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Enhancing the Values of Redistribution


Purpose and Structure of Report

Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives every Canadian citizen the right to vote in federal and provincial elections and the right to stand for election to the House of Commons and legislatures of the provinces. The creation of electoral districts is an essential part of the constitutional guarantee of the democratic rights of Canadians in section 3 of the Charter because districts are the basic mechanism through which the votes of Canadians are translated into representation in the House of Commons.

Boundaries are to be drawn in a way that will give electors a voice in the deliberations of government and the ability to bring their views, desires, grievances and concerns to the attention of their elected representatives.

Because the goal of the process is to reflect the reality of an evolving Canadian society, it must also be completed in a timely way to ensure that it is not overtaken by the very evolution it is intended to recognize.

Furthermore, because perception is an important factor in democracy the process must be understandable to the citizenry it aims to serve.

Ultimately, what is required is a process that achieves effective representation within a reasonable time period, and enhances the confidence of the public in its integrity.

Before 1964, the task of drawing electoral districts fell exclusively to parliamentarians. However, parliamentarians are perceived to have a distinct interest in the design of electoral districts, and concerns about this perception led Parliament to pass the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (referred to in this report as "the Act"), which placed responsibility for the design of electoral districts in the hands of independent commissions appointed for each of the provinces.

These commissions removed from Parliament the time-consuming and highly contentious exercise of drawing electoral boundaries. This was intended to reinforce Canadians' confidence in the integrity of Canada's democracy. Although each redistribution exercise since then has faced its own challenges, on the whole the legislation and the processes established by it are a public policy success that is envied around the world.

The Act has been subject to minor amendments several times since it was implemented. Over the last 15 years, there have also been three major sets of proposals to reform the Act. Both the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (the Lortie Commission) that reported in 1991, and Bill C-69, which was passed by the House of Commons, but subsequently died on the order paper with the call of the 1997 general election, proposed comprehensive changes to the Act. Most recently, in its report to Parliament on April 2, 2004,1 the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (referred to in this report as the "Standing Committee"), drawing from its experience of the most recent redistribution, made further proposals to amend the law.

It is important to note that all three proposals have agreed on the fundamental values of redistribution in Canada. The independence of commissions is seen as key, public participation as highly valuable, and all agree that the goal of redistribution is to provide effective representation to Canadians.

This report is intended to contribute to the discussion from the point of view of Elections Canada, which is the permanent agency most involved in the redistribution process. It is hoped that the insight Elections Canada has gained through working with the commissions and implementing the fruits of their labour will be one that is of assistance to Parliament in considering possible changes to the Act.

The starting point of this report, like others that have considered the federal redistribution process, is that redistribution in Canada has been a resounding success and has met with universal acclaim. Therefore, the goal of amending the Act must be to enforce and strengthen the elements of the legislation that have made it such a success.

The report is divided into five groups of recommendations. The first section considers ways in which the timely conclusion of redistribution can be ensured. The second section proposes amendments that will enhance the effective representation of Canadians. The third section proposes ways to improve the amount and quality of public input in the redistribution process. The fourth section proposes support mechanisms for the redistribution process to assist commissions in completing their work. The final section contains recommendations to standardize the methods by which a commission's decisions can be challenged and reviewed.

The Process of Redistribution

Redistribution is scheduled to take place after each decennial census. Following that census, the Chief Statistician of Canada is required to prepare a census return showing the population of Canada and each of its provinces, as well as the population by electoral district and by enumeration area as ascertained by the census (s. 13 of the Act). The Chief Statistician sends this return as soon as possible to the Chief Electoral Officer and the Minister who has been designated by the Governor in Council for the purposes of the Act. 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 (s. 14 of the Act). During the most recent redistribution, the period between the completion of the census and the receipt of the census return was 10 months.

The Minister is required to establish an electoral boundaries commission for each of the provinces within 60 days of receiving the census return (s. 3 of the Act). The commissions are composed of three members. The chief justice of the province appoints a justice of his or her court to be the chairperson of the commission, or, if no such justice is available, a person resident in that province is appointed by the Chief Justice of Canada to be chairperson (s. 5 of the Act). The Speaker of the House of Commons appoints the other two members of each commission (s. 6 of the Act).

