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A Small Look Into Canada's Political Boundaries Process
If the next federal election is held after April 2024, Canadians will be voting with new constituency lines in place - and a few extra seats too. Our House of Commons will be adding five seats (three in Alberta, one apiece in Ontario and BC) to hit 343 total, all of which have completed their redrawing process.
Then the true question arrives: Will we need to rename 338Canada?
(Quick word from the Editor-in-Chief: No, we won’t. The 338 brand will then become “vintage”, like Coca-Cola Classic post-New Coke fiasco. -PJF)
As we struggle with that decision in the meantime, I thought it worthy to take a look at a small but unique aspect of our redistribution and representation process — the “Extraordinary Circumstances” seats, of which five are in place for the new 343-seat map, an increase of one.
All five share common characteristics, though each are unique in their own way. Some were initially threatened over this redistribution process, while others were created in the final stages. Before we take a look however, let’s settle a quick question I know you have.
But What Exactly Are ‘Extraordinary Circumstances’?
The term is used by the federal Electoral Boundaries Commissions to refer to seats that fall under Section 15.2 of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, which reads as follows:
Our five subject seats fall under this special clause as they are well below the 25% maximum deviation from their respective provincial population quotas. The Commissions found cause to go beyond this hefty limit in order to meet the criteria laid out in 15.2(a) (commonly referred to as the ‘Community of Interest’ clause) and 15.2(b) (remote communities) and ensure effective representation otherwise not afforded to citizens in these areas.
How the Commissions arrive at the decision to implement this clause is varied, and importantly, rarely done. For this go-round of redistribution, let’s take a look at why our five came into existence, starting with the newest — and easily the most shocking for election watchers and a specific Conservative MP.
While bearing the same name as its 2013 Representation Order predecessor, the new Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River will look quite a bit different as the Saskatchewan Commission sought to address the issues presented by the large geographic size (originally over 358,000 sq. km.) and remote nature of much of the riding.
The original proposal shifted a number of communities south with the exception of Meadow Lake and area, but, through consultation, the decision was made to follow closely the Northern Saskatchewan Administration District (NSAD) boundaries, a special administrative area laid out by the provincial government, with the addition of two First Nations communities just beyond the NSAD lines (Shoal Lake and Red Earth).
As can be inferred, the new riding remains majority Indigenous and Métis, up to what I estimate is about 85-90% - on par with the Inuit electorate in Nunavut. While it doesn’t seem like a significant change from prior (~70%), turnout variables particularly between communities within NSAD and outside meant the southern, whiter areas typically decided the election results - despite the larger population in the north.
Ultimately this means that in both 2019 and 2021, Conservative MP Gary Vidal would have heavily lost the Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River seat on the new boundaries.
Kenora—Kiiwetinoong & the Thunder Bays (and the Far North Seat We Nearly Had)
Ontario’s three Northwest seats from the 2013 Representation Order remain broadly intact, despite the Ontario Commission’s initial proposal to try something different. All three (Thunder Bay—Rainy River, Thunder Bay—Superior North, and the renamed Kenora—Kiiwetinoong) are Extraordinary Circumstances seats owing to the remote nature of Northwest Ontario even from its eastern half. At a massive 526,000 sq. km. but a population of only 232,000 (including a number of remote and Indigenous communities), it has been tradition to allow this region to maintain effective representation through the clause.
While Thunder Bay—Rainy River saw no boundary changes, Thunder Bay—Superior North took on a number of new areas from both Kenora and Timmins—James Bay due to a request from the Matawa First Nations Tribal Council to include all of their members in one riding.
As mentioned the original proposal from the Commission would have done away with three Extraordinary Circumstances seats and settled instead for one - a Far North seat called Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk that stretched from the Manitoba to Quebec borders, inspired by the two provincial seats created prior to the 2018 election with Indigenous majority populations. While the proposal was criticized as too ungainly and, more importantly, cut off some First Nations communities from each other, personally I thought the route was an interesting one to explore further with modifications. I suspect the seat would’ve had an electorate close to 70% Indigenous.
Finally we come to Labrador, which saw no changes to its boundaries and remains the primary example of an Extraordinary Circumstances seat. Being both geographically isolated, full of remote communities, and heavily populated by Indigenous and Inuit peoples, it seems odd Labrador was never on its own - but the seat in its current form has only existed since 1988. Since then it has consistently been the seat with the lowest population in Canada — including the PEI seats and Nunavut.
While there are no other Extraordinary Circumstances seats, there are a few that come close. They also share similar geographic challenges and demographics:
- Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou saw a formal request from Cree, Inuit, and Naskapi communities to create an Extraordinary Circumstances seat in Quebec’s far north, but the Commission decided against any changes, though still leaving the seat -18% below quota.
- Côte-Nord—Kawawachikamach—Uapaske, formerly known as Manicouagan, remains intact at nearly -19% below quota. Other seats in the Saguenay region also remain heavily under quota.
- Skeena—Bulkley Valley with no boundary changes comes very close to the line at -23% below quota.
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