Establishing Boundaries

Our new federal ridings will build a better democracy

by Katherine Norton

The federal boundary redistribution saga of 2012-13 was not the efficient exercise in citizen consultation and fact-based public policy that supporters of functioning democracy might have preferred. Nor was it a particularly accessible democratic tool — for hearings that impacted something as significant as how we vote in federal elections, there was stunningly little buzz last summer when the opportunity arose for public involvement.

But in the end, everything worked out.

After more than a year of uncertainty, Saskatchewan’s new federal electoral boundaries were finalized on Aug. 21, when commissioners Ronald C. Mills, John Courtney and David Marit’s the final report and  responses to House of Commons objections were released.

Although two of 10 MP objections were addressed, Saskatchewan is now the proud home of five exclusively urban ridings — three in Saskatoon and two in Regina.

It’s about time.

These changes represent a shift away from the hybrid urban-rural ridings which have been blamed, quite fairly, for Saskatchewan’s funky federal results — like the 2011 elections which allowed Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to secure 92 per cent of the seats with just over half (56 per cent) of the vote.

Leading up to the public hearings, there was widespread support for a shift away from hybrid rural/urban ridings in favour of urban ridings. During the submission phase, political scientists from the University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina strongly called for urban ridings. These calls were echoed by urban residents of Regina and Saskatoon desperate for better democratic representation.

But when word got out that a system that was terminally biased in favour of Conservatives might change, the political right  mobilized their supporters. There was no shortage of angry buzz from opponents of urban ridings in the hearing phase, and Saskatchewan’s federally-appointed commission was bombarded with rhetorical pleas from a number of self-interested parties (not to mention hyper-partisan elected officials) to keep the boundaries as they were.

The buzzing continued when the commission released its recommendations in fall 2012, coming out in support of the logical and well-evidenced arguments for urban ridings. It became almost a roar the when obviously self-interested MPs came forward publicly bemoaning the decision, questioning the performance of the panel members, and exhausting every imaginable federal tool to halt the process (including the infamous robo-call mess).

It hit a low point when one of the commissioners, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities president David Marit broke ranks to write a partisan, credibility-destroying dissent that got him blasted not just by Prairie Dog types but by no less than Leader-Post political columnist Murray Mandryk, who in his Feb. 1, 2013 column “Split Ridings Get Too Much Marit” wrote, “It would be one thing for a commissioner to write a minority report that simply seems to contain most of the Conservatives’ talking points. It’s quite another for that commissioner to recommend to a Conservative-government dominated parliamentary committee that his minority report be adopted.”

But in the end, the forces of good won the day. Next election, the city-living Saskatchewanians who work and play in Regina and Saskatoon will have a chance to choose politicians who represent their urban interests, without having their votes diluted and dulled by rural residents with vastly different desires and priorities.

Considering how few functional democratic tools our fine citizenry have access to these days, I’m considering these results a huge success. Saskatchewan has been transformed from a political anomaly — a scar in Canadian electoral representation.

This also hopefully helps some of our province’s apathetic citizens recognize that change is possible and they can successfully participate in politics

And most importantly, that the next time they cast a vote, it might actually matter.

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Katherine Norton is a post-graduate student in political science at the University of Regina who spoke in favour of boundary commission changes at last year’s hearings. A version of this article previously appeared on Dog Blog.

2013-09-19