One person, one vote? In Canada, it’s not even close

Casting a ballot holds very different weights in different ridings.

The chances are excellent that when you go about marking your ballot in the upcoming federal election, something quirky and quintessentially Canadian will happen without you even knowing it.

Some votes are going to be substantially more powerful than others, especially those cast in the most remote rural ridings. And if you live in a city — especially one growing as rapidly as Greater Toronto — your vote is more likely to register as less than equal.

Take the electoral district of Labrador, for example. Only 27,197 live there, according to Elections Canada. Yes it is vast — you could fit all of the United Kingdom inside Labrador and still have room for Costa Rica. But compared to a typical riding in Brampton or Scarborough, where riding populations exceed the national average, and the numerical disparity is glaring: it will take about four times as many Toronto-area voters to get the same result, electing a single representative to Parliament.

How is that even possible? It’s a long and complicated story, one that began in the earliest years of Confederation itself. But at the heart of the matter is this fundamental fact: Canada lives with a basic and intensifying representational tension, with too few rural and too many urban dwellers.

Or, as John Courtney, Canada’s foremost scholar on these tensions, likes to say, “To paraphrase Mackenzie King, ‘Canada has too much geography and not enough people living in the more remote northern and rural parts of the country.’ ”

Throughout Canada’s first century and beyond, the historic compromise was to err on the side of rural representation — and in so doing, we veered away from the doctrine of “one person, one vote” that our southern neighbours hold so dear.

And Canadians, at the time, were OK with that. Throughout the 20th century Canada had a concurrent problem with “gerrymandering” — federally and provincially, parties in power routinely proposed redrawing ridings for partisan advantage. But Canada — ingeniously, some would say — finally solved gerrymandering in the 1960s by creating 10 Electoral Boundary Commissions, one for each province, effectively taking the power away from politicians and letting experts draw the boundaries.

“I remember once speaking to the league of Women Voters in Washington, D.C., and they were absolutely stunned to hear that Canada had independent electoral commissions,” said Courtney, professor emeritus of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “They thought it was a great idea.”

“They applauded roundly. But then when I put up a map, they wanted to know the relative populations of the districts and when I told them, they were shocked. They just could not grasp how far we are willing to deviate from representation by population.”

The question of whether or not Canadians were guaranteed voting equality was all but settled in a landmark 1991 Supreme Court ruling that said “deviations from absolute voter parity” may be justified under Canada’s charter.

Writing for the majority in the 6-3 decision, Justice Beverley McLachlin dismissed the “one person, one vote” argument, instead famously coining the phrase “effective representation” as the constitutionally enshrined right of all Canadian voters.

“Relative parity of voting power is a prime condition of effective representation,” McLachlin wrote. But other factors “like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic.”

But if things were settled in 1991, many scholars see them as unsettled today — or in need of legislative tweaking, at the least — given the changing face of Canada’s largest cities and urbanization as a whole.

Courtney notes that the unspoken consent in the 1991 ruling was to allow deviations of plus or minus 25 per cent in population equity, riding by riding. And the provincial commissions, which redistribute voting power every 10 years based on fresh census data, have shaped their maps with what many see as glaring inequity.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Pal seized upon the issue in 2015, questioning some of the inequities in Ontario in a paper for the McGill Law Journal titled “The Fractured Right to Vote: Democracy, Discretion and Designing Electoral Districts.”

Pal, speaking to the Star, agreed that even to this day, “there is a very strong principled argument in Canada for permitting deviations from representation by population for truly Northern areas — especially considering Canada’s long and storied history of specifically excluding Indigenous people from participation in the House of Commons.”

But Pal argues the Boundary Commissions that set riding boundaries have altogether too much discretion to remap areas that have nothing to do with the North — and he cites the example of the Niagara Falls district, which during the 2015 federal election was the most populous of all 338 Canadian ridings, with 128,357 people. The adjacent riding of Niagara West, by stark contrast, had only 86,533 inhabitants — a “mystifying inequality” of nearly 40 per cent, he notes.

“It is jarring,” said Pal. “I think people in Niagara Falls would be surprised at the degree that their vote is different from their neighbours in Niagara West. There’s no mountain, no body of water, I can’t see anything in those historic ideals that really makes any sense.”

Though the statute that guides the Provincial Electoral Commissions makes no mention of municipal borders, that appears to be something Ontario’s commission cleaved to in its reshaping of many of the province’s federal electoral boundaries. Some politicos see logic in such an approach, even if it is outside the bounds of statute. MORE

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