Sociological and demographic considerations were eschewed, even though the Lortie commission had championed them. The debate among parliamentarians and provincial legislators over what was appropriate to include in a definition of community of interest revealed a profound difficulty with the concept. Community of interest lacks precision and clarity and is open to various, sometimes competing, notions of what it should include. The sense of "place" that characterized the approach that MPs took to community of interest distinguished it from other approaches that stressed the human side of electoral districts. To boundary commissioners, on the other hand, the open-endedness of community of interest means that they are dealing with something much more difficult to explain on anything other than a case-by-case basis. One would be surprised if that were not also the case with the decennial federal redistribution that got underway early in 2002.


Footnote 1 Commissioned Ridings: Designing Canada's Electoral Boundaries (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2001), chap. 10.

Footnote 2 Alan Stewart, "Community of Interest in Redistricting," in David Small (ed.), Drawing the Map: Equality and Efficacy in Canadian Electoral Boundary Reform (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991), pp. 151-54. (N=1760).

Footnote 3 Canada, Report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission for the Province of Ontario (Ottawa, 1983), 8.

Footnote 4 Stewart, "Community of Interest in Redistricting," p. 141.

Footnote 5 Canada. Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Reforming Electoral Democracy: Final Report (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1991), I, pp. 150 and 157-158.

Footnote 6 For more details of the parliamentary debate see Commissioned Ridings, chap. 10.


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