Still no Age of Authenticity Part III. Instead, here’s my ultra-geeky submission to the Electoral Boundaries Commission that I’ll be doing tonight in Richmond. Warning: this is only for hardcore political geeks.
Submission to the Electoral Boundaries Commission
Presented by Stuart Parker, Los Altos Institute
Since 1988, the principles for Canadian riding boundaries have been set by the landmark BC Court of Appeal Dixon judgement which established that electoral district populations should vary no more than 25% from the average representation by population except in “very special circumstances.”
I agree with the commission’s approach, unlike that of recent provincial boundaries commissions, of refraining from declaring “very special circumstances” in British Columbia. While British Columbia presents diversity, transportation and other challenges unequaled in most provinces, its problems do not rise to the kind of circumstances faced in Labrador, Northern Québec, the James Bay Lowlands or the three Territories. As such, I concur with the commission that 25% variation is more than sufficient to accommodate BC.
Where I differ with commissioners is with respect to their apparent criteria variation within the Dixon bound. Of the forty-two proposed electoral districts, the following have received higher than average per-capita representation: Skeena-Bulkley-Valley, Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge, Port Moody-Coquitlam, Fort Langley-Aldergrove, Richmond West, Richmond East, Mission-Matsqui, Delta, Vancouver Kingsway, Langley-Cloverdale, Burnaby South-Deer Lake, Vancouver Granville, Vancouver Quadra, Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, South Surrey-White Rock, Abbotsford-Sumas, Vancouver South, Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, Burnaby North-Seymour, Victoria and Vancouver Centre.
With the exception of Skeena and, to a limited extent, Chilliwack, these districts are urban or suburban in character. Furthermore, with the exception of Skeena and Victoria, all are Greater Vancouver districts. I must ask: why is it that commissioners felt that the British Columbians meriting the highest per capita representation are overwhelmingly urban and suburban Vancouverites whereas those meriting the lowest representation are rural British Columbians who do not have the good fortune to live in Skeena?
This is not to suggest that voters living in densely populated areas do not have significant representation challenges that commissions should address. In particular inner city voters wrestling with poverty, urban aboriginal voters, voters with limited official language proficiency all might merit deviation within the Dixon bound to deliver higher per capita representation. Yet curiously, it is where one finds the highest concentrations of such voters in urban BC that the commission deviates from its policies of over-representing urban and suburban Vancouverites at the expense of rural British Columbians. Vancouver East is the only district in the City of Vancouver to receive below average per capita representation; Newton, Whalley and Guildford are likewise singled-out for underrepresentation in a map that significantly over-represents all other suburban voters south of the Fraser River. Finally, the lower mainland’s only other significant inner city, New Westminster is also underrepresented.
Typically, the reason to downwardly vary district magnitudes is to deal with one or more of the following three issues: (a) the presence of difficult to represent voters, (b) geographic or transportation constraints that limit the adjacent communities that may reasonably be united in a single district and (c) the “shelf life” argument, i.e. over-representing communities with high rates of anticipated population growth. I fail to detect the consistent application of any of these principles in the draft boundaries presented by the commission.
Excepting the admirably drawn boundaries for Skeena-Bulkley, it almost seems as though the commission has inverted principles (a) and (b), while simply ignoring (c). This latter approach is something with which I concur. So, in offering my suggestions as to how the commission might improve its map, let me begin with where I concur with the commission in breaking with the last boundaries panel.
The 1998 provincial and 2002 federal boundaries commissions both explicitly spoke to the principle of “shelf-life,” that the commission should not draw electoral boundaries based on current population levels but instead based on anticipated levels. The absurdity of this approach was showcased almost immediately when the Comox Valley municipalities changed their community development plans in order to receive higher per capita representation in the 1998 provincial boundaries. Obviously, it is highly problematic for a districting commission to alter the level of representation voters enjoy based on the land use and development policies of their municipal and regional governments. I am therefore pleased that the commission chose not to grant increased representation on that basis to high-growth areas like Southeast False Creek, Kelowna, Whistler and North Nanaimo.
However, it is my view that the commission should look seriously at offering higher per-capita representation to groups that facing representation challenges on the following bases: (a) poverty, (b) official language challenges, (c) rural and remote location and (d) aboriginal ancestry. It should be noted that the districts of Vancouver East, New Westminster-Burnaby East, Prince George-Peace River, Cariboo-Prince George, Kootenay-Columbia, Kamloops-Thompson-Carioo, South Okanagan-West Kootenay, North Okanagan-Shuswap, Surrey-Centre, North Surrey-Guildford and West Surrey-Whalley are already underrepresented on a per capita basis. Yet these ridings contain disproportionately large numbers of hard-to-represent voters and thus merit downward not upward deviation within the Dixon bound. It is my view that these ridings merit serious re-evaluation by the commission.
