The Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission