Electoral Insight – Readjustment of Federal Electoral Boundaries
Co-Editor, Electoral Insight
Ridings, Representation & Redistribution
There are currently 301 electoral districts (ridings) across the country and a corresponding number of seats in Canada's House of Commons. The number will increase to 308 following completion of the current redistribution process and at the first dissolution of Parliament at least one year after proclamation of a new representation order. Canadians are represented geographically and by population in Parliament through a system set out in the Constitution and later legislation. Here's a look at some of the facts, figures, dates and events connected with the evolution of that system.
- Since Confederation, the term "riding" has been used in Canada to describe the geographic division in which residents elect one person to represent them in the House of Commons. More recently, it is used interchangeably with both "constituency" and "electoral district".
- The term "riding" originates in the United Kingdom, where it was used for many years to refer to the three administrative units into which the county of Yorkshire was divided: East Riding, North Riding and West Riding. Less certain is the suggestion that it may have once referred to the distance a horse could carry its rider in one day.
- Canada's first Parliament in 1867 had 181 seats, distributed as follows: 82 for Ontario, 65 for Quebec, 19 for Nova Scotia, and 15 for New Brunswick. The other provinces had not yet joined Confederation.
- At various times in Canada's history, a few federal ridings were represented by two members. In some cases, the dual-member ridings existed so that each political party could field both a Protestant and a Roman Catholic candidate in the same riding. The practice ended in 1966. (In 1996, Prince Edward Island ended its very long-standing practice of dual-member ridings, which had enabled landholders to elect members to the lower house of assembly and non-landholders to elect councillors to the province's upper house.)
- The redistribution now underway is the twentieth since Confederation. (Six were referred to as "partial" redistributions, and occurred mostly to create additional seats and ridings for new provinces entering Confederation.) A new redistribution occurs after each 10-year census to reflect changes and movements in Canada's population.
- The total number of seats in the House of Commons has increased at almost every redistribution. The largest increase was in 1976, when 18 seats were added. The next largest, in 1872, expanded the number of seats by 15, including six for British Columbia as it entered Confederation. B.C. currently has 34 seats.
- Only twice has the total number of seats declined. In 1892, it was reduced by two to 213, and in 1966, the number decreased by one to 264.
- Manitoba was originally allocated four seats in the first redistribution in 1871, following its entry into Confederation the previous year as a much smaller geographic entity than it is now. It currently has 14 seats.
- Saskatchewan and Alberta obtained 10 and 7 seats respectively in the 1907 redistribution, following the division of the Northwest Territories and their entry as provinces in 1905. Saskatchewan currently has 14 seats; Alberta has 26.
- Newfoundland, the last province to enter Confederation, in 1949, received 7 seats, the number it still has today.
- The Territories acquired one additional seat with the 1976 redistribution, bringing their total to three. Since the division of the Northwest Territories in 1999, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut have each had one seat.
- The least populated province, Prince Edward Island, has been the greatest beneficiary of a guarantee that no province will have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate. This is the "senatorial clause" constitutional amendment of 1915 (subsequently confirmed in the Charter in 1982). Prince Edward Island has four electoral districts, instead of the one it would have if its representation were based solely on population. P.E.I. had six seats when it entered Confederation in 1873.
- Eventually, concern over the continuing loss of seats by some provinces prompted Parliament to adopt the Representation Act, 1974, which guaranteed that no province would lose seats. The intent was to provide representation bearing in mind the historic undertakings arising out of Confederation and its responsibilities. The greatest beneficiary of this rule was Quebec, which continues to have 75 seats, rather than the 68 warranted by its population.
- The Representation Act, 1985, brought into effect a new "grandfather clause" that guaranteed each province will have no fewer seats than it received with the 1976 redistribution or had during the 33rd Parliament, when the Act was passed.
- Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta are the only provinces that usually have their seat entitlements decided solely based on their populations. The others benefit from the application of the "senatorial" and "grandfather" clauses.
