The federal Conservatives are likely to gain the most once Canada’s new electoral map is set in place later this year, says the pollster who ran the numbers for the Liberal war room in the last three general elections.
As the country moves from 338 electoral districts to 343, new seats are being created mostly in parts of the country that have tended to vote Conservative. And a handful of existing ridings currently represented by New Democrat or Liberal MPs are turning more ‘blue’ with new boundaries. Overall, of the existing 338 ridings, 271 will see their boundaries changed.
“I think when you add up the numbers there, the new map does look like it will benefit the Conservatives,” said Dan Arnold, who became the chief strategy officer at Pollara Strategic Insights last year but, before that, was the director of research in Justin Trudeau’s PMO and the polling director for the Liberal Party in the 2015, 2019 and 2021 general election campaigns.
“By and large, it’s only minor changes. It’s not going to be a dramatic shift. But there are elections where a couple of seats can be decisive. So I do think, all things being equal, the Conservatives would probably rather fight the next election under the new map than the old map.”
Three of the next electoral map’s five new seats are going to be in Alberta, where the Conservatives have dominated for decades. The Conservatives currently hold 31 of 34 seats in that province.
British Columbia is getting one more seat, a seat that is being carved out of southern B.C.’s interior, a region that tends to vote Conservative.
And while Ontario gets one more seat, Toronto itself loses a seat, dropping from 25 to 24. The Liberals currently hold every seat in Toronto.
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Then there are a handful of existing districts that may become more Tory blue with the new riding map.
The Winnipeg riding of Elmwood–Trascona is a good example. The riding was the long-time seat of NDP giant Bill Blaikie and has been held since 2015 by his son Daniel, also a New Democrat.
But the riding is now set to get a new western and southern boundary. The riding will more than double in geographic size and is set to consist of most, but not all, of its original mostly urban section — where residents tend to vote New Democrat — as it adds a large rural component from the current riding of Provencher, a riding which has a long history of voting Conservative. The majority of the rural polls about to be folded into Elmwood-Transcona voted Conservative in the last several general elections.
Blaikie is one of several MPs unhappy with the proposed new boundaries to have appealed to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. Neither MPs nor the commissions that drew up the new riding maps can, by law, alter boundaries for partisan considerations, but the law does allow for riding boundaries to be adjusted or remain the same in order to preserve what are called “communities of interest.”
Blaikie, in his appeal to the Commons committee, argued that the voters in the rural areas that are proposed to join his riding do not share the same interests as the urban dwellers in the original part of Elmwood–Transcona.
“I think it is a reasonable goal of the redistribution process to try to have urban ridings and rural ridings, without the split, where possible,” Blaikie testifed at the committee’s meeting Feb. 2. “I think that’s a significant division when it comes to communities of interest.”
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The Ontario commission, if not the Manitoba commission, appears to have bought Blaikie’s argument on urban-rural splits and communities of interest. It has, for example, taken the Ottawa ridings currently held by Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and a neighbouring riding held by the Liberal MP Jenna Sudds and essentially handed most of the rural voters off to Poilievre while keeping the Liberal-leaning residents in a smaller, more urban riding. Poilievre’s riding of Carleton becomes much bigger, more rural and more Conservative, based on historic voting patterns. Sudds’ current riding of Kanata-Carleton becomes the riding of Kanata, a geographically much smaller and more urban riding but also, again based on historic voting patterns, more Liberal riding.
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Similarly, the Ontario commission took the Toronto-area riding of Pickering-Uxbridge and divided it up along urban-rural lines. The southern half of Pickering–Uxbridge, currently held by Liberal Jennifer O’Connell, becomes the riding of Pickering–Brooklin, picking up some polls from the northern part of the riding of Whitby. And while those northern Whitby polls tended to vote Conservative, Pickering–Brooklin, because it is now more urban, should be more favourable to O’Connell’s re-election chances.
But the rest of the former riding of Pickering–Uxbridge, the northern rural half, moves to a new riding to be called York–Durham that contains a much higher proportion of rural areas versus urban or suburban areas and, as a result, would likely lean Conservative based on previous voting patterns.
Trying to keep “communities of interest” together when re-drawing riding boundaries is a concept that may appear sound, but can be much trickier to implement, said Michael Pal, a University of Ottawa law professor who specializes in electoral law and who once served as a member of a riding redistribution commission.
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“The commissions have a lot of tough choices to make,” Pal said. “Communities of interest [are] basically groups, identities that are relevant to people. It could be urban versus rural, it could be linguistic minorities, could be racialized minorities. And so the commissions are supposed to take those factors into account in trying to keep communities together, or at least not to divide up their voting power in a way that’s harmful to those groups.”
Blaikie’s attempt to keep large numbers of rural voters out of his urban riding has sound political logic to it. By and large, in English Canada at least, the more urban a riding is, the more likely it is to lean New Democrat or Liberal. The more rural it is, the more likely it is to lean Conservative.
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That said, Arnold, the former Liberal pollster, does warn caution.
“I do think there’s a bit of a tendency at times to overanalyze some of these smaller shifts. The next election will be very different than [the last one]. A lot of other factors are going to impact things,” Arnold said. “So just because a riding looks a little bit more favourable to a given party doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to win that riding in the next election campaign.”
The system of independent provincial commissions re-drawing riding maps has been in place in Canada since 1964. After each decennial census, Elections Canada makes a recommendation on the adjustment of the number of seats to be added to the House of Commons, a recommendation which must be approved by the House of Commons.
After that, though, it’s up to three-person commissions in each province to re-draw existing maps to account for those new seats or redistribute existing seats based on population shifts.
The head of each provincial commission is a judge appointed by the chief justice of each provincial court. The other two members of each provincial commission are appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons and tend to be academics or retired civil servants. So far, at least, the Canadian system of re-drawing electoral districts has avoided the gerrymandering controversies of the United States where state legislatures get to re-draw electoral maps and often do so to obtain a partisan advantage for the party in control of that legislature.
The “final reports” of each provincial commission are put forward after public consultations and after an initial report is tabled with a first draft of new riding boundaries.
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Blaikie and other MPs who do not like the boundaries in the final reports are fighting an uphill battle, says Pal.
“Overall they don’t have much success, but sometimes they have,” Pal said. “Usually, most of the changes have happened in advance and the MPs often had a chance to speak in the public consultation process, as well.”
In fact, MPs normally never end up voting on new boundaries. Each provincial commission will consider the complaints or suggestions by MPs but, at the end of the day, the final decision is made by those independent commissions.
“So that’s one of the great things about the Canadian system — the representation order goes into force and the House doesn’t actually have to vote on it because you’d imagine if they did, that would be another chance where we might worry about gerrymandering,” said Pal.
The commissions are expected to make their final decision in April. And, by law, the new boundaries would then be in effect for any general election that occurs seven months after that final decision is made.