At the time this article was written
Stewart Hyson taught in the Department of History and Politics at the
University of New Brunswick (Saint John)
New Brunswick is presently in
the process of redrawing the boundaries of its electoral districts. Initiated
in March 1991, the process should result in a new electoral map by the time of
the next general election expected in 1995. In most Canadian political
jurisdictions, electoral redistribution is a regular occurrence. Such is not
the case in New Brunswick. The province does not have a mechanism or procedure
for the periodic redrawing of its constituency boundaries to reflect population
changes. The current districts have remained unchanged since their
establishment in 1974, and now vary greatly in size. This article looks at the
province's experience with electoral districts, the existing inequalities in
district sizes, and the current redistribution process.
Concern with electoral
redistribution in New Brunswick is more than simply an interest in the
peculiarities of the province's electoral history. Rather, it goes to the heart
of modern representative democracy. How effective is the representative
process? What is or should be the role of the representative? How should the
representative process be conducted? On what criteria or basis should we design
the structures for representation? These and related questions hinge on the
foundation-stone of representative democracy: the electoral constituency.
Redistribution of constituencies is thus of critical importance to
representative democracy not only in New Brunswick but throughout the country.
History of New Brunswick's
New Brunswick has had over 200
years of experience with electoral districts. The first were established in
1785, approximately one year after the area became a separate British colony.
These colonial districts were retained on the province's entry into
Confederation in 1867, and then, except for minor changes, kept intact until
Without going into all the details
of this long history, mention need only be made of the two main structural
characteristics exhibited by the province's districts prior to 1974:
multi-member representation and use of county boundaries as district
Colonial authorities adapted the
existing structural characteristics of 18th century British electoral districts
to the new colony of New Brunswick. Each of the colony's counties was used as
an electoral district for representation in the legislature. In addition, given
its size and prominence, the city of Saint John was also granted status as a
separate district in 1785. At the same time, each of these districts was
allocated two or more seats in the legislature (i.e., multi-member
representation). Although this allocation was roughly based on each district's
population size, the main priority seems to have been to provide for the
representation of distinct religious, ethnic, and linguistic communities
existing within each district.
Small adjustments were made to this
original arrangement during the colonial period as well as the
post-Confederation years leading up to 1974. As the population increased and
the pattern of settlement shifted, new counties were established and the seats
allocated to each district were adjusted. The city of Moncton was established
as a separate district in 1912, and so were the cities of Fredericton,
Bathurst, Edmundston, and Campbellton in 1967. These adjustments were made in a
partisan, irregular fashion by the government of the day, and never through an
impartial, rational process.
Prior to 1974 changes seldom
challenged the two structural pillars of electoral representation established
in 1785: use of county boundaries and multi-member representation.
Even in the case of the six cities,
their borders never crossed but were always within county boundaries. The only
exceptions to the pattern of multi-member representation were the three
northern cities of Bathurst, Edmundston, and Campbellton which were created as
The first major over-haul of the
province's districts came in 1974 when all districts were converted to a system
of single-member districts. This had been a minor part of Premier Hatfield's
election platform in 1970. The task was assigned to an independent commission
in October 1973 which reported in February 1974. Essentially, the commission
divided each existing multi-member district into the same number of
single-member districts. A five-member district, for example, was divided into
five single-member districts, each varying by as much as plus or minus 25% from
the mean for that particular district. The commission's proposed map of 58
electoral districts was adopted as the basis of the government bill which was
quickly passed into law.
Schedule A of the 1974 Election
Act described in considerable detail the boundaries of the 58 single-member
districts. These descriptions were mainly in terms of borders of the 151
parishes; boundaries of towns, villages, and cities; territorial divisions such
as rivers, roads, highways, creeks, harbours, and bays; and in a few instances
in terms of specific measures of latitude and longitude. These new district
boundaries did not cross county or any other municipal boundaries, but were
consistent with them. Thus, although the structural characteristic of
multi-member representation was ended in 1974, the other characteristic of
county boundaries was still evident.
The 1974 Act, including Schedule A,
is still in place as the statutory basis for electoral representation in New
Brunswick. Since the Act contains no provision for the periodic review and
adjustment of district boundaries so as to reflect population fluctuations,
there is now considerable variation in district sizes.
Time for a Change?
New Brunswick society has undergone
major centripetal changes since the 1960s. The distinctiveness of local
communities has lessened. The public's orientation to their place of residency
has likewise declined. Although talk may still be heard of the need to
structure electoral districts on the basis of traditional, local communities,
it is increasingly difficult to justify this position.
