Representation in the House of Commons of Canada

Readjusting the Boundaries

So far we have examined how the number of seats in the House of Commons is determined and what method is used to divide that number among the 10 provinces and three territories. After the numbers are established according to the constitutional formula, the second part of the exercise begins, namely, dividing each province into electoral districts, each of which is represented by a member elected to the House of Commons.

The whole exercise is most properly known as "readjustment of electoral district boundaries," but is commonly referred to as "redistribution" and sometimes, particularly in other countries, as "redistricting." While the Constitution Act, 1867 specifies that a readjustment must take place after each 10-year census, the rules for actually carrying out this enormous task are laid down in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. The main elements of the readjustment process will be outlined following this brief historical note.

Historical Note

Up to and including the boundary adjustment following the 1951 Census, the House of Commons itself was responsible for fixing the boundaries of electoral districts, through a committee appointed especially for that purpose.

Several authorities on the subject have documented the history of the process up to the 1960s. In effect, there were no rules to guide the exercise. In the words of Professor Norman Ward (1967, 107), the process was a "freelance operation in which any rational boundary drawing was likely to be the result of coincidence or accident." Professor Terence Qualter (1970, 99‑100) identified four informal "rules" which parliamentarians seemed to have followed in those days, namely: if the number of seats had to be reduced in a given area, 1) retain the incumbents' districts; 2) eliminate the districts of members who were not going to run again; 3) reduce the seats of minority parties; and 4) if there was strong pressure to increase representation in heavily populated areas, increase the size of the House rather than reduce the representation in rural areas.

The research done on this period reveals a considerable amount of political influence on the readjustment process prior to the 1960s. This was often referred to as "gerrymandering," a term used to describe the manipulation of riding boundaries so as to ensure, as far as possible, the re-election of the members of the governing party.

The Commissions Take Over

In the early 1960s, it was decided to assign the responsibility for readjusting electoral district boundaries to commissions independent of Parliament and parliamentarians, one for each province. Legislation to this effect was passed in November 1964. In the interest of political neutrality, each commission was to be chaired by a judge designated by the chief justice of the province and there were to be three other members. One of these was the Representation Commissioner, a public servant who was to sit on every commission. Initially, the other two members were to be political appointees, one each from the governing party and the official opposition party. However, objections from the other opposition parties led to amendments of the legislation, so that the Speaker of the House of Commons was made responsible for making the two remaining appointments to each commission.

The post of Representation Commissioner was abolished in 1979 and most of the duties were transferred to the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. Now each province has a three-member boundaries commission, chaired by a judge and comprising two other members appointed by the Speaker. As each of the three northern territories constitute an electoral district, they do not require electoral boundaries commissions.

The goal of a readjustment process that is genuinely free of partisan considerations is reinforced by a provision in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, which specifies that no sitting member of the Senate or of a federal, provincial or territorial legislature can be appointed to a commission. In practice, many commission members, aside from the chairpersons, have been university professors or non-elected officials of legislative assemblies.

Public Participation

The rules for readjusting the federal electoral boundaries were laid down in 1964. Members of the House of Commons realized that, for the process to be completely fair, it not only had to be free of political domination but also had to provide opportunities for everyone to express their views. Consequently, each commission publishes maps in the newspapers and invites the public to public hearings, which are held at several different locations chosen to encourage the participation of as many interested people as possible.

Members of the House of Commons are not by any means excluded from this process of public involvement. Indeed, it is recognized that they will invariably have strong views on the names and boundaries of the proposed electoral districts. Therefore, members of the House of Commons are not only allowed to appear before a commission at the public hearings, but the legislation also provides the opportunity for them to object to the proposals of any of the boundaries commissions. This process occurs through a committee of the House of Commons established for the purposes of dealing with electoral matters. The commissions must consider objections, but are not obliged to make changes based on them.

In all cases, the final decisions as to where the boundary lines will be placed are made by each commission.

Criteria – Where to Draw the Lines?