There is something amiss when a member of parliament representing the Similkameen, Kettle, South Okanagan, Boundary, Arrow, Lower Columbia, Slocan and West Kootenay valleys has nearly twenty thousand more constituents to represent than the member representing Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge. This is true not only from the difficulty of representation standpoint but from the perspective transportation logistics and traditional communities of interest.
While my main point in this presentation is to urge the commission to vary district populations downward rather than upward based on the difficulty of representing their voters, I would like to offer some suggestions about how commissioners might consider responding to certain particularly controversial boundaries decisions in key areas:
- The North Shore: The combined population of Vancouver’s North Shore suburbs, North Vancouver City, North Vancouver District, West Vancouver and Lions Bay is approximately 186,000, meaning that two north shore suburban districts could be created within the Dixon Bound with approximately 93,000 residents each, slightly smaller than the proposed Maple Ridge district. Alternatively, two districts could also be sustained, again within the bound, incorporating the Sunshine Coast and Bowen Island along with the North Shore Suburbs, yielding districts with approximately 115,000 residents each, slightly larger than the proposed West Kootenay district.
- The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District: Even since the paving of the Duffy Lake extension of Highway 99, boundaries commissions have continued to split this area between a southwest portion districted with West Vancouver and a northeast portion districted with the Cariboo; the commission has innovated upon this by moving the typical dividing line southwest of Pemberton. It is my view that the commission should consider districting all of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District with the South Cariboo. The commission might also consider the inclusion of Hope and Electoral Areas A and B of the Fraser Valley Regional District in such a district.
- Nechako Region: Skeena-Bulkley Valley, despite being the lowest-population district still only varies 16% from the average district magnitude. This means that the commission could choose to remove Fort St. James from Skeena and place it with the community through which one is required to pass in order to reach it by car, Vanderhoof. Fraser Lake, also highly integrated with Vanderhoof, merits similar consideration.
- North Thompson Region: There are many options for districting Blue River, Clearwater and Vavenby. While they are most closely associated with Kamloops, their placement with 100 Mile House or Valemount is also reasonable and should be considered in any significant modification of the proposed map.
It is my view that, by removing the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and Fraser Canyon from Greater Vancouver’s districts and instead placing them with the Interior and by applying conventional difficulty-of-representation standards to the question of district magnitudes, the commission can and should reduce the number of new districts in urban and suburban Vancouver by one and increase the number in the mainland interior by one. I believe that in doing so, the commission should be especially attentive to the voters in the Kootenays, North and Cariboo who face substantial representation challenges.
Based on my survey of census data, it strikes me that the following districts could be sustained without a deviation of more than 25%:
Prince George-Peace River: This district could shed a substantial portion of Prince George in order to facilitate the creation of Prince George-Yellowhead.
Prince George-Yellowhead: Given a larger proportion of Prince George, there exists sufficient population to create a crescent-shaped riding beginning east of Burns Lake, taking in the Nechako Region, most of Prince George, the Robson Valley and the North Thompson/South Yellowhead to Clearwater.
Cariboo: There exists sufficient population to enable the commission to recreate this historic riding which has been part of nearly every BC electoral map since Confederation. By incorporating the whole of the Cariboo, along with the Fraser Canyon and Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, the commission could end the division of the Cariboo and create a viable rural district in the Central Interior.
In the same spirit, I encourage the commission not to further dilute West Kootenay representation in a South Okanagan district but instead to downwardly vary riding populations to enable the Arrow Lakes and other regions to remain with the Castlegar and Nelson.
Most importantly, however, I want to reiterate the importance of establishing and articulating clear and reasonable principles for varying riding populations. It is my view that the commission has not yet done so. While not identical to the criteria I articulate for this, I draw the commission’s attention to the legislation passed by the Alberta government following the Dixon judgement to govern future boundaries commissions, which articulated the basis on which a district should receive high per-capita representation:
(a) the area of the proposed electoral division exceeds 20,000 square kilometres or the total surveyed area of the proposed electoral division exceeds 15,000 square kilometres;
(b) the distance from the Legislature Building in Edmonton to the nearest boundary of the proposed electoral division by the most direct highway route is more than 150 kilometres;
(c) there is no town in the proposed electoral division that has a population exceeding 4,000 people;
(d) the area of the proposed electoral division contains an Indian reserve or a Metis settlement;
(e) the proposed electoral division has a portion of its boundary coterminous with a boundary of the Province of Alberta.
While not addressing language or poverty, except with respect to indigenous peoples, I consider this list to be an excellent starting point for the commission in considering the conditions under which to vary district populations and would hope both that such a list is adopted and that whatever list is developed is presented transparently to the general public.
I want to thank the commissioners for their hard work and the time and thought they have put into their proposals. It is exciting to see British Columbia finally receiving the representation it deserves. Let us work together to make sure that the benefits of this new representation are enjoyed equally and fairly.