CANADA

A hard, cold choice

A court tears up Saskatchewan’s electoral map

BRIAN BERGMAN March 18 1991
CANADA

A hard, cold choice

A court tears up Saskatchewan’s electoral map

BRIAN BERGMAN March 18 1991

A hard, cold choice

A court tears up Saskatchewan’s electoral map

For weeks, political speculation in Saskatchewan has swirled around the likelihood of a spring election. Eager to shore up his party’s rural base, Conservative Premier Grant Devine unveiled a series of programs that culminated last week with the announcement that the government would move 100 provincial agencies—and several hundred jobs—from Regina to smaller centres throughout the province.

Then, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal last week upset Devine’s preparations when it ruled unanimously that new electoral boundaries, approved by the legislature in 1989, were unconstitutional. The court, reacting to a challenge by a coalition of citizens groups led by three University of Saskatchewan law professors, declared that the MLAS had violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by placing the majority of seats in rural areas, even though more voters live in urban centres.

That ruling left Devine’s government, which has to call an election by October, with difficult choices. If it recalls the legislature immediately to rearrange the boundaries in ways that the court will accept, the process could take several months and result in fewer ridings in rural areas, where Tory support is strongest. At the same time, if the government appeals the decision and then calls an election, it will risk the results of that vote being overturned if a higher court later upholds the Saskatchewan tribunal. Many other provinces may soon face similar dilemmas, as well.

The court ruling had dramatic implications for nearly all other provinces. In most of them, electoral distribution has historically favored rural voters because the large non-urban regions have to be broken down into many small ridings to make them manageable for both voters and legislators. After last week's decision, said Ronald Cuming, one of the three law professors who launched the challenge, other provinces will have to study the Saskatchewan court’s decision closely. Added Cuming: “This decision has significance right across the country.”

On the weekend, the Saskatchewan Tories were weighing their choices intensely. Meanwhile, the opposition New Democratic Party, which leads the Tories by more than 20 percentage points in the latest opinion polls, had mixed views on the best course of action. Initially, NDP house leader Dwain Lingenfelter

said that the party was eager to hold an election immediately—and address the boundary question afterwards. But on reflection, NDP Leader Roy Romanow said that the party would demand that the government recall the legislature to enable it to appoint a new boundaries commission. Declared Romanow: “Govern-

ments can no longer draw boundaries or enact legislation for the purpose of gaining political advantage. The idea of gerrymandering should be dead.”

For Devine’s Conservatives, however, the eventual distribution may well prove decisive in the next election. In the past election, in October, 1986, the party’s popularity among rural voters allowed the Tories to win a second majority mandate, even though they captured slightly fewer votes overall than the urbanbased NDP. The Tories won 38 seats—almost all of them in rural ridings—compared with 25 for the NDP and one for the Liberals. Then,

under a five-year-old provincial law, the government created an electoral commission in 1988 to redistribute the province’s constituencies. Later that year, the commission produced a new map creating two new seats, bringing the total to 66. Significantly, however, the commission also allowed the number of voters in any riding to be 25 per cent more or less than the provincial average. The previous variance had been 15 per cent.

Although the new seats were in urban areas—Regina and Saskatoon—critics assailed the new boundaries for tipping the balance unfairly in favor of rural voters—and the Conservatives. The citizens groups’ challenge went directly to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, which heard the case in early December. Lawyers acting for the province argued that smaller numbers of voters were justified in rural ridings because of the need to limit the size of rural constituencies to manageable proportions. The lawyers also noted that riding distributions in every province except Manitoba also allowed for discrepancies of at least 25 per cent.

But the court accepted the challengers’ contention that the proposed boundaries strayed too far from the fundamental democratic principle that no citizen’s vote should exert more influence than another’s. The court ruled that the proposed boundaries violated the spirit of Section 3 of the Charter of Rights, which deals with the voting rights of Canadians. That section does not directly address the issue of riding size. But according to the Saskatchewan court, it implies that individual votes should carry relatively equal weight. The judgment noted that the new ridings would range in voter population from 7,757 in rural Morse, in the south, to 12,567 in Saskatoon/ Greystone. Such wide discrepancies, -the five judges concluded, could mean that “the voting power of each voter in the larger constituencies is debased.” Justice Minister Gary Lane said I that he was talking to his counterparts in other provinces about a possible _ appeal to the Supreme Court of Canag da. Lane added that if an election is called before an appeal can be heard, voting would likely be within the boundaries used in 1986. But the citizens who took the most recent boundaries to court threatened to challenge the legitimacy of any election in which the distribution of voters failed to meet the court’s requirements. Until a new electoral map is drawn, said law professor Howard McConnell, one of the activists, any election “would give us a result based on an unfair system.” For the Devine government, redistribution was one more uncertainty to be weighed as it braced for an uphill campaign for a third term in office.

BRIAN BERGMAN with DALE EISLER in Regina

BRIAN BERGMAN

DALE EISLER