The latest revision of Quebec’s electoral map began in 2008 and should have taken less than a year, yet the sad saga continues. Quebec law is clear: this is the task of an independent agency, the Commission de la Représentation Électorale (CRE). However, every effort by the CRE to carry out its mandate to make district boundaries reflect population trends has been stymied by the delaying tactics of both the governing Liberals and the opposition Parti Québécois.

The Liberals first tried unsuccessfully three times to change the criteria so as to favour outlying regions at the expense of residents of expanding cities. Having managed to keep the CRE from meeting for two years, they then allied themselves with the Péquistes to pass legislation temporarily suspending the CRE’s powers. But the two could not agree on how to amend the law to favour the regions.

When the CRE was finally extricated from its legal straitjacket, it tabled its revised report before the National Assembly when the new session opened in the fall of this year. Finally, it seemed, we would have a new map for the next election. But no. Just before Inroads went to press, the parties managed to act together once more and passed new emergency legislation to save three sparsely populated rural constituencies.

The CRE’s attempt to abolish these ridings appears to have been unprecedented, so perhaps we should not be surprised at the outcome. In the last 45 years, as Quebec became increasingly urbanized and suburbs grew rapidly, 35 new ridings were created and five were eliminated on Montreal Island, but no rural riding was touched. Instead, since 1965 the total number of constituencies has grown from 95 to 125 (much larger Ontario has 107 constituencies).

With this revision, the legal requirement that the number of voters in any riding be no more than 25 per cent above or below the provincial average and the number of ridings be limited to 125 left the CRE no leeway. It thus planned to make room for three new ridings in overpopulated Montreal suburbs by eliminating three underpopulated rural ridings. The battle to preserve the rural ridings was launched by a tiny but influential regional lobby. In 2006, this lobby had succeeded in torpedoing an electoral reform plan in spite of strong popular support before a parliamentary committee. This time again, the demands of this pressure group swayed both the Liberal government and the PQ opposition.

This debate pits two visions against each other. For the defenders of the status quo, overrepresentation of outlying areas is rooted in a conception of parliamentarians’ role that gives first priority to their function as mediators rather than legislators. They see the essential role of a member of the National Assembly as being to meet with voters and advance local interests in the legislature. As this type of activity is much more demanding in outlying rural regions, it justifies inequalities of representation compared to urban regions, and vindicates leaving the decision to politicians.

On the other hand, for those who conceive of the electoral map as an expression of the right to vote, everyone’s vote should have equal weight, regardless of where they live. Legislators represent people, not trees or land, said the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964. Hence, devaluing the vote of residents of densely populated areas constitutes a denial of the equal right to vote – something elected MNAs, with their vested interests, cannot be allowed to do.

Until the 1960s, the first approach was predominant in Quebec, as in the rest of North America. The second approach has now prevailed for half a century. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the Liberals and the PQ want to take us back to the 1950s.

Voter equality vs. rural representation

For two centuries, carving out the electoral map was the private preserve of the political class. At the birth of the parliamentary system, it was the sole prerogative of the executive; then the legislature came to the fore. When the British North America Act entrenched Quebec’s parliamentary institutions in 1867, it gave the Legislative Assembly the power to set electoral boundaries.

In Quebec as elsewhere, it was in the 1960s that this system began to change. In 1962, Premier Jean Lesage’s government formed a committee of extraparliamentary experts that recommended giving responsibility for revising the electoral map to an independent agency and proposed some criteria for setting boundaries. These recommendations were implemented for the first time in 1965, on an experimental basis. Then in 1971, under Robert Bourassa’s government, a permanent consultative organization was set up to determine boundaries according to criteria established by law. However, the legislature retained the last word.

The main reform took place in 1979 when René Lévesque’s government established the CRE as an agency independent of political parties, mandated to revise the map after every two elections according to criteria established by law. Its three members are nominated by the premier and ratified by a two-thirds vote of the National Assembly. Its mandate includes consulting with MNAs, relevant organizations and citizens at large.

