Electoral Boundaries

While section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, sets out the formula for the allocation of seats in the House of Commons among the provinces after each decennial census, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act provides for the drawing of electoral district boundaries within each province by an electoral boundaries commission.43 Electoral districts must be added or have their boundaries adjusted whenever a province’s representation changes, when there have been significant population fluctuations within a province, such as movement from rural to urban areas, or when seats are added. The readjustment of boundaries is a federal matter controlled by Parliament.

Historical Perspective

In the early years of Confederation, after each decennial census, the government would introduce a bill describing the boundaries of each electoral district and then have the bill adopted like any other piece of legislation. This was subject to criticism as being a highly biased task focused on maximizing the governing party’s electoral successes, often referred to as “gerrymandering”.44 In 1903, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier altered this procedure by placing the readjustment of constituency boundaries in the hands of a special committee of the House of Commons on which Members from all parties were represented.45 Each time a redistribution of seats was scheduled to occur as provided for by the Constitution Act, 1867, and the latest census, the government brought in a bill which did not contain any details about the boundaries of the various ridings. After the bill was read a second time, it was referred to a special committee instructed to “prepare schedules to contain and describe the several electoral divisions entitled to return Members to this House”.46 This process remained highly partisan and Members were not provided with guidelines upon which to base their decisions.47 This system remained in place until 1964, when non-partisan electoral boundaries commissions were established to draw and readjust the boundaries of electoral constituencies.

Even before Confederation, suggestions had been made to place the drawing of electoral boundaries into the hands of an impartial body and not with Members.48 This continued to be a concern after Confederation and, on a number of occasions, it was recommended that the process be placed instead into the hands of judges.49 In 1963, the government introduced legislation to assign the drawing of electoral boundaries to non-partisan commissions operating under specified general principles and in 1964, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act was passed.50

Readjustment of Electoral Boundaries

Appointment of Electoral Boundaries Commissions

As soon as possible after the completion of each decennial census, the Chief Statistician prepares and sends the relevant population figures to the minister designated by the Governor in Council as the minister for the purposes of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act,51 and to the Chief Electoral Officer, an Officer of Parliament who is responsible for the administration of federal elections.52 The Chief Electoral Officer then calculates the total number of House of Commons seats and their distribution among the provinces.53 After the Chief Electoral Officer has this information published in the Canada Gazette,54 the process of appointing the members of each commission begins.

An electoral boundaries commission is established for each province by the Governor in Council within 60 days of the minister receiving the population figures or within six months of the first day of the month fixed for the taking of the census, whichever is earlier.55 No commission is appointed for Yukon, the Northwest Territories or Nunavut, as these territories are allotted only one seat each. Each commission consists of a chairperson, normally a provincial superior court judge who is appointed by the chief justice of the province,56 and two other individuals appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons “from among such persons resident in that province as the Speaker deems suitable”.57 No sitting member of the Senate or of the House of Commons or of a provincial legislature can be appointed to a commission.58

As soon as the electoral boundaries commissions have been established, the Chief Electoral Officer provides each chairperson with a return on the relevant population figures. Each commission has up to 10 months from the date it receives this return to recommend constituency boundaries in a report to the Chief Electoral Officer.59

Drawing of Boundaries

Each commission is required to draw constituency boundaries in such a way that the population of each constituency is as close as possible to the quotient obtained by dividing the provincial population as determined by the census by the new number of seats allocated to the province. No constituency is permitted to have a population smaller than 75% of the quotient or greater than 125%, although in extraordinary circumstances a commission may exceed these limits. Commissions may vary the size of constituencies within this range on the basis of special geographic considerations, such as density of population in various regions of the province and the size of such regions. Because accessibility, transportation, and communications are often seen as obstacles both to effective representation and to ease of campaigning, electoral boundaries commissions generally draw boundaries so that there are fewer voters in rural constituencies than in urban constituencies. Variations may also occur on the basis of a special community of interest or the historical background of a particular district.60

As soon as possible, each commission prepares a proposal for the number of seats, the boundaries of the electoral districts and the names of those districts, and the reasons therefor.61 This proposal must be published in the Canada Gazette and at least one newspaper in general circulation in the province concerned at least 30 days before the date of the commission’s first hearing. Each proposal is accompanied by a notice inviting electors and Members of the House of Commons to one or more public meetings. Interested persons wishing to make a representation must submit their notice in writing to the commission within 23 days after the date of publication of the commission’s advertisement. The commission may hear a representation without notice if it considers this to be in the public interest.62

Following the hearings, each commission reviews its proposals, prepares a report and transmits two certified copies of it to the Chief Electoral Officer before the end of the 10-month period. At the request of a commission, the Chief Electoral Officer may grant an extension of not more than two months.63 The Chief Electoral Officer transmits a copy of each report to the Speaker of the House of Commons as soon as he or she receives it.64 The Speaker tables these reports in the House and ensures that they are referred to a committee designated to deal with electoral matters.65 If reports are received between sessions, the Speaker of the House will have the reports published in the Canada Gazette and have a copy of that Canada Gazette sent to the Members representing the electoral districts in that province.66