Shopping malls and cross-border
shopping have had disastrous effects on "down-towns" and
locally-based shopping patterns. The river systems, around which the counties
had originally been developed, are now more like barriers than conduits to
local communication, transportation, commerce, and daily life in general. Media
outlets, especially television and daily newspapers, are provincially-oriented
in terms of marketing, advertising, and coverage. Businesses are often
franchise outlets of national and international chains rather than examples of
local entrepreneurship. More citizens each year are resident in the
"bedroom communities" of the suburbs and rural areas, and commute to
work in the larger urban centres.
These developments, of course, have
not been unique to New Brunswick but have been evident in other provinces. The
Equal Opportunity programme of the late 1960s was, however, specific to the
province. It had the dramatic effect of centralising in the provincial capital
many services which had traditionally been handled at the county/municipal
level: health, welfare, justice, and education.1
These broad social, economic, and
political developments have had a lasting impact on the population distribution
of the province. This was reflected in the inequalities of district sizes at
the time of the 1987 general election and later with the 1991 general election.
By this time a new factor had appeared on the scene. The equality section of
the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms (s. 15) took effect in 1985 and may be
used to assess New Brunswick's districts during these two most recent
When read with the right to vote
section (s. 3), the equality section seems to suggest that each citizen's vote carries
the same weight or value (i.e., "one person, one vote" principle),
and logically that districts should be of the same size or with minute
variations. The judicial decisions on this interpretation have been less than
complete and the issue is still open for debate.2 However, there is
no denying the Charter-based pressure since the late 1980s to make districts
more equal in size.
Just how unequal are New
Brunswick's electoral districts? There are many indicators that may be used to
measure the level of inequality at the times of the 1987 and 1991 general
The districts in 1987 ranged in
size from the smallest with 3968 registered voters to the largest with 17863
registered voters. The range was greater in 1991, from 4064 to 19930.
Another way to indicate the level
of inequality is to consider the minimum percentage of the electorate required
to elect a majority government. Here we may consider the electorate in the
thirty smallest districts — 30 seats being the number required to form a majority
government in a 58-seat legislature. Assuming that a party won only these 30
seats, then 36.9% of the provincial electorate could have elected a majority
government in 1987, and 36.2% in 1991. The point here is not to suggest that
all of the voters or even pluralities in the selected districts would actually
have voted for the same party. Instead, the measurement indicates the extent to
which inequality is structured into the current set of districts.
A final measurement is perhaps the
most important one for it indicates how much on average districts vary from the
mean. The mean district size for the province is calculated by dividing the
number of districts into the total number of registered voters. Then each
district may be compared to the mean for its percentage variation, and the
average variation for all 58 districts may be calculated. The average variation
was plus or minus 30.5% in 1987, and 31.7% in 1991. These figures are
significantly greater than the plus or minus 25% legal restrictions found in
many Canadian jurisdictions.4
These measurements of district
inequalities could not be dismissed or ignored, especially in light of the
Charter concerns for equality. Consequently, as mentioned at the outset, the
government initiated in 1991 the current redistribution process by appointing
an independent commission to assist in drawing a new electoral map.
Towards a New Electoral Map
Although these district
inequalities were readily apparent at the time of the 1987 election, the
urgency of electoral redistribution has always been over-shadowed by other
events. The 1987 election had resulted in the oddity of one party (Liberal)
winning all of the legislative seats. Consequently, most attention at that time
was devoted to the absence of an official opposition, and to the ad hoc
measures that were introduced to allow opposition parties some recognition in
the policy process. The 1991 election had the unusual result, at least for New
Brunswick, of three opposition parties gaining representation in the Assembly,
although the Liberal Party retained a very strong majority. When coupled with
the equally unusual fact that a new party — Confederation of Regions — became
the official opposition, it is easy to see why redistribution was once again
lost in the buzz over these more dramatic events.
Premier McKenna was also slow to
recognize and accept the need for electoral redistribution, stating in June
1988 that his Government had given "no thought" to electoral reform
and that the matter was "not a high priority item"5. The
Government had a change of position by March 1990 when the Speech from the
Throne indicated that a commission would be appointed to redraw the province's
electoral boundaries. It would be another year before this commission was
actually appointed, and yet another ten months (January 1992) before the
commission started to hold public hearings.
The Representation and Electoral
Boundaries Commission has been proceeding in a deliberative two-phase approach.
Following its first round of public hearings, the Commission issued a report in
July 1992 on four normative issues pertaining to representation in New
Brunswick (as specified in the Commission's mandate): the number of districts
that the province should have; the average number of voters that should be eligible
to vote in the districts; the percentage variation from the mean that should be
allowed when drawing the district boundaries; and the best approach to ensure
aboriginal representation in the legislature.6
This report was then considered,
and reported upon, by a legislative committee in November and December 1992.