In dividing territory for electoral purposes in Canada, the principle of effective representation of voters is considered fundamental and must be respected. This is the principle the Supreme Court has understood (in the Carter decision in 1991) to be guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Quebec’s Election Act is modelled on this decision and sets permanent rules to ensure effective representation: criteria to ensure voter equality on the one hand and respect for natural communities on the other.

Application of the criterion of voter equality consists of trying to place approximately the same number of voters in each riding, with no riding exceeding 25 per cent variation from the provincial average number of voters. While the principle of voter equality is an essential condition, it is not sufficient, since it cannot guarantee effective representation of voters. A riding is not solely the result of a mathematical calculation. Here a more complex and subjective criterion enters: the objective that each riding represent a natural community, based on demographic, geographic and sociological considerations. This is seen as justification for the permitted variation of 25 per cent.

This 25 per cent rule also prevails for federal elections and five provinces besides Quebec. In other provinces the permitted variation is lower: 10 per cent in Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, and 5 per cent in Saskatchewan. This is also the case in a number of other countries. For example France allows deviation of up to 20 per cent, Germany 15 and Australia 10. The United States is the least forgiving: court decisions have established that voter equality trumps all other criteria. The Supreme Court ruled that the American constitution requires that congressional districts must be as close to mathematically equal in number of voters as possible.

In 1867, Quebec was divided into 65 electoral districts; the number gradually increased from 1890 on, reaching 95 in 1960. After the Second World War, urbanization accelerated, fuelled especially by people moving to the Montreal agglomeration from neighbouring rural regions. By 1962, three quarters of the voters lived in only half the ridings.

In 1965, the revision of the electoral map entailed the creation of 13 new ridings, the great majority in urban settings. The next revision took place in 1972 and brought the number of ridings to 110. According to political scientist Louis Massicotte, after this revision Quebec ranked among the most electorally egalitarian of Canadian provinces. The 1980 revision brought in 12 new urban and suburban ridings.

But by 2000, as a result of what came to be called urban sprawl, Quebec’s electoral map had become one of the least egalitarian in North America. The exodus to the suburbs meant that for some decades, the population of municipalities surrounding Montreal Island grew much faster than those on the island itself. The island has thus had to give up five of its 33 ridings to the suburbs in the last two revisions of the map. Yet for four decades, not one riding was lost by the rural and semirural regions, despite their constantly diminishing share of the population.

The CRE did make a timid attempt along these lines in the 2001 revision, proposing to reduce the number of ridings in the Gaspé. But despite its status as an independent organization, it was forced to yield to pressure groups from the region supported by both PQ and Liberal MNAs.

However, the CRE warned at the time that it could not indefinitely yield to such pressure and stay within the law. It warned the PQ government and the other parties represented in the National Assembly that a real problem was certain to develop when it came time for the next revision of the map, and urged the parties to plan for that situation. But the parties ignored its warning. It was only after the presentation of the commission’s preliminary report in March 2008 that they reacted – and in a very negative way.

The sordid saga continues

The existing electoral map dates from 2001 and remained unchanged for the elections of 2003 and 2007. As required by law, in March 2008 the CRE launched the process of revision. It proposed a new electoral map with significant changes, modifying the boundaries of 86 of the 125 ridings. Most dramatically, it replaced three rural ridings in eastern Quebec with three new ones in the Montreal metropolitan region. This was unprecedented, but the CRE had no choice. Since the legal maximum of 125 had been reached, the CRE could not address demographic inequality by adding new ridings in the most densely populated areas.

The situation had rapidly deteriorated. By 2007, 20 ridings exceeded the legally tolerated deviation of 25 per cent from the provincial average. By July 31, 2010, there were 27 ridings outside the limit, and another 19 that were close to the 25 per cent deviation and would soon be outside the limit – in other words, 37 per cent of the 125 ridings had a significant imbalance. The vote of a Quebecer in some regions, notably the Gaspé and Abitibi, has more than twice the weight of a vote in a Montreal suburb.