After receiving maps and relevant census data from the Chief Electoral Officer, commissions have 10 months to make proposals, hold public hearings and finalize their reports. Guidelines for this enormous task are found in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, from which it is evident that the readjustment exercise is not simply a mathematical computation, but rather a delicate balancing act that must take into account communities of interest and of identity as well as geographic characteristics. In the course of their work, the commissions receive professional, technical and administrative assistance from the Chief Electoral Officer and the staff at Elections Canada.

The commissions are charged with dividing the territory assigned to them into a specified number of electoral districts, so that the population of each one will correspond "as close[ly] as is reasonably possible" to the predetermined average (or "quotient"). In determining the electoral district boundaries, they must take into consideration "the community of interest or community of identity in or the historical pattern of an electoral district [...] and a manageable geographic size for districts in sparsely populated, rural or northern regions [...]." See section 15 of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act for the criteria to be applied by the commissions.

To accommodate these human and geographic factors, the commissions are allowed to deviate from the average population number when setting the boundaries. While restricted in most cases to a tolerance of 25 percent either way, a commission may exceed this limit "in circumstances viewed by the commission as being extraordinary." Such circumstances are primarily prevalent in northern and sparsely populated electoral districts.

The Process of Readjustment

While the work of the commissions is indeed a crucial part of the readjustment exercise, it is in fact only one part of it. The whole process takes two years or more, from the time the Chief Electoral Officer receives the census data from the Chief Statistician of Canada to the time at which the new boundaries can be used at a general election. The other work includes the Chief Electoral Officer's drafting of the new representation order describing the electoral districts, the publication of electoral district maps, the hiring of returning officers, the redefinition of polling divisions and the adjustment of the National Register of Electors.

The main stages in the redistribution of federal electoral districts are identified and explained below.

Preliminary Steps

1. Allocation of seats

The Chief Electoral Officer receives the population estimates for Canada and the provinces from the Chief Statistician of Canada. These are estimates as at July 1 of the years of the most recent and preceding 10-year censuses.

The Chief Electoral Officer calculates the number of seats to be allocated to each province using the population estimates and a formula found in the Constitution. The results are published in the Canada Gazette.

2. Release of census data

The Chief Statistician releases the new 10-year census population numbers (as opposed to the population estimates) for Canada, the provinces and the current federal electoral districts. This data is provided to the Chief Electoral Officer and the Minister designated for the purposes of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.

3. Establishment of commissions

A three-member electoral boundaries commission is established in each province by the Governor in Council. A notice to that effect is published in the Canada Gazette. The chair of each commission is appointed by the provincial chief justice, while the other two members are appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Each commission receives the census population numbers for its province from the Chief Electoral Officer.

Preparation of Reports

4. Publication of commission proposals

Each commission develops a boundaries proposal, including maps, to divide the province into electoral districts. It is published in the Canada Gazette and at least one newspaper of general circulation, and includes the time and place of public hearings.

5. Public hearings

Each commission holds at least one public hearing, no sooner than 30 days after the publication of its proposal. Interested persons, including members of the House of Commons, must notify the commission in writing if they wish to make a representation at a public hearing. This notice must be given within 23 days after the proposal is published.

6. Completion of reports

Each commission finalizes its report on the new electoral districts within 10 months of having received the census data, unless the Chief Electoral Officer has granted an extension (up to two months). The report is sent to the Speaker of the House of Commons, through the Chief Electoral Officer, where it is tabled and referred to a designated committee of the House of Commons. If Parliament is not in session at that time, the Speaker publishes the report in the Canada Gazette and sends it by mail to each member of the House of Commons for that province.

Review of Reports in the House of Commons

7. Participation by members of the House of Commons

Members of the House of Commons may file written objections to a report with the designated committee. Objections must be signed by at least 10 members of the House and submitted within 30 days of the report's referral to the committee or its publication in the Canada Gazette. The committee considers the objections within 30 days after the expiration of the date for objections, unless the House grants additional time. The report is then returned to the commission, through the Chief Electoral Officer, with a copy of the objections and the minutes of the committee.