Following this legislative response to its first report, the Commission
proceeded into the second phase of its task, that of drawing a new set of
district boundaries. The Commission released its proposed new electoral map in
May 1993, and invited the public's reaction through another round of hearings
held in June 1993. As for its next move, the Commission is expected in the
autumn to submit a revised map to the Legislative Assembly, which will have the
final say on the matter most likely during the 1994 legislative session.
Expectations were mixed at the time
of the Commission's creation. Certainly, the Commission was an independent body
and it was going to redraw electoral districts strongly in need of revision.
But ultimately, the Commission's task was advisory in nature — advisory to the
Legislative Assembly which retained the final authority over any redistribution
that might occur. The appointees on the Commission were either former elected
politicians or still active partisans of the Liberal, Progressive Conservative,
and NDP parties. Indeed, following the 1991 election and the break-through of
the Confederation of Regions (CoR) Party, a defeated CoR candidate was
appointed as that party's representative on the Commission. Thus, both its
advisory role and partisan composition dampened any expectations that the
Commission would achieve major change.
If anything, expectations grew
worse with the release of the Commission's first report (July 1992) that dealt
with the four normative issues. The report was extremely short, with three
related key recommendations. There should be 54 districts; the average number
of electors in each district should be 10,000; and the allowable variation from
the average should be set at plus or minus 20%. (The Commission recommended
that the issue of aboriginal representation be further studied).
The legislative committee that
commented on the Commission's first report recommended that there be one
additional district and that the allowable variation limits be increased to
plus or minus 25%. The additional district would be for the islands in the Bay
of Fundy off the coast of mainland New Brunswick. It would be considerably
smaller in terms of population than the other districts and it would be well
outside the plus or minus 25% limits. But the legislators maintained that the
unique transportation and communication problems of these islands warranted
their special treatment as a separate district.
The proposed districts, in the eyes
of many reformers, still fall short of the desired goal of equality. But in the
New Brunswick context the proposed electoral map represents a major step
To the surprise of many observers,
the Commission's proposed electoral map of May 1993 raised expectations that
major, progressive reform was on the horizon. The Commission did not feel
itself strictly confined to the traditional county boundaries when it designed
its proposed districts. Instead, to a great extent, the Commission followed the
equality ideal of "one person, one vote". Except for the Fundy Isles
district, the other 54 proposed districts are very close in size. Forty-two
districts are within plus or minus 15% and all 54 are within plus or minus 20%.
(Fundy Isles is 64.1% below the average).
Strong objections can be expected
to be heard when the legislature considers the Commission's proposals. Similar
to the opposition voiced during the public hearings in June 1993, objectors
will favour either the status quo or an alternative plan that they feel would
better represent local communities. Unfortunately, because of the ambiguity and
the subjectiveness of the meaning of "local communities", the
criterion lacks the soundness required of a principle on which to structure electoral
districts. Endless arguments can be made to draw boundaries in one place rather
than another, and each argument would be subjectively justified as better
representing local communities. Until a firm, definite criterion, such as the
"one person, one vote" principle, is adopted, electoral districts
will continue to be unequal in size and subjected to partisan manipulation.
1. Ralph R. Krueger, "The
Provincial-Municipal Revolution in New Brunswick", Canadian Public
Administration vol. 13 (1970), pp. 51-99; R.A. Young, "Remembering
Equal Opportunity: Clearing the Undergrowth in New Brunswick", Canadian
Public Administration vol. 30 (1987), pp. 88-102; and Della M.M. Stanley, Louis
Robichaud: A Decade of Power (Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Publishing Limited,
1984), ch 11 and 12.
2. David Small, ed., Drawing the
Map: Equality and Efficacy of the Vote in Canadian Electoral Boundary Reform.
Vol. 11 of the Research Studies, Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party
Financing. (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991); and John C. Courtney, et al.,
eds., Drawing Boundaries: Legislatures, Courts, and Electoral Values
(Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Fifth House Publishers, 1992).
3. See the following items by this
author: "Re-thinking Electoral Representation: The Case of New
Brunswick", Paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Atlantic
Provinces Political Studies Association, Mount Saint Vincent University,
Halifax, N.S., October 16-18, 1992. "The Horrible Example",
Policy Options vol. 9 (1988) pp. 25-27; "Reforming New Brunswick's
Bizarre Voting System", Policy Options vol. 11 (1990) pp. 25, 26.
4. For an overview of the
mechanisms and procedures used for electoral redistribution in Canada, see R.K.
Carty, "The Electoral Boundary Revolution in Canada", American
Review of Canadian Studies vol. 15 (1985), pp. 273-287.
5. See Stewart Hyson,
"Re-thinking Electoral Representation: The Case of New Brunswick",
6. New Brunswick, Representation
and Electoral Boundaries Commission, Towards a New Electoral Map for New
Brunswick, (Fredericton, N.B. July 1992).