The CRE’s proposal would have left only four ridings outside the norm. But it was not to be. Opposition mounted during public hearings held by the CRE in the spring of 2008, when pressure groups from surrounding regions resumed the battle they had won in 2001 when they saved the Gaspé ridings. Once again, they received unconditional support from the Liberals and the PQ. At first, this support took the form of simply ignoring the CRE’s existence. As of September 2008, the National Assembly should have called the CRE before a parliamentary committee so that it could inform the MNAs of its proposals and consult them before preparing its final report. But, taking advantage of a loophole in the law, the MNAs delayed the committee hearings for nearly two years, until September 2010.

In the meantime, in the fall of 2009, the Liberal government introduced Bill 78, aimed at preserving existing rural ridings. Instead of reducing differences, it sought to legalize them. This bill would have allowed divergences from the provincial average number of voters per riding ranging from minus 60 to plus 35 per cent. The bill also provided for an increase in the number of ridings, which according to the CRE’s calculations would have brought the total to 137 in 2020 from the current 125. Faced with public opposition, the Charest government dropped Bill 78, and the National Assembly finally agreed to obey the law by calling the CRE before a parliamentary committee in September 2010.

During the hearings most MNAs adopted an aggressive tone toward the CRE. Some ministers even surrealistically blamed the CRE for having followed the law. The opposition Péquistes weren’t silent either. One MNA proposed to eliminate some ridings on Montreal Island that were well within the legal limit in order to save rural ridings, arguing that size of territory, not population, is what should count.

The parliamentary committee session coincided with the start of a public campaign by the “Coalition pour le Maintien des Comtés en Région” (Coalition for the Preservation of Constituencies in the Regions). Premier Charest welcomed the coalition’s representatives and rushed to give his government’s support to this effort.

Then, with the support of the PQ opposition, he had the Assembly pass special legislation (Bill 132) suspending the power of the CRE to impose an electoral map until June 2011. In the meantime, the two parties were to agree on an amendment to the Election Act that would avoid the elimination of sparsely populated ridings. Government House Leader Jean-Marc Fournier specified that the new criteria “would favour the regions.” Opposition House Leader Stéphane Bédard added that they wanted to include a “dominant principle” that would take account of the size of ridings (“effective representation of the regions and of the dynamic occupation of the territory”), replacing the dominant principle unequivocally recognized in almost all Western democracies, that of each vote counting equally.

The Chief Electoral Officer and Chair of the CRE, Marcel Blanchet, called the proposal troubling and unprecedented. (Soon afterward, having been disowned by the National Assembly that had appointed him, he took early retirement and was replaced by one of his deputies, Jacques Drouin.) Blanchet’s highly respected predecessor, Pierre-F. Côté, described the idea as madness.

In June 2011, six months after Bill 132 was passed, the Liberals and the PQ acknowledged having failed to agree on new criteria for setting electoral boundaries. In an attempt to fill the void, the Liberal government introduced Bill 19 to raise the number of ridings from 125 to 128, allowing for three new suburban Montreal ridings as proposed by the CRE but leaving in place the three underpopulated ridings in eastern Quebec. However, with no consensus among MNAs, the bill was not presented to members but left on the order paper in the National Assembly.

In the meantime the CRE, having regained its autonomy on July 1, was required to complete the revision of the map before the end of 2011. But the member of the CRE from Montreal resigned, making the organization technically inoperative. The law requires the approval of two thirds of MNAs to appoint a new third member, but Liberals and Péquistes could not agree on a candidate, so the nomination was postponed to the fall. In early October, the position was filled (by someone from Rimouski). The CRE finally tabled its revised report before the National Assembly when the new session opened a few weeks later.

Nevertheless, the sordid saga continues. The government announced that it still planned to enact emergency legislation to render the CRE’s electoral map null and void. And the PQ opposition still insists that the law protect the effective representation of regions from the Supreme Court’s insistence on the effective representation of voters. As this article went to press, the minister in charge, Yvon Vallières, and Opposition House Leader Stéphane Bédard confirmed that they have agreed to adopt new emergency legislation.

Once again, rural voters remain untouched. For the two major parties, partisan interests trump democratic principle, and an impartial agency created in 1979 to assure fairness in the electoral map is muzzled. There is no more eloquent illustration of how our democratic institutions have been degraded and why the people of Quebec are losing faith in their in political leaders.