The Scheer madness of Saskatchewan’s boundary battle

Colby Cosh on pie slices and the boundaries commission


It is my duty pursuant to section 21 of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act to lay upon the table a certified copy of the reports of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commissions for the provinces of New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. These reports are referred permanently to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Andrew Scheer, uttered these words Monday. As it happens, one of the reports he plopped down before the House touches closely upon the interests of his other (secret?) identity as Member for Regina-Qu’Appelle. The proposed riding map for Saskatchewan is by far the most controversial of the 10 now approaching finalization. It’s so controversial that one of the three commissioners appointed to draw the map refused to sign off on it, filing a minority report instead.

This is thought to be the first time that a Canadian boundaries commission has split irreconcilably in this way. It’s a nasty failure, since the whole point of a boundaries commission is to use logic to arrive at a broadly acceptable nonpartisan consensus. A conscientious government would be careful to avoid trouble of this sort from the outset, but apparently nobody saw it coming.

The problem isn’t partisanship as such. For the past few decades Saskatchewan’s federal riding map has had a unique “pie-slice” nature whereby there are no constituencies wholly within either of the two major cities. The good folks in southwest Regina, for example, have voted in the Palliser riding, alongside residents of Moose Jaw, since 1996. Voters in the northeast of the city are in the Regina-Qu’Appelle riding, mixing their votes with those of a half-dozen small towns like Indian Head and Wynyard—the latter being almost 200 kilometres away by road.

This arrangement was originally tolerated on the premise that in Saskatchewan there are no meaningful differences of culture or interest between the city and the country. All are one under the sign of the wheat sheaf. This seems to have become a perverse point of provincial pride, much like the lack of a sales tax in Alberta; the boundary commissioners were told often at public hearings that there is no such thing as “urban Saskatchewan” for political purposes. Two of the panelists dismissed this argument, snortingly, and created five new all-urban ridings, three in Saskatoon and two in Regina. The third member of the commission, David Marit, feels so strongly about the truth of the argument that he is willing to jeopardize the whole mapmaking exercise by refusing to sign a unanimous report.

What the people making this argument really mean, naturally, is that the “pie-slice” system has allowed rural Saskatchewan and the satellite cities to dominate or at least counterbalance Regina and Saskatoon in federal elections. Dissenter Marit is the president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities; I suppose he would have us believe he wants the big cities to remain divided for some other purpose than “divide and conquer.” But, of course, anybody who followed the 2011 election knows how the rural tail ends up wagging the urban dog under the existing system. The New Democrats picked up 32.3% of the vote provincewide, but this translated to zero seats in Parliament; the Liberals, with 8.6%, recaptured Ralph Goodale’s Wascana seat quite comfortably.

I took a look at the poll-by-poll results from the election, counting only the Regina and Saskatoon votes within the mixed ridings. These totals exclude advance and mobile polls.

As you can see, within the major cities the New Democrats are very competitive indeed with the Conservatives. (Though it’s also worth noting, lest any myths of extreme injustice and skulduggery flourish, that the Conservatives do seem to have “won” both metropolises.) Palliser MP Ray Boughen, a former mayor of Moose Jaw, would have gotten his clock cleaned if not for the Moose Javian votes. Farmer Nettie Wiebe, the NDP candidate in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, won a majority in the city and got beaten narrowly (for the third time in a row) on the strength of rural votes. And, sure enough, Speaker Scheer got fewer votes within Regina than the NDP’s Fred Clipsham.

It remains to be seen how well Thomas Mulcair’s “Western strategy” will ultimately work out, but in essence the Conservatives will start the 2015 campaign a couple seats down in Saskatchewan by virtue of the new electoral map alone. That is assuming the Conservatives in the Procedure Committee don’t use David Marit’s dissent as a pretext to go after the new map with a fat blue pencil. Vigilance is urged.


The Scheer madness of Saskatchewan’s boundary battle

  1. You’d know, but is it realy “Moose Javian”? It does make sense, and is wonderful.

  2. The only snorting done here is by you, Cosh. The two commissioners, one of whom is esteemed political scientist and electoral boundary expert John Courtney, offered well founded and reasonable arguments to support their recommendations. Marit, on the other hand, along with the majority of respondents to the commission, are all trying to keep the balance of power on the side of rural Saskatchewan, even as they lose people and the two major cities grow.

    Saskatchewan deserves to be the final province to have exclusively urban constituencies. The province’s two largest cities are growing at a phenomenal rate, especially Saskatoon, and most of this growth has come from outside of Saskatchewan. Surely they have no ties and few commonalities with those in rural Saskatchewan. If the Conservatives refuse to change the electoral map, it will be clear that they don’t care about progress or democracy, only their political fortunes.

    • So are you working on the premise that all Urban Canadians are the same, while Rural Saskatchewanians are different from Rural Manitobans who are different from Rural Albertans? That’s a stretch, I’d say.

  3. indeed, “Moose Javian” is how you refer to citizens of Moose jaw!