Consideration by the House

Members have 30 days following the tabling or publication of the reports to file an objection in writing with the clerk of the committee to which the matter was referred. Members must specify the provisions objected to in the reports and the reasons for their objection. These representations are made in the form of a motion signed by at least 10 Members.67 Following the filing deadline, the committee has 30 sitting days to review the Members’ representations,68 unless the committee asks the House for an extension.69 At the conclusion of its consideration of the reports and the objections thereto, the committee returns the reports to the Speaker of the House along with a copy of the objections and the committee’s minutes of proceedings.70 The Speaker then immediately sends the reports and attached documents to the Chief Electoral Officer for distribution, if necessary, to the various electoral boundaries commissions for reconsideration in light of the objections.71 No discussion of the reports or the objections thereto takes place in the House.72

The commissions must consider the objections within the following 30 days, but they are not compelled to make any changes as a result of the objections. Each commission then submits a final report, with or without amendment, to the Chief Electoral Officer, who forwards it to the Speaker of the House.73 Once tabled in the House by the Speaker,74 the commission’s decision is final and without appeal.75

Representation Order

After each commission has submitted its final report, the Chief Electoral Officer prepares a draft representation order. The draft representation order specifies the number of Members to be elected in each province, divides each province into electoral districts, describes the boundaries of each district, and specifies the population of and the name to be given to each district.76 The Chief Electoral Officer forwards the draft representation order to the Minister designated by the Governor in Council as being responsible for implementing the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, and it must be proclaimed by the Governor in Council within five days of its receipt.77 The new boundaries cannot be used at the time of an election unless at least seven months have passed between the date the representation order was proclaimed and the date that Parliament is dissolved for a general election.78 The representation order and the proclamation declaring it to be in force must be published in the Canada Gazette within five days of the issue of the proclamation.79

Naming of Constituencies

At the time of Confederation, the electoral districts for each province were established in the Constitution Act, 1867.80 The electoral districts existing at that time were named after counties, cities, parts of cities, and towns in each province. From 1872 to 1964, the names of the ridings were provided in legislation to enact seat redistributions and fix electoral boundaries.

Since 1964 and the adoption of the modern process for drawing electoral boundaries, the names of electoral districts are decided by the electoral boundaries commissions and included in their reports. The names are set down in the representation orders giving legal effect to these reports. The alteration to the name of an electoral district after the publication of the representation order can be effected by the passage of legislation. Such a bill is usually entitled “An Act to change the name of the electoral district of (electoral district)”. Such bills are often dealt with quickly, typically being deemed read a second time, considered in a Committee of the Whole, reported without amendment, concurred in at the report stage, read a third time and adopted in the same sitting by unanimous consent.81 While name changes are typically effected by a private Member’s bill, exceptionally in 2004 and 2014, the government, having consulted the other parties and independent Members, introduced bills to change the names of 38 and 30 electoral districts, respectively.82 Both bills passed through all stages in the House the same day, by unanimous consent.83

Suspension of the Readjustment Process

In each decade between 1960 and 2000, Parliament adopted legislation either to suspend or to amend the redistribution process. After both the 1971 and 1981 censuses, the readjustment process was suspended to permit amendments to section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, setting out the formula for representation in the House and to make some changes to the readjustment process itself.84 The redistribution process was suspended twice following the 1991 Census.

In 1992, Parliament agreed that in light of the proposed changes to the Canada Elections Act recommended by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, as well as the probability that the readjustment process could not be completed before the next federal election, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act should be suspended.85 In 1994, the government believed that it was time for a full review of the Act, given the dissatisfaction being expressed by Members about certain aspects of the process and the continual increase in the number of seats in the House after each census.86 The readjustment process was subsequently suspended by An Act to provide for the establishment of electoral boundaries commissions and the readjustment of electoral boundaries, which provided for the suspension of the readjustment process until the earlier of the enactment of new electoral boundaries readjustment legislation or June 22, 1995. It also temporarily discharged the existing electoral boundaries commissions of their duties once their reports to the House of Commons on electoral districts had been submitted.87 In the interim, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was instructed to draft a bill respecting the system of readjusting electoral boundaries.88 The Committee was also asked to consider a formula to cap or reduce the number of seats in the House and to review the method of appointing members to electoral boundaries commissions, the rules surrounding their powers, their procedures, and the involvement of the public and the House of Commons in the work of the commissions.

On November 25, 1994, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs presented its report, which included draft legislation to repeal the existing statute and to abolish the electoral boundaries commissions.89 While the Committee did not recommend a change in the manner of assigning seats among the provinces after each decennial census nor a formula for capping the number of seats in the House, it did propose a new method of drawing electoral boundaries. As a result, Bill C-69, Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, 1995, was introduced by the government on February 16, 1995.90 The objective of the bill was to stop the redistribution plans and to start the process all over again, allowing the next election to be held on the basis of the 1981 boundaries. The bill would have also brought about a redistribution every five years in provinces where the shift in population warranted it, a new triggering mechanism for holding a decennial redistribution which would have eliminated an unnecessary redistribution in provinces without a significant change in population, and parliamentary oversight of appointments to electoral boundaries commissions. However, amendments subsequently proposed by the Senate and rejected by the House prevented the Bill from being passed.91 Since new electoral boundaries readjustment legislation had not been passed by the stipulated June 22, 1995, deadline, the Speaker tabled the reports of all the electoral boundaries commissions in the House as required and the electoral boundaries were adjusted accordingly.92 The general election of 1997 was held on the basis of the post-1991 redistribution and revision of boundaries.