Finalizing of Boundaries

8. Commissions consider objections

Each commission decides whether to modify the electoral district boundaries and/or names before submitting its final report to the Speaker of the House of Commons through the Chief Electoral Officer. This work concludes within 30 days of receiving the objections.

9. Representation order

The Chief Electoral Officer drafts a document called a "representation order," which describes the electoral districts established by the commissions, and sends it to the Minister designated for the purposes of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.

The new representation order is proclaimed by the Governor in Council and published in the Canada Gazette.

Election Readiness

10. Boundaries in effect

The new boundaries can only be applied at a general election called at least seven months after the representation order is proclaimed. This time allows Elections Canada, political parties, candidates and sitting members of the House of Commons to prepare for the next general election (e.g. hire returning officers, adjust the National Register of Electors, reorganize electoral district associations).


Since Confederation, the formula for calculating representation in the House of Commons and the process for adjusting electoral district boundaries have evolved.

The greatest changes have undoubtedly taken place in recent decades. Since the 1940s, we have seen four fundamental changes to the representation formula and one major change in the boundary readjustment process. The readjustments that followed the censuses of 1941, 1961, 1971 and 1981 were all delayed while such changes were made. Following the 1991 Census, there were also delays caused by constitutional deliberations that resulted in the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord and a review of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act in general.

In comparison to some other democracies, Canada is still a relatively young country, with an electoral system that is, of necessity, subject to change from time to time. This being so, it will surely be worthy of continuing research and study as it adjusts in future years to meet the challenge of a growing and mobile population.

Further Reading

The following list of references is suggested for further reading.

Canada. Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. 1991. Reforming Electoral Democracy: Final Report. Vol. 1. Ottawa: Royal Commission.

Courtney, John C. 2008. "From Gerrymanders to Independence: District Boundary Readjustments in Canada." Redistricting in Comparative Perspective. Edited by Bernard Grofman and Lisa Handley. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—. 2001. Commissioned Ridings: Designing Canada's Electoral Districts. Montréal & Kingston: McGill‑Queen's University Press.

Elections Canada. 2002. "Readjustment of Federal Electoral Boundaries: Community of Interest and Electoral Districts." Special issue, Electoral Insight 4, 2.

Johnson, David. 1994. "Canadian Electoral Boundaries and the Courts: Practices, Principles and Problems." McGill Law Journal 39, pp. 224‑248.

Kerr, Don, and Hugh Mellon. 2010. "Demographic Change and Representation by Population in the Canadian House of Commons." Canadian Studies in Population 37,1‑2: 53‑75.

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. 2006. Drawing the Line: The Impact of Readjusting the Electoral Boundaries on the Official Language Minority Communities. Ottawa: Commissioner of Official Languages.

Pal, Michael, and Sujit Choudhry. 2007. "Is Every Ballot Equal? Visible-Minority Vote Dilution in Canada." IRPP Choices 13, 1.

Poffenroth, Kim. 2005. "Raîche v. Canada: A New Direction in Drawing Electoral Boundaries?" Commonwealth Law Bulletin 31, 2: 53‑60.

Qualter, Terence H. 1967. "Representation by Population: A Comparative Study." Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 33, pp. 246‑268.

Sancton, Andrew. 2010. "The Principle of Representation by Population in Canadian Federal Politics." Mowat Paper. Toronto: Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation.

Schouls, Tim.1996. "Aboriginal Peoples and Electoral Reform in Canada: Differentiated Representation Versus Voter Equality." Canadian Journal of Political Science 29, 4: 729‑749.

Ward, Norman. 1970. "A Century of Constituencies." Canadian Public Administration 10, 1 (1967): 105‑221. Reprinted in Contemporary Issues in Canadian Politics. Edited by Frederick Vaughan, Patrick Kyba and O.P. Divedi. Scarborough, ON: Prentice Hall Canada.