The next member of Parliament for Yorkton-Melville will likely have more ground to cover.
The expansion of four existing federal rural electoral districts—including Yorkton-Melville—and the creation of three new ones was necessitated by overwhelming feedback that Saskatchewan needs urban-only seats for the province’s two major cities according to a proposal made by the Federal Boundaries Commission for Saskatchewan.
“The population shifts of the past decade called into question the continued suitability of the composite urban-rural electoral districts,” the commission stated in its proposal. “This issue is central to the Commission’s proposal for the province’s 14 electoral districts. It was also central to the concerns expressed by a considerable number of Saskatchewanians who contacted the Commission with communications ranging from brief, one-sentence or one-paragraph notes to formal documents presented on behalf of a group or association. These communications almost unanimously voiced opposition to the continued use of hybrid urban-rural districts in Saskatchewan.”
The commission wrapped up public hearings two weeks ago in Saskatoon and although the commissioners are still meeting to digest their findings, there is little chance the proposed boundaries will change significantly.
“I haven’t heard one person so far claim that urban and rural areas have the same interest,” said Dr. David McGrane, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan. “The only argument that I’ve heard so far is that they trade with each other, share economic linkages. Unless somebody can come up with a very good argument that urban and rural people do not have different interests, I think it’s going to be very hard to convince the commission to change this map.”
The commission has proposed five new urban ridings, three for Saskatoon and two for Regina. Consequently, the Yorkton-Melville riding will be picking up some new territory stretching almost to Humboldt in the east and past Lenore Lake in the north. It includes the towns Quill Lake, Watson, Naicam, Englefeld, Muenster, Lake Lenore, St. Brieux, Annaheim, Leroy and Spalding.
The area was formerly part of the Saskatoon-Humboldt riding. The remainder of the former Saskatoon-Humboldt district will combine with parts of four other ridings to form a new Kindersley-Rosetown-Humboldt rural riding.
The new Yorkton-Melville will also lose a small area of agricultural land just east of Melville bounded by Hwy 15 in the north and Hwy 10 in the south.
Urban-rural districts were first created in the 1966 redistribution. Prior to that, Regina and Saskatoon were electoral districts unto themselves. The primary argument for the current system at the time was that it forces MPs to be sensitive to both rural and urban needs.
The last time the boundaries were adjusted in 2001, that same argument prevailed forcing the commission at that time to abandon urban-only ridings for Saskatoon.
“The commission did a complete about-face when they submitted their proposals,” said Justice Ron Mills, chair of the current commission. “Are the public hearings important? Absolutely. The public hearings resulted in the change.”
That will probably not be the case this time, but that’s not to say there isn’t opposition to the proposed changes.
“The present boundary system has been working well, so I wouldn’t try to fix something that’s not broken,” said Garry Breitkreuz, the sitting member for Yorkton-Melville. “Saskatchewan is unique in that we have about 50 per cent of the cropland in Canada and our agricultural sector is important in our province. Our cities need to support our rural areas and going to urban area only ridings would greatly diminish the voice of agriculture.”
These kinds of statements by politicians have been widely criticized as being motivated by self-interest. Many political columnists, including syndicated Regina Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk, have been scathing in their assessment that mixed ridings largely favour Saskatchewan Conservatives.
“The bigger the partisan self-interest, the stupider the argument,” Mandryk wrote. “And there is massive, partisan self-interest among federal Conservatives to maintain the current urban-rural split ridings, where pockets of anti-Conservative urban votes are diluted by large rural components.
“For this reason, we witnessed a parade of Conservatives (MPs, candidates, party executives, etc.) advancing the laughable notion that there’s really no difference between voters in Rosetown and Riversdale or Nokomis and North Central.”
There is little doubt, for example, that Kelly Block, the Conservative MP for Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, would have lost to the NDP in the 2011 election if the proposed, exclusively urban Saskatoon West district had already been created.
“The federal Conservative Party was dramatically over-represented [in Saskatchewan],” said Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at York University. “By attaching the urban areas to rural areas, [the Conservatives] basically allowed their rural dominance to overwhelm their urban opponents.”
It’s not just Conservatives, though, who favour the status quo.
“When you’re an MP for a certain area, you get used to that area,” said Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, Saskatchewan’s only non-Conservative member who has represented the urban-rural Regina constituency of Wascana since 1993. “You know the people, you become comfortable with that and when that changes it presents new issues and new problems.”
Even the NDP, who ostensibly stand to gain ground in urban areas, particularly Saskatoon, have greeted the proposal with tepid approval.
Former NDP candidate Nettie Wiebe, who narrowly lost out to Block in the last election, admitted the proposed boundaries were “not overwhelmingly positive” for the NDP while still condemning under-representation of non-Conservatives.
Perhaps more controversial than the boundaries debate for Saskatchewan, however, is the number of MPs allocated to the province. In December 2011, Parliament passed the Fair Representation Act, adding 30 new seats to the House of Commons for a total of 338. In the 2015 election, Ontario will have 15 new districts, Alberta six, British Columbia six and Quebec three.
This had many Saskatchewanians scratching their heads. According to the 2011 Census, Saskatchewan was the second fastest growing province at 6.7 per cent over 2006, second only to Alberta (10.8 per cent).
While confusing to some, the proportionality of seat distribution comes down to some pretty simple math combined with constitutional guarantees.
For the current round of redistribution, a province’s initial entitlement is calculated by dividing the provincial population by the electoral quotient. The electoral quotient is 111,166, determined by dividing the total population of Canada by 279 (the number of seats in Parliament as of 1985 (282) minus three seats guaranteed to the three territories).
In Saskatchewan’s case, the initial entitlement under this formula is nine seats (1,033,381 population divided by 111,166). But the Constitution guarantees that no province shall have fewer seats than it had in 1985 (grandfather clause) or fewer seats than it has in the Senate (senate clause).
If a province is under-represented according to the formula, seats are added to keep some semblance of proportionality. Currently, seven provinces are over-represented according to the formula, while BC, Alberta and Ontario are under-represented by 27 seats.
Quebec is a special case. Although not specifically guaranteed by the Constitution, successive redistributions have always attempted to keep that province’s representation at around 25 per cent of the overall number of seats.