Statement made on 05 April 2012 by Senator Maria Chaput
Hon. Maria Chaput:
Honourable senators, today I would like to talk to you about the process for readjusting federal electoral boundaries and the impact it could have on the vitality of official language minority communities.
Currently, 10 three-member commissions are drafting new electoral maps for each of Canada's provinces. Several of these commissioners have a more difficult task ahead of them because, under the Fair Representation Act, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia will have additional ridings.
This spring, each of the 10 commissions will publish a proposed electoral map in the Canada Gazette and in at least one major newspaper in their respective provinces.
The proposed map will be accompanied by a notice indicating dates, times and locations of public hearings. People wishing to participate in the public hearings must inform their province's commission within 23 days of the publication of the notice.
Following the public hearings, the commission can rework the proposed map, which the Chief Electoral Officer will then submit to the House of Commons.
Canadians must be prepared to take a very careful look at the proposed electoral maps and to express their points of view during the public hearings. Electoral boundaries are adjusted only once every 10 years, so people have a civic duty to take the opportunity to participate in the process.
I am addressing this issue today because I have learned in the past that readjusting electoral boundaries can significantly affect the demographic weight of official language minority communities.
In fact, if the necessary precautions are not taken, a francophone community might be divided among two or three ridings, which weakens the strength and demographic weight of francophones in all the ridings involved.
This happened during the provincial riding redistribution in Manitoba in 2008, when the traditionally francophone communities of Sainte-Anne and Richer were separated from the communities of Saint-Adolphe, Île-des-Chênes, Lorette and Sainte-Geneviève.
Keep in mind that this does not just affect the community's weight during an election campaign. A strong presence within a riding allows the MP to take into consideration the needs and interests of the community, which is not necessarily the case if the minority language community is split between two ridings, where its presence is less felt and its strength diminished.
A strong presence in a riding also makes it easier for the community to take charge of developing its institutional vitality. It is easier to deal with just one MP when discussing a project that will benefit the people of the riding than it is to deal with two or three MPs whose ridings may or may not be affected by the project in question.
However, there are provisions in Canadian legislation that enable communities to defend their rights.
The main criterion the commission takes into account when redrawing the electoral map is the equal distribution of the population among the ridings. The commission does have some flexibility, though. It can, in fact, use its judgment and discretion to create ridings that differ in size from the average riding. It can do so in order to: respect communities of interest or identity (for example, communities based around language or shared culture and history); respect historical patterns of previous electoral boundaries; or maintain a manageable geographic size for districts in sparsely populated, rural or northern regions of the province.
Therefore, each commission has the latitude to keep francophone communities in the same district, even if this has an impact on population equality, within reasonable limits.
The commissions must, of course, take into account the different communities in a given district, but there are provisions in the act that apply specifically to official language minority communities.
First, it is important to refer to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 3 of the Charter guarantees the right to vote, and the Supreme Court has ruled that the purpose of the right to vote is to ensure effective representation, not simply equal electoral power.
This principle was applied by the Federal Court in 2004 in Raîche v. Canada to set aside a royal proclamation that transferred certain New Brunswick parishes, in whole or in part, from the district of Acadie—Bathurst to that of Miramichi.
The Court ruled that the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for New Brunswick had erred in applying the rules governing the preparation of its recommendations for transferring parts of these parishes. The Federal Court therefore set aside this recommendation from the commission and a new commission was formed.
The new commission then recommended returning these francophone parishes to the district of Acadie—Bathurst. The francophone presence was thus maintained and strengthened in this riding in such a way as to respect the institutional integrity and vitality of the community, as per its wishes.
Official language minority communities are also protected by the Official Languages Act. In fact, Elections Canada and the 10 commissions formed for the provinces are subject to the Official Languages Act and, under Part VII, are required, like all other federal institutions, to take positive measures,
enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and supporting and assisting their development; and . . . fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society.
The commissions have the legislative obligation to take positive measures to support community development only with respect to official language minority communities.
In this regard, ensuring that changes to the boundaries of electoral districts do not weaken francophone minority communities would be a perfect example of a positive measure. This can also be done by ensuring that these communities are heard and that their concerns are taken into account.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge a positive measure taken by Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand. In fact, Mr. Mayrand invited Commissioner of Official Languages Graham Fraser to a conference of the people appointed to the ten commissions and asked him to make the appointees aware of the specific situation of official language minority communities. That initiative deserves recognition.
I should also note that Franco-Manitobans are in good hands. The commission for Manitoba is chaired by Justice Richard Chartier, who wrote the report Above All, Common Sense, which redefined the provision of French-language services in Manitoba.
All Canadians have to be sure to carefully review the map that will soon be proposed for their respective province and, if need be, attend the public hearings to express their views. This is not a show of lack of confidence in the commissions or the quality of their work.
Public hearings are part of the redistribution process, so it is up to the communities affected to add to the discussion. Participation in public consultation is really the crucial phase of the process. It is up to the communities in each province to present detailed briefs to the commission during the consultation period. First of all, this will inform the commission members about issues of which they might have been unaware but can still address. In addition, a lack of challenges during consultations could negatively affect any future challenges once the proposed maps are approved by the House of Commons.
Honourable senators, I know that many of you are very involved in your respective communities. It would be very helpful if all of the communities that could be affected by this redistribution participate in the public hearings, the dates of which will be announced shortly, in order to share their observations and suggestions. The commission members who have been given this important task will be the richer for it and we will then be able to trust their wisdom in coming up with a second draft. This is the very definition of participatory democracy.