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Canadian electoral district

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Title: Canadian electoral district  
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Subject: Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Canadian federal election, 2006, Scarborough East, Canada
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Canadian electoral district

An electoral district in Canada, also known as a "constituency" or a "riding", is a geographical constituency upon which Canada's representative democracy is based. It is officially known in Canadian French as a circonscription, but frequently called a comté (county).

Each federal electoral districts returns one Member of Parliament (MP) to the Canadian House of Commons; each provincial or territorial electoral district returns one representative — called, depending on the province or territory, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Member of the National Assembly (MNA), Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) or Member of the House of Assembly (MHA) — to the provincial or territorial legislature.

While electoral districts in Canada are now exclusively single-member districts, in the past, multiple-member districts were used at both the federal and provincial levels. Alberta had a few districts in its history that returned from two up to seven members: see Calgary, Edmonton and Medicine Hat. British Columbia had a mix of multiple-member districts in Vancouver and single-member districts elsewhere until the 1991 election, and Prince Edward Island had dual-member districts until the 1996 election.

Since June 28, 2004, there have been 308 federal electoral districts in Canada. In accordance with the Fair Representation Act (introduced as Bill C-20), which received Royal Assent and came into force on December 16, 2011, the number of seats contested in the expected 2015 election election will rise to 338.[1] Ontario uses the same boundaries for the electoral districts for its Legislative Assembly in Southern Ontario, while seats in Northern Ontario correspond to the federal districts that were in place before the 2004 adjustment. The other provinces use different electoral districts for their legislatures. Ontario had separate provincial ridings prior to 1999.

Elections Canada is the independent body set up by Parliament to oversee Canadian federal elections.


Originally, most electoral districts were equivalent to the counties used for local government, hence the French unofficial term comté. However, it became common, especially in Ontario, to divide counties with sufficient population into multiple electoral divisions; these became unofficially known as ridings, from an archaic British term denoting a subdivision of a county. In some of Canada's earliest censuses, in fact, some citizens in the ridings of Bothwell, Cardwell, Monck and Niagara listed their electoral district as their "county" of residence instead of their actual county.

Soon after Confederation, the urban population grew — and more importantly, most city dwellers gained the franchise after property ownership was no longer required to gain the vote. Rural constituencies therefore became geographically larger through the 20th century and generally encompassed one or more counties each, and the word "riding" was then used to refer to any electoral division.

A political party's local organization is generally known as a riding association.

Naming conventions

Electoral district names are usually geographic in nature, and chosen to represent the community or region within the electoral district boundaries. Where a federal district's name includes more than one geographic designation, it is properly denoted with an em dash (—) between each distinct geographic name, for example Toronto—Danforth and Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale (but Cape Breton—Canso, not Cape–Breton–Canso, as "Cape Breton" is a single geographic name.) Where a single geographic name contains a hyphen, that is also not replaced by an en dash (e.g., Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, not Saint–Hyacinthe–Bagot; Saint-Lambert, not Saint–Lambert.) Where a district's name includes a geographic designation and an ordinal direction (e.g., Calgary Centre), there is generally no punctuation between the two words or phrases.

Some electoral districts in Quebec are named for historical figures rather than geography (e.g., Louis-Hébert, Honoré-Mercier); these contain hyphens between the words, not em dashes. Similarly in Alberta provincial districts mix geographic names with those of historical personages (e.g., Edmonton-Decore after Laurence Decore, Calgary-Lougheed after Peter Lougheed and James Alexander Lougheed). This practice is no longer employed in the other provinces and territories.[2]

Some ridings, especially ridings with large numbers of both francophone and anglophone voters, may be named or punctuated differently in English and French. The Manitoba riding of Saint Boniface, for example, is referred to in French as "Saint-Boniface", with a hyphen.

Depending on local convention, however, provincial electoral districts may use a hyphen instead of an em dash in this context.

Boundary adjustment

Electoral district boundaries are adjusted to reflect population changes after each decennial census. Depending on the significance of a boundary change, an electoral district's name may change as well. Any adjustment of electoral district boundaries is official as of the date the changes are legislated, but is not put into actual effect until the first subsequent election. Thus, an electoral district may officially cease to exist, but will continue to be represented status quo in the House of Commons until the next election is called. This, for example, gives new riding associations time to organize, and prevents the confusion that would result from changing elected MPs' electoral district assignments in the middle of a Parliament.

