Electoral map changes in Quebec favour rural voters over urban ones, and dilute effective representation in the province.

Last month, Quebec’s Electoral Representation Commission (ERC), under the mandate of the province’s Election Act (EA), proposed alterations to the provincial electoral map. Among the several changes listed, the ERC recommended the absorption of Montreal’s Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques riding to re-balance the growing electoral deficit between the Island of Montreal and its fast-growing suburbs.

Met with strong opposition, the ERC soon abandoned that idea, reverting to its previous proposal to merge the ridings of Mont-Royal and Outremont. Now these residents in these neighbourhoods are angry. Montrealers believe they have been hit particularly hard by the reduction of the Island’s seats; they aren’t wrong.

While the ERC is an independent body, it is not mandated to act as a decision-making commission. Provisions of the Election Act, require the commission to examine the province’s current demographic situation, engage in public consultations and report to the National Assembly. The Assembly debates the Commission’s recommendations as a committee-of-the-whole and decides whether to accept them or propose amendments. Following the Assembly’s deliberations, the commission establishes the ridings and their delimitations.

The commission’s options are quite limited. It must reorganize the map within a maximum number of 125 National-Assembly seats. It must consider a fixed 25 percent variation for ridings that exceed, or are smaller than, the current per-riding provincial average, and also take into account special or exceptional circumstances. Its latest recommendations placed 15 ridings under the “special” category and deemed 11 others “exceptional.” While the Act lists several intangible criteria for “special” consideration, and gives the ERC the discretion to place divisions under the “exceptional” category, no regulation defines the criteria or gives them mathematical clarity.

In 1989, our government limited the National assembly to 125 seats; apparently, for reasons of economy. At the time, Quebec’s population was just under seven million; today, there are approximately 8.3 million Quebecers. In 2015, the Electoral Representation Commission determined that approximately six million residents of Quebec were eligible voters; in 1989, it stood at just below 4.7 million. The commission says that, as the general and electoral populations have risen, the per-riding quotient has increased from 37,366 in 1989 to 48,387 in 2015. With a plus-minus 25 percent variation, the effective electors-to-representative ratio ranges from 36,290 to 60,484. Had the government maintained the per-riding average at the 1989 levels and allowed the number of ridings to increase, up to 37 ridings might have been added to the electoral map since then. Instead, as the population grows – and the 125-seat limit remains intact – the per-riding average increases, giving rise to greater inequities.

The Election Act’s 25 percent rule allows a riding to have voting populations up to 25 percent more or less than the provincial average. This leeway is among the highest in Canada; it is applied uniformly throughout Quebec regardless of differences in population or density. Consequently, this rule favours rural areas over urban centres. The commission can only increase the size of urban ridings and/or reduce their numbers to accommodate suburban areas, while maintaining rural communities’ representation. Under current circumstances of urban sprawl and rural decline, urban centres are the biggest losers.

Short of reconsidering our voting system, several options are available to ensure more effective representation; among them, a sliding scale of representation. Under such a scenario, more densely populated regions would be less prone to deviation, while less-dense zones would be varied more greatly. Such an approach would be clearer and less exposed to the apprehension of arbitrariness or bias. While regional representation in the National Assembly would be proportional, certain important regions – such as Montreal, Nunavik and the James Bay region, as well as the Iles-de-la-Madeleine — could be given each a special number of seats regardless of their proportion.

Special representation for certain regions would not be unprecedented in Canadian constitutional and political history. While s. 37 of the BNA Act allocated to the founding provinces of Canada each a certain number of seats in the House of Commons, s. 51A of the Act guaranteed that their representation in the House of Commons would not be less than their representation in the Senate. Consequently, provinces that might lose demographic weight over time due to lower population growth or decline and, thus, be threatened by lower representation, will be assured that a minimum group of parliamentarians will represent them.

The Quebec government should amend the Election Act, lifting its seat-limit provision to allow the Assembly’s numbers to reflect more accurately the population’s size and variety. It should create a regulation that fixes a lower, more reasonable provincial constituents-to-representative ratio to reduce the possibility of either special or exceptional circumstances. It should establish population-density norms according to urban, suburban and rural categories. Consequently, the deviation for urban areas could be as low as five per cent; less-dense suburban and rural regions’ deviations could vary up to 25 percent while a 50 percent deviation could be fixed for exceptional circumstances. In addition, the government should establish rules to ensure that the various regions of Quebec are represented in the National Assembly proportionally.

The issue of “equal representation” is not new; nor is it particular to Quebec. In its 1991 ruling in Reference re Prov. Electoral Boundaries (Sask.), the Supreme Court of Canada tied “unfair and uneven” representation to the undue dilution of a citizen’s vote that “risks inadequate representation.”

Effective representation is an essential tool of our democracy, not a luxury; it cannot be discounted by economy or arbitrary limits and must not be fettered unduly. To rein it would be to kill our democracy and its principles. We must not dilute our representation so greatly to maintain merely the semblance of good governance.

Photo: Shutterstock.com


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