The Fix Is In

Exploring the role of gerrymandering in Canadian political history.

In the lead-up to the 2015 federal election, Justin Trudeau made a significant promise: if elected, the Liberals would enact legislation within 18 months to reform Canada’s first-past-the-post plurality electoral system. The details are still being worked out; Trudeau has tentatively suggested he prefers instant-runoff voting (historically referred to as the alternative vote in Canada), although he has said he will not commit to a specific method until it has been considered by a special all-party committee. Of course, as anyone who has followed the debates on Senate reform knows, promises of electoral reform are one thing: delivering is something else entirely.

With the prospect of months of debate on electoral methodologies ahead of us, however, now is a fortuitous time to consider the last significant change to Canada’s voting scheme: the transfer of the power to redraw electoral districts from Parliament and the provincial legislatures to independent redistricting commissions. Canada’s redistricting revolution began in Manitoba, which adopted independent redistricting in 1954 as part of a broader reform that reintroduced plurality voting after a quarter-century experiment with instant-runoff voting (as well as a single–transferable vote scheme in Winnipeg). Eight years later, Ontario also adopted independent redistricting, as did the Parliament of Canada in 1964. From there, independent redistricting slowly spread out to the other eight provinces and the territories, although details vary.

But what of the status quo prior to reform? In Principles and Gerrymanders: Parliamentary Redistribution of Ridings in Ontario, 1840–1954, George Emery, professor emeritus of history at Western University, explores that question, focusing on the redistricting of Ontario federal and provincial ridings from 1840 through 1954. Emery finds evidence of intentional gerrymanders present in most redistricting schemes, yet they are not as prominent as one might expect: “Intentional gerrymandering was extensive in some redistributions, such as those of John A. Macdonald in 1882, Laurier in 1903, and [Ontario premier] Whitney in 1908, but slight in others, such as Robert Borden’s 1914 redistribution. Most redistributions included a gerry-mander, but rarely did the term apply sweepingly to whole redistributions.”

Rather than using blatant gerrymanders to try to gain long-lasting political advantage, Canadian parties instead typically used them in a more limited fashion to gain political benefit at the margins or to “assassinate” particularly loathed opposition members of Parliament. But Canadian politicians and political parties were more than willing to engage in so-called “passive” gerrymanders—wherein district boundaries are left in place despite changing demographics—to benefit incumbents and to increase representation for rural areas to the detriment of Toronto.

Aside from the voluminous data collected by Emery—which I suspect will be mined by political scientists and historians for decades to come—the most intriguing aspect of the book is the narrative of the slow shift from partisan to independent redistricting. During the 19th century, most redistricting schemes were done by the governing party alone, without serious input from the opposition, or, indeed, in some cases, from backbenchers. The infamous 1882 redistricting, for instance, took place entirely behind closed doors, with even cabinet members denied entrance, until a finished bill was delivered to Parliament. Things shifted subtly after the turn of the century, as redistricting moved out of back rooms and into committee rooms.

Beginning in 1903, redistricting was referred to bipartisan special committees, modelled loosely on those created under the United Kingdom’s Redistribution of Seats Act, 1885. Over the decades, these committees grew in prominence (and in outright size, slowly expanding from seven in 1903 to 37 in 1952), and became especially important during periods of minority government. In the 1960s, these committees finally gave way to independent commissions. One wonders if part of the decision to create the commissions was based on a desire to avoid blame for the inevitable reduction of rural districts and the move away from the older representation-by-county model. But, as Emery is concerned primarily with the redistributions themselves, rather than shifts in political thought or public policy, this narrative unfolds largely in the background.

Although Emery’s book is quite impressive, it does have several weaknesses; most significantly, it underplays the impact of decades of passive gerrymanders. Emery makes a strong case that there was a brief bipartisan consensus in the late 19th century for the idea that large cities should be underrepresented to preserve representation for rural counties. But, that consensus broke down by about 1920, by which time Conservatives such as Horatio Hocken, MP for Toronto West, were asking “Why should a mechanic have less influence than a farm labourer?” Because Toronto consistently voted for Tory candidates during the period of Emery’s study, its under–representation consistently benefitted the Liberals and Progressives, to the Conservatives’ detriment. A fair distribution of ridings would have given Toronto at least five additional seats, all of which were likely to vote Conservative. Interestingly, following the 1925 election, the Conservative government of Arthur Meighen was eight seats short of a majority; had Meighen had five additional Tory MPs from Toronto, as well as three or four additional MPs from Montreal and other cities, Meighen might have been able to command a majority in the 15th Parliament, and the words “King-Byng Affair” might never have entered the Canadian lexicon.

Emery’s book also suffers to a limited extent due to its focus on districts at the expense of broader electoral trends. For each gerrymander, he offers an assessment of whether it “worked” by noting whether the party in power was later re-elected. But election results are rarely static, and gerrymandering can be helpful only at the margins when there are not significant shifts in the two-party vote. Referencing popular vote percentages where available, for instance, would have gone a long way to explaining the limits of particular gerrymanders.

These relatively minor shortcomings should not detract from what is otherwise an impressive scholarly achievement that will be of great value to those studying Canadian elections and electoral politics. By delving deep into electoral maps and election returns, Emery has laid a necessary foundation for future explorations into a range of questions, including how and why political views of redistricting policy shifted over time, how Canadian politicians relied on anti-American rhetoric to attack perceived gerrymanders and how multi-member districts were used to discourage minority party representation. His study may also one day prove a useful blueprint for a future study of Canada’s final elections under its current first-past-the-post electoral system.