  4. I’m not opposed to “all-urban” ridings. Grouping citizens of common geography with similar interests makes sense.

    But, it’s all a balance. Saskatchewan has 14 MPs. If you have more “all-urban” ridings, then the rural ridings get larger: Moose Jaw, who you note previously voted with Regina citizens, will now vote with citizens of Clavet, a growing ‘bedroom’ community just 16km East of Saskatoon and 220km North of Moose Jaw. Surely it makes more sense to have the citizens of Clavet (many of whom commute to Saskatoon daily) represented by an MP who also represents Saskatoon.

    • That’s a factor but I think the bigger concern was how much physically bigger the rural ridings will have to be to accommodate the newer ridings. MPs who actually want to talk to their constituents will have to spend more time criss-crossing vast expanses of prairie.

      • There are many cases in Canada where it has been deemed acceptable to have huge areas represented by a single MP. The entire northern half of Saskatchewan is represented by a single MP, so are each of Canada’s 3 territories.

        The “new rural-only” ridings are of similar size to the existing “rural-only” ridings.

        • I had thought they were much larger but would accept auhtoritative correctiion.

  5. Of course the “tail” wags the urban dog in Saskatchewan. That rural tail – energy, agriculture, mining – is responsible for most of the wealth creation in the province.

    • Yes, after all, we all know there are no jobs to do in the cities.. that’s why so many people move to them, after all..

      ..uhh.. wait a sec..

      • There are indeed people moving to Saskatoon and Regina, but the vast majority of those new jobs involve those three industries that katewerk mentions, or the service industry that exists to serve them. As well, many people live and have families in Saskatoon or Regina, but work elsewhere. I am one of them, with my wife living in the city and my job being 3 and a half hours away.

        I have to say that Saskatoon (and to a lesser extent Regina) are more pleasant places to live now that the University academics and provincial and federal bureaucrats who set the agenda and controlled the provincial legislature are being diluted and the cities have more people in other industries moving in. It is a much more vibrant place now, and more business friendly.

    • Honestly, if it wasn’t for Potash Corporation and a bunch of Americans coming into Saskatchewan nothing would have been developed at the rate now. It was agrarian, then communist snail under NDP, now it’s just rampant and flippant. Brad Wall is like Grant Devine. Football is more important. Sask development, like its people, tend to flat line after awhile. People don’t like ideas there much. Look at its rate of HIV and you will see whether there is true intelligence.

      • well that is a little harsh. There is intelligence but it’s kept under wraps so no one rocks the simpleton boat. People are still jealous of success even if that success is about buying boats and trucks and booze and trips to Vegas.

  6. All you have to do is look at Saskatchewan’s provincial election results since 1999 to realize how bizarre the argument that there’s no urban-rural divde truly is.

  7. Of course it could hurt the CPC but the new urban-only ridings are fair. Besides if the CPC can turn the Toronto suburbs blue then it should be able to convince middle class families in Saskatoon and Regina to vote for them. Brad Wall’s Saskparty has successfully turned urban NDP voters into conservatives voters. That political shift plus Mulcair’s negative attitude towards the West and a Jason Kenney’s visit to new voters might be enough.

  8. How is Tom “Dutch Disease” Mulcair going to go over in the world beating commodity superstate of Saskatchewan? A province which relies heavily on coal for electricity?

    Everything Saskatchewan exports, for oil, to uranium, to wheat, to pulses, to potash, to coal, according to Mr. Dutch Disease is destroying Canada.

    Mulcair’s thesis is that Saskatchewan’s prosperity is a disease destroying Canada.

  9. The elephant in this particular room is that the right question isn’t addressed. Instead of adding MP’s to the Commons, why on earth don’t we reduce their number, and run the average riding up to 200,000 voters?

    If we continue on the present path we’ll need to build a NEW House of Parliament – and keep right on upping the cost of even more MP’s and their staffs, their care and feeding.

    With today’s communications media, representatives can learn how their constituents feel about any given issue in moments. Getting around to the various parts of larger ridings presents difficulties only in the hinterlands, and even in those remote ridings MP’s have ample time when the House is not sitting to be out and about.

    Larger ridings would also tend to reduce the likelihood of gerrymandering.

    • The problem with that is that some provinces have a guaranteed minimum number of MPs. So you’d end up with some of the smaller provinces having a higher level of representation per capita than those with the 200,000-vote ridings.

      And given how little voice they already have, those smaller provinces aren’t about to surrender any portion of that.

  10. Four of the eight ridings elected NDP MPs when the first election was held with these boundaries in 1997. The chattering classes didn’t complain then.

  11. Gerrymandering comes to Canada, courtesy of the NDP.

    • That’s an absurdly stupid comment even for you.

    • You get the credit for robocalling – is anything sacred to you guys?

  12. I think Ralph Goodale and the Liberals had the opportunity to fix this, with yet another commission on gerrymandering. But Ralph, wanting to stay King, nixed it.

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