Public hearing held on federal riding changes

Matt Gardner
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Prince Albert residents expressed their views on proposed changes to federal riding boundaries at a public hearing on Wednesday.

Former Liberal candidate Peter Abrametz (left) offers his opinion on federal riding redistribution to commission members John Courtney (centre) and Chief Ron Mills at a public hearing on Wednesday.

Representatives of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for the province of Saskatchewan were present at the hearing, which took place at Carlton Comprehensive High School.

“We’ve had comments today about, for example … (one woman) was talking about a township or a municipality that she wanted included in one district as opposed to another,” Saskatchewan Commission member John Courtney said. “That’s the sort of thing we will look at again, because if the line is here and it doesn’t make any sense, then it seems to me we would be perfectly within our mandate to alter the line and try to incorporate them along the lines that she was suggesting. It may not be possible; I don’t know how the census data are designed in those areas.”

Under law, all provinces must have a federal redistribution of their electoral districts ever 10 years. There are currently 10 commissions working across the country in each province.

One of the key issues discussed at Wednesday’s hearing was making large rural ridings more manageable in size. The distance involved often makes it difficult for members of Parliament to respond to their constituents.

“It’s got to be balanced,” Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback said. “The issue in Saskatchewan isn’t population. If you looked in Toronto or Ontario, Alberta, B.C., where they’re adding seats, the issue there is population … We’ve got on average 75,000 constituents per riding. The average across Canada is 100,000.

“The issue we have in Saskatchewan isn’t the number of people we have. It’s the distances you have to travel from one community to the next to properly represent them. So if you start making these huge rural ridings, it makes it impossible for the member to get across to meet the constituents in a timely manner.”

Hoback said the Prince Albert riding was small enough that he was able to make appearances in Nipawin, Tisdale, Melfort and Prince Albert on Canada Day. But his suggestions for the riding favoured small tweaks over massive alterations.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to have wholesale changes,” he said. “It’s an interesting theory, but it’s just not practical when you try to make it work for the constituents. I think that, yeah, we need to have some readjustments just to reflect the population changes. That’s fair — an adjustment here, an adjustment there. But to make wholesale changes would just confuse voters and I actually think will upset people so much that they won’t even come out and vote.”

To make wholesale changes would just confuse voters and I actually think will upset people so much that they won’t even come out and vote. MP Randy Hoback

One presentation by Peter Abrametz, a former Liberal challenger to John Diefenbaker, urged the commission not to abolish outright hybrid urban-rural constituencies, bur rather to modify them to take into account greater population in urban areas. He raised the spectre of the commission inadvertently promoting gerrymandering that would favour certain parties.

Chair Justice Ron Mills responded brusquely with a reminder that members of the commission are appointed on the basis that they will impartially determine the best riding boundaries in accordance with legislation.

“The question of gerrymandering as I understand it, is an intentional act,” he said. “That’s different than perhaps the result of taking action and changing boundaries, giving the advantage to one or another … We have heard suggestions from many people suggesting that they think that we do provide a (new boundary) that will benefit one party or another. So be it. We’re not interested in what party may benefit or what party may hurt. That’s not a consideration.”

Abrametz later said he agreed with Mills’ response and was merely trying to draw attention to a letter written by provincial university faculty members arguing that the present structure contributes to different political outcomes.

 “The only point that I was trying to make is that if you look at the proposals that were made by the faculty members and the reason why they made those proposals, that gerrymandering had to be a matter of concern,” he said. “But there’s certainly no suggestion at all that the commission would be interested in … deliberately pursuing such a course of action, and I know that and I wasn’t suggesting that they would.”

Organizations: Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission, Carlton Comprehensive High School, Saskatchewan Commission Prince Albert

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Toronto, Ontario Alberta Canada Nipawin

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