I recently attended the public hearings in Sioux Lookout and Kenora on the proposed changes to our federal electoral districts. And considering the importance of the issue, I would like to share my thoughts and experience with the residents of Thunder Bay-Rainy River.
Some background. Every 10 years the federal electoral districts across Canada must be reviewed and adjusted to account for population changes and movement. This work is done by an independent body called the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission. Once they look at the population and existing ridings, they produce a proposal and then hold public consultations to gather feedback, and these are currently taking place across Ontario.
The Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario has proposed some dramatic changes. They have proposed to reduce the number of seats in Northern Ontario from 10 to 9, to take the northern portions of the Kenora and Timmins-James Bay ridings to create a massive 520,000 km2 riding called Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk, and to combine the rest of Kenora with Thunder Bay-Rainy River to create a new riding called Kenora-Thunder Bay-Rainy River.
So, what did I hear at the public hearings?
To begin- I was happy to hear that there was nearly universal opposition to the major elements of the proposal: the elimination of a riding in Northern Ontario, the creation of Kiiwetinoong—Mushkegowuk (which would be very difficult for one MP to cover}, and the combination of Thunder Bay-Rainy River with the southern half of the Kenora riding.
However, something very concerning was also raised at these hearings. Several individuals, some with known ties to a certain political party, proposed turning Thunder Bay itself into a single riding. The reason provided for this position was that Thunder Bay is a big urban centre with little understanding or concern for rural areas and small towns.
This is a totally unacceptable proposal.
Let me start by disagreeing with the premise that Thunder Bay is full of city slickers who don’t understand or care about rural issues. I grew up largely in Kaministiquia, which is 25+km outside Thunder Bay. We had no running water until I was 12 and I attended a 3-room schoolhouse. I am not the only one with this experience. The Thunder Bay region includes plenty of people who live in rural areas. And many residents of Thunder Bay come from rural areas, small towns, or fly-in Indigenous communities. There are also people in Fort Frances, Dryden, and Kenora who come from big cities or who have never lived outside of an urban area. Furthermore, having lived and worked in many places around the world and with people from many cultures, let me say that the similarities between people vastly outweigh their differences. We ought to promote our many common interests and try to bring people together. We should not create and exploit differences.
The people who push for Thunder Bay to become a single riding also haven’t looked at the numbers. The Commission is required by law to, as much as possible, create ridings with similar populations. In Ontario the quota (the average population of each riding) should be 116,585, although the Commission can allow deviations of plus or minus 25% – and even more in ‘extraordinary’ circumstances. Thunder Bay District has about 150,000 people, already way too many for a single riding. And even if everything west of Thunder Bay went to Kenora – which would create a ridiculously large riding – it would still be more than 25% below the quota. It simply won’t work.
Ultimately, though, it was only a few people who suggested Thunder Bay should be served as a sacrificial lamb. I know that most municipalities in Thunder Bay-Rainy River have opposed the Commission’s proposal and have expressed a desire to stay in the riding. It also seemed, at least to me, that most people attending the public hearings also wanted the status quo.
But after looking at the numbers across Ontario, I know there likely has to be some changes. My own modest proposal is to allow Ontario to keep 10 seats. I would keep the present Kenora as it is, an extraordinary and underpopulated riding. I also suggest allowing Timmins-James Bay to be extraordinary and underpopulated. These are massive ridings that serve many of Ontario’s fly-in communities, and I think most Ontarians would agree that they deserve special consideration. If this is permitted, the remaining Northern Ontario riding boundaries could be slightly redrawn to keep them within 25% of the quota. I think this can work.
The final decision, however, will be with the Commission. But regardless of what they decide let us join together in a common cause: the democratic rights of Northern Ontario. This is the time to be united. Let’s leave the partisan politics for another time.