The commission's task is to divide the population into electoral districts that meet the criteria set out in section 15 of the Act. The first step a commission must undertake is to divide the population of the province as set out in the census return by the number of seats allocated to that province. The resulting number is referred to as the "provincial quotient" or "electoral quota for the province." For example, Alberta's population of 2,974,807 was divided by the 28 seats provided to Alberta by the Constitution Act, 1867. This resulted in a provincial quotient for Alberta of 106,243.

The commission then sets about drawing boundaries so that "the population of each electoral district in the province ... shall, as close as reasonably possible, correspond to the electoral quota for the province". In drawing the boundaries, the commission is to consider "the community of interest or community of identity in or the historical pattern of an electoral district in the province and a manageable geographic size for districts in sparsely populated, rural or northern regions of the province".

The commission may depart from the rule that districts be as close as reasonably possible to the provincial quotient where "the commission considers it necessary or desirable" in order to "respect the community of interest or community of identity in or the historical pattern of an electoral district in the province" or to "maintain a manageable geographic size for districts in sparsely populated, rural or northern regions of the province". Where the commission decides to depart from the rule of equal population, it "shall make every effort to ensure that" the population of all districts in the province stay within 25% of the provincial quotient. However, in "circumstances viewed by the commission as being extraordinary," it may create districts that deviate by more than 25% from the provincial quotient.

The commission produces an initial proposal for dividing the province into the number of electoral districts calculated by the Chief Electoral Officer in accordance with the census return. The commission publishes its proposals, along with the times and places of its scheduled public hearings, in the Canada Gazette and at least one newspaper of general circulation in the province at least 60 days before the commencement of those hearings. The advertisement in the newspaper is required to include a map of the proposed boundaries, the proposed names and the population of the proposed districts (s. 19 of the Act). Following the publication of this advertisement, the commission holds public hearings.

The commission must complete its report within one year of the initial receipt by the chairman from the Chief Electoral Officer of the census return (s. 20 of the Act). Once complete, the commission's report is referred to the Speaker of the House who causes it to be laid before the House of Commons and referred to such committee of the House as is established for the purposes of dealing with electoral matters (at present the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs) (s. 21 of the Act).

Members of the House of Commons have the opportunity to raise objections to the commission's report. If, within a period of 30 days of the report being referred to the committee, 10 members sign an objection in writing, the objection will be considered by the committee within the following 30 sitting days (s. 22 of the Act). After the committee has considered any objections, the report is referred back to the commission along with copies of any objections and minutes of the committee's proceedings and evidence. The commission disposes of any objections within 30 days of having the report referred back (s. 23 of the Act).

Once all commissions have disposed of any objections to their reports, the reports are combined into a draft representation order by the Chief Electoral Officer, which is then sent to the Minister. The draft representation order sets out the number of members representing each province, the description of the boundaries, and the populations and names of the electoral districts (s. 24 of the Act). The draft representation order is brought into force by proclamation of the Governor in Council within five days of its being sent to the Minister. The representation order becomes effective on the first dissolution of Parliament that occurs at least one year after the day on which the proclamation was issued (s. 25 of the Act).

A summary of Elections Canada's experience with the redistribution exercise that commenced on Census Day, May 15, 2001, and concluded with the coming into force of the new boundaries on May 23, 2004, is contained in Appendix 1 of this report. That experience informs the recommendations that follow. Appendix 2 of the report compares the recommendations made in this report with those contained in the report of the Standing Committee, Bill C-69 and the provisions of the present Act.


I would like to thank Professor John Courtney of the University of Saskatchewan for his contribution to this report.



See the Sixteenth Report of the Committee during the 3rd session of the 37th Parliament, readopted in its Seventh Report in the 1st session of the 38th Parliament, presented to the House of Commons on October 22, 2004.