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Northern MPs pushing back against riding boundary changes

Northern Ontario’s 10 MPs come together across party lines to encourage constituents to tell federal electoral boundaries commission reducing the number of ridings to nine weakens region’s voice in Ottawa
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The Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission is proposing to cut the number of Northern Ontario ridings from 10 to nine, and reconfigure both the Sudbury and Nickel Belt ridings.

In a process that repeats itself every decade, Northern Ontario MPs are encouraging their constituents to push back on a proposal to reduce the number of ridings in the North.

As is required every 10 years under the Electorial Boundaries Readjustment Act, independent commissions are struck in each province and territory to examine population changes in ridings across the country and to reconfigure riding boundaries accordingly. 

The commission released a map of its proposed riding redistribution on Aug. 19. You can see it here.

The goal is, as much as possible, to ensure equitable representation in Ottawa for all regions of the country.

For geographically immense and sparsely populated Northern Ontario, this has traditionally resulted in a fight to preserve ridings. Because of the North’s smaller population, northern ridings have a lower voter-quotient (the number of voters per riding). 

For the 122 ridings in Ontario, 116,590 is the quota the commission strives for per riding. On average, ridings in the North have populations below 100,000, reflecting the region’s lower population density.

The 2002 boundary redistribution resulted in the elimination of the Temiskaming-Cochrane riding, reducing the number of Northern ridings to 10 from 11. In 2012, the commission kept the status quo — possibly because one of the commissioners was from North Bay and was more familiar and sympathetic to the North’s needs, Nickel Belt MP Marc Serré told Sudbury.com.

There is no northern commissioner this time, he added, which means the North is going to have to make some noise if the region wants to ensure it has the loudest voice possible in Ottawa.

Serré said Northern Ontario’s 10 MPs, regardless of party affiliation, are on the same page about the proposal: reducing the number of ridings to nine isn’t good for the North.

The proposal as it stands now calls for the elimination of the Algoma riding, the riding once held by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Axing it would not only weaken the North’s voice, Serré said, it would also eliminate a riding that has some historic significance.

“Let’s keep the number of seats at 10 and keep the boundaries as they are with some minor tweaking,” Serré said.

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus, whose riding would become Cochrane-Timmins-Timiskaming under the changes, called the proposal a “kick in the teeth.”

"The proposed changes to the electoral boundaries of Northern Ontario represents a major diminishment of the north’s ability to have adequate representation on the national stage. It is a kick in the teeth to the fundamental principle that people in the isolated north have a right to be able to interact with and receive service from their MP offices," Angus said in a Facebook post.

"The fact that the Boundary Commission has released this report as northern municipalities are heading into municipal elections is a further slap in the face. This means that municipal officials and councils will be excluded from the public comment period. Talk about stacking the deck."

Because Northern ridings are always below the desired voter population quotient and because population growth (2.8 per cent since the last redistribution in 2012) has made that quotient even wider, the commission justifies its proposal by redistributing the boundaries to increase the population in each.

The commission said under the formula current demographics and the voter parity mandate suggest the North should have two fewer ridings; commissioners rejected that though.

“The Commission … decided to propose a reduction of only one constituency, to arrive at a total of nine constituencies, including one constituency of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ (a new riding of Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk with a population of just 36,325),” the commission states on its website. “The Commission recognized that most of the eight ‘non-extraordinary’ Northern Ontario ridings have significant deviations from the quotient (of 116,000 residents per riding). However, the Commission concluded that any further reduction in the number of electoral districts in the North would jeopardize the principle of effective representation in this part of the province.”

Besides the proposed Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk riding, the remaining eight ridings “are of reasonable size and accessible by the well-established road network anchored by Highways 11 and 17. Their boundaries have also been redrawn to reduce significant deviations from the quotient. As we indicated previously, when a French-speaking community represented a significant percentage of the population of an electoral district, the proposed boundaries ensure that their representation is not diluted or diminished by this redistricting plan.”

Despite what the commission states on its website, Serré points out some of the proposed changes will impact traditional relationships between communities and lump communities together that have far different characteristics and far different needs.

For instance, he points out that under the proposal, rural West Nipissing with its majority Francophone population would be carved out of the Nickel Belt riding (mostly rural, high-population of French-speakers) and tacked onto Nipissing, which is more urban and less French.

Not only would the proposal as accepted weaken the North’s voice in parliament, it would weaken the representation MPs can provide to their constituents, Serré said, lengthening travel times between communities, limiting an MP’s ability to work at constituency offices and limiting the amount of government funding available for Northern Ontario (because of the reduction in the number of ridings). 

Plus, Serré said he feels the larger ridings and weakened ability to represent the residents of those ridings “would also discourage people from running” as MP.

For this region, the proposal would increase the size of both the Sudbury and Nickel Belt ridings. You can view the current distribution map and the proposed redistribution here.

Nickel Belt would become Manitoulin-Nickel Belt, and would technically no longer be a belt around the Sudbury riding. The riding would stretch from the U.S. border east to encompass Manitoulin Island and the French River region as far east as Noelville, as well as Espanola and Elliott Lake. The northern border of the riding would extend from west of Biscotasi Lake Provincial Park to Obabika River Provincial Provincial Park. 

The Sudbury riding would keep its name, but grow to encompass Coniston and Wahnapitae nearly as far east as Stinson, and would grow to the north to include Capreol, Garson, Falconbridge and the Greater Sudbury Airport.

Serré said Northern Ontario MPs are calling on mayors, councillors, community groups, community leaders and concerned citizens to push back against the proposed redistribution.

Submissions to the commission can be made in a few ways. You can submit feedback in writing, attend a public hearing forum (of which there will only be one for Northern Ontario and it will be held in Timmins on Oct. 11), or participate in a virtual hearing.

The deadline for written submissions is Sept. 25. Public hearings begin on Sept. 26 and run to Oct. 29. A final report will be published before the end of December. MP objections will be gathered from November 2022 to May 2023, and the commission will review objections until June of next year. The representation order is set for September 2023.

If you wish to make a submission, all of the information you will need can be found here.

-With files from TBNewswatch.com