On some occasions (e.g., Timiskaming—French River, Toronto—Danforth), a riding's name may be changed without a boundary adjustment. This usually happens when it is determined at a later date that the existing name is not sufficiently representative of the district's geographic boundaries. This is the only circumstance in which a sitting MP's riding name may change between elections.


The present formula for adjusting electoral boundaries was adopted in 1985.[3] It starts with the number of seats in Parliament at that time, 282. One seat is automatically allocated to each of Canada's three territories, leaving 279. The total population of Canada's provinces is thus divided by 279, resulting in an "electoral quotient", and then the population of each individual province is divided by this electoral quotient to determine the number of seats to which the province is officially entitled.

Finally, a few special rules are applied. Under the "senatorial clause", a province's number of seats in the House of Commons can never be lower than its constitutionally mandated number of senators, regardless of the province's population.[3] Under the "grandfather clause", the province's number of seats can also never fall below the number of seats it had in the 33rd Canadian parliament.[3]

A province may be allocated extra seats over its base entitlement to ensure that these rules are met. In 2004, for example, Prince Edward Island would have been entitled to only a single seat according to the electoral quotient, but through the senatorial clause the province gained three more seats to equal its four senators. Quebec was only entitled to 68 seats by the electoral quotient alone, but through the grandfather clause the province gained seven seats to equal the 75 seats it had in the 33rd Parliament. Saskatchewan and Manitoba also gained seats under the grandfather clause, New Brunswick gained seats under the senatorial clause, and Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador gained seats under both clauses.

A third protection clause exists, under which a province may not lose more than 15 per cent of its seats in a single adjustment,[3] but specific application of this rule has never been needed. In practice, the process results in most provinces maintaining the same number of seats from one redistribution to the next, due to the senatorial and grandfather clauses — as of 2013, only Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, traditionally the country's three fastest-growing provinces, have more seats in the current Parliament than they did in 1985. The clause will thus only become relevant if one of those three provinces undergoes a rapid population decline, leading to a reduction in their seat entitlement, in the future. The current redistribution process, which is adding three seats in Quebec, is the first time since 1985 that any of the other seven provinces has gained new seats.

Some sources incorrectly state that a special provision guaranteeing a certain number of seats to Quebec is also applied. While such a provision was proposed in the failed Charlottetown Accord, no such rule currently exists — Quebec's seat allotment in the House of Commons is in fact governed by the same adjustment clauses as all other provinces, and not by any provisions unique to Quebec alone.

In 2008 the government of Stephen Harper proposed an amendment to the process which would have given Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, the three provinces whose electoral districts have an average size larger than those in Quebec, a total of 32 additional seats by applying Quebec's average of 105,000.[4] The measure initially included only British Columbia and Alberta; Harper later proposed an alternative plan which included Ontario. However, opposition then emerged in Quebec, where politicians expressed concern about the province losing clout in Ottawa if its proportion of seats in the House of Commons were reduced; finally, three new seats were allotted to Quebec as well. The measure did not pass before the 2011 election was called,[5] but was put forward again after the election.[6] It was passed on December 16, 2011 as the Fair Representation Act (Bill C-20),[1] although the process to determine the precise boundaries of the new ridings is ongoing as of early 2013.

Boundary review

When the province's final seat allotment is determined, an independent election boundaries commission in each province reviews the existing boundaries and proposes adjustments. Public input is then sought, which may then lead to changes in the final boundary proposal. For instance, the proposed boundaries may not accurately reflect a community's historical, political or economic relationship with its surrounding region; the community would thus advise the boundary commission that it wished to be included in a different electoral district.