- The responsibility for readjusting electoral district boundaries was first given to independent commissions by legislation (the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act) passed in November 1964.
- In dividing a province into federal electoral districts, an electoral boundaries commission is required to ensure that each one has a similar population size, to the extent possible. However, commissions may deviate from the average population figure when setting the boundaries. While restricted in most cases to a tolerance of 25 percent either way, a commission may exceed this limit "in circumstances viewed by the commission as being extraordinary." Such circumstances are primarily prevalent in sparsely populated northern and other rural electoral districts.
The 1997 Redistribution
- The most recent redistribution, which took effect at the dissolution of Parliament on April 27, 1997, for the 36th general election, increased the number of seats in the House of Commons from 295 to 301. This included four additional seats for Ontario and two more for British Columbia, largely due to population growth in those provinces.
- Only 31 of the 295 electoral districts did not experience any boundary changes in the 1997 redistribution.
- During the last redistribution, the electoral boundaries commissions received a total of 641 submissions from interested groups, individuals, municipalities and members of Parliament. This time, submissions to a commission can also be made through the on-line registration form available in the Federal Representation 2004 module on the Elections Canada Web site (www.elections.ca).
- Elections Canada produced about 800 new maps during the last redistribution process for use by the boundaries commissions and those interested in the proposed changes. Digital mapping, enabled by Geographic Information Systems (GIS), allowed for the integration of cartographic and demographic data. This assists the commissions in efficiently analysing the impact of various boundary scenarios.
- The total cost of the last redistribution, which concluded in 1997, was approximately $6.5 million, including the costs of the independent boundaries commissions, newspaper advertisements, public hearings, and the production of maps, commission reports and the final representation orders.
- Following the 1997 redistribution, the riding with the largest number of electors was Calgary Centre, with 83 749. Nunavut had the smallest number of electors – 17 397.
- The average size of an electoral district in Canada is 33 162 square kilometres, but this number is misleading, since it includes a few very large northern districts that cover tens of thousands of square kilometres. A typical southern riding is more likely to be several thousand square kilometres in size, while many heavily populated, urban ridings are less than one hundred square kilometres. (The average was calculated by dividing Canada's total 9 981 888 square kilometres by 301, the current number of electoral districts.)
- The largest electoral district in Canada is Nunavut. It is 3 177 463 square kilometres in size and has exactly the same boundaries as the northern territory of Nunavut. The smallest electoral district in Canada is Laurier—Sainte-Marie, in Montreal. It is only nine square kilometres in size.
- At the most recent general election in 2000, there was an average of almost 70 000 registered electors for each electoral district. They voted at an average of 190 polling stations in each riding, a total of 57 000 polls.
The Current Redistribution
- The current redistribution, based on population increases and shifts determined by the 2001 census, will add seven districts (and seats), including three for Ontario, two for British Columbia and two for Alberta. This will bring the total number of seats to 308.
- Electoral districts
- Ontario: 82
- Quebec: 65
- Nova Scotia: 19
- New Brunswick: 15
- Total seats in House of Commons: 181
- Population of Canada: 3 230 000
- Total seats in House of Commons: 213
- Population of Canada: 4 833 000
- Total seats in House of Commons: 245
- Population of Canada: 8 888 000
A new one occurs after each decennial census
- Total seats in House of Commons: 264
- Population of Canada: 20 015 000
1997 increases in electoral districts
- British Columbia: 2
- Ontario: 4
Current redistribution increases
- British Columbia: 2
- Alberta: 2
- Ontario: 3
- Canada: 7
Population of Canada
- 1991 census: 27 296 859
- 2001 census: 30 007 094
Total number of electoral districts
- Currently: 301
- After redistribution: 308
John C. Courtney, Commissioned Ridings, Designing Canada's Electoral Districts. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001.
Representation in the House of Commons of Canada. Elections Canada, 2001.
The Parliamentary Guide, various editions.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.