Northern B.C. won’t lose any of its provincial ridings in the next election, after the region was spared the chopping block by an independent panel tasked with redrawing British Columbia’s electoral map.
Six ridings — North Coast, Skeena, Stikine, Nechako Lakes, Peace River South and Peace River North — will remain in existence, even though they are well below the normal population range normally needed to qualify as ridings, according to a report Monday by the Electoral Boundaries Commission.
The commission chose to add six new ridings in areas where the population is booming — Burnaby, Surrey, Vancouver, Langley, Langford and near Kelowna — but refused to do so at the expense of lower-population areas in the North or Interior.
The result is that B.C.’s total number of provincial ridings (and politicians) will rise to 93 in the next election.
“We considered the possibility and feasibility of reducing a number of northern ridings, very seriously,” said BC Supreme Court Justice Nitya Iyer, who chaired the commission.
“We looked at it very, very carefully. We were convinced from what we knew of the terrain, of the weather, of the conditions, of the communications and transportation, that there was no way for the constituents of those ridings to have effective representation without retaining their current boundaries.”
The decision will come as a relief for northern and interior MLAs who’d worried their ridings, with vast geographies but relatively low densities of people, would be sacrificed in some way to accommodate growth in Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria.
The BC NDP government insisted that would not be the case last year, even as it stripped legal protections for the North from enabling legislation that created the commission. The fear was that New Democrats were looking to reduce northern ridings that typically vote BC Liberal, in favour of the expansion of Lower Mainland ridings that typically vote BC NDP.
Loud and clear
Boundaries commissioners heard those concerns loud and clear from rural residents as they travelled the province, preparing their preliminary report.
“We heard a lot of concern from a lot of people, some of whom seemed convinced actually that the decision had already been made,” Justice Iyer told journalists during a briefing at the legislature.
“We heard that people in rural or sparsely-populated areas really rely on their MLAs for a lot of assistance for a variety of problems and this was an incredibly important issue for them. So yes, we took that into account.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen, whose Stikine riding will change to Bulkley Valley-Stikine if the commission recommendations are implemented, is the senior northern NDP MLA in cabinet. Cullen said government trusted the independent commission to make the right decisions, and he supports its decision to preserve the northern ridings.
“It’s an incredibly challenging job sitting on that commission, trying to divide the lines all over B.C.,” said Cullen.
“Status quo” wins the day
“There’s no perfect map that exists. But I’m very glad that the commission came to the Northwest, and experienced the distances and challenges of what it is to move around, flying, etc. So it’s understandable they felt those pressures and it’s also understandable the conclusion they came to, which is the status quo, essentially.”
Dave Johnston, founder of the citizens resource advocacy group, The North Matters, lobbied for the region’s preservation during the proportional representation referendum in 2018. He was pleased at the commission’s results.
“That’s really good news,” Johnston said.
“As a northerner, I can vouch for thousands of people up here I’ve talked to; we already feel underrepresented in Victoria.”
But Johnston said he’s still displeased at the uncertainty the process created.
“Since the NDP has been in power, this is the second time they’ve tried to lessen the representation in northern B.C.,” he said. “And it feels like this ongoing battle for northerners with Victoria to let them know, ‘Hey, it isn’t OK you are doing this.’”
B.C. law mandates that an independent commission review electoral boundaries after every second provincial election. The overarching goal is to ensure members of the public have fair representation, and that, roughly speaking, a vote in one community with fewer residents is not worth more than another person’s vote in a larger community with more residents.
Rural MLAs made impassioned appeals for their ridings during debate in the house on the issue last year.
Sprawling wilderness, impassable roads
They said that while Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria have roughly 60 per cent of B.C.’s population, they only occupy 0.5 per cent of the land mass. The rest is sprawling B.C. wilderness, sometimes with ridings that stretch tens of thousands of square kilometres and require constituents to drive for hours to meet their elected representative.
Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier noted during debate that his riding is larger than all of Vancouver Island, which has 14 MLAs. Were it to be amalgamated with Peace River North, as Bernier feared the commission might consider, it would have created a riding of 200,000 square kilometres — roughly 5.5 times larger than all of Metro Vancouver – leaving some constituents having to drive the equivalent of Prince George to Vancouver just to see their MLA.
Others recalled impassable winter roads that cut off travel within a riding, and vast stretches of rural country without cell signal or internet as factors to take into account when considering consolidating ridings.
Justice Iyer said the NDP’s enabling legislation for the commission made it clear it had to consider cutting northern ridings, because the law and previous court decisions have encouraged electoral districts to be within plus or minus 25 per cent of the average population of the rest of the ridings.
But the legislation also allowed for “special considerations.”
Iyer said the commission, which includes B.C.’s independent chief electoral officer, applied “a great deal of scrutiny” to the region, which was the benchmark they identified as being required by law to recommend the ridings be preserved.
Some 71 ridings had their boundaries tweaked and adjusted as a result of the changes.
“Having never done anything like this before, I can tell you it’s quite a daunting task to try and draw all of these lines in ways that make sense,” said Iyer.
“What you’ll see from a lot of the maps is that many of them are wiggly, they are not squares or rectangles, and that’s because we are trying to to follow existing lines with respect to communities of interest. We tried, for example, if there are different First Nations communities but are part of the same band not to separate them into two different electoral districts.”
The commission’s recommendations are not necessarily final. It’s conducting another round of public consultation until Nov. 22, with a final report due by April 3, 2023. The legislature, with its NDP majority, will then vote on whether to accept the independent commission’s changes for the next scheduled election in 2024.