For example, in the 2003 boundary adjustment, the boundary commission in Ontario originally proposed dividing the city of Greater Sudbury into three districts. The urban core would have remained largely unchanged as Sudbury, while communities west of the central city would have been merged with Algoma—Manitoulin to form the new riding of Greater Sudbury—Manitoulin, and those east and north of the central city would have been merged with Timiskaming to create the riding of Timiskaming—Greater Sudbury.[7]

Due to the region's economic and transportation patterns, however, "Timiskaming—Greater Sudbury" was particularly opposed by its potential residents — voters in Sudbury were concerned about the weakening of their representation if the city were divided into one city-based riding and two large rural ones rather than two city-based ridings,[8] while the Timiskaming District is much more strongly aligned with and connected to North Bay, to which it has a direct highway link, than to Sudbury. In a deputation to the boundary commission, Sudbury's deputy mayor Ron Dupuis stated that "An electoral district must be more than a mere conglomeration of arbitrary and random groups of individuals. Districts should, as much as possible, be cohesive units with common interests related to representation. This makes a representative’s job of articulating the interests of his or her constituency much easier."[8] Instead, in the final report that was passed by the House of Commons, the Sudbury area's existing ridings of Sudbury and Nickel Belt were retained with only minor boundary adjustments, while the Timiskaming riding was merged with Nipissing. Despite the opposition that arose to the 2003 process, however, virtually the same tripartite division of the city was proposed in the boundary adjustment of 2012,[9] although due to concerns around balancing the Northern Ontario region's population against its geographic size, the commission announced in 2013 that it would retain the existing electoral districts once again.[10]

Similarly, opposition arose in Toronto during the 2012 redistribution process, especially to a proposal which would have divided the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood, the city's primary gay village, between the existing riding of Toronto Centre and a new riding of Mount Pleasant along the length of Wellesley Street.[11] In the final report, the northern boundary of Toronto Centre was shifted north to Charles Street.[12]

Once the final report is produced, it is then submitted to Parliament for approval, which is given by voting on the report as a piece of legislation known as a Representation Order. From Canadian Confederation, the boundaries were defined by the Constitution Act, 1867. Boundaries for one or more electoral districts were updated in 1872, 1882, 1892, 1903, 1914, 1924, 1933, and 1947. Subsequent changes are known as Representation Order, and occurred in 1952, 1966, 1976, 1987, 1996 and 2003.[13] Such changes come into force "on the first dissolution of Parliament that occurs at least one year after its proclamation".[13] For example, the 2003 Representation Order was deemed to be effective 1 January 2004,[14] and came into force after dissolution of the 37th Canadian Parliament on 6 February 2006.

Political issues

Because electoral district boundaries are proposed by an arms-length body, rather than directly by political parties themselves, gerrymandering is not generally seen as a major issue in Canada. However, in 2006 the provincial government of Prince Edward Island was accused of gerrymandering[15] after it rejected the independent boundary commission's report and instead proposed a new map which would have seen the cities of Charlottetown and Summerside each gain one additional seat, with two fewer seats allocated to rural areas of the province.[16] The alternate map gave every incumbent member of the governing party a "safe" seat to run in, while the original report would have forced some of the party's MLAs to compete against each other in nomination contests.

The unequal size of electoral districts across Canada has sometimes given rise to discussion of whether all Canadians enjoy equal democratic representation by population.[5] For example, the four electoral districts in Prince Edward Island have an average size of just 33,963 voters each, while electoral districts in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have an average size of over 125,000 voters each — only slightly smaller, in fact, than the entire population of Prince Edward Island — and the four Atlantic Provinces combined have a total of 32 seats, more than Alberta even though this province has a significantly larger population than the total population of the Atlantic provinces.[17]

Conversely, pure representation by population creates distinct disadvantages for some Canadians, giving rise to frequent debate about how to balance the population size of electoral districts against their geographic size. Whereas urban districts, such as Toronto Centre, Vancouver Quadra or Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, may be as small as 50 km2 or less, more rural districts, such as Timmins—James Bay, Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou or Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River may encompass tens or hundreds of thousands of square kilometres in size. Thus, while Canadians who reside in major urban centres typically live within walking distance of their federal or provincial representatives' constituency offices, a rural resident may not even be able to call their MP's or MPP's constituency offices without incurring long-distance calling charges.

Further, a rural politician who represents dozens of geographically dispersed small towns must normally incur much greater travel expenses, being forced to drive for several hours, or even to travel by air, in order to visit parts of their own district — and may even need to maintain more than one constituency office in order to properly represent all of their constituents. In Ontario, for example, the highest annual expense budgets among members of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario are consistently filed by the representatives for Timmins—James Bay and Kenora, the province's two largest and northernmost electoral districts; both must spend far more on travel to and from Toronto, travel within their own ridings and additional support staff in multiple communities within their ridings than any other legislator in the province.[18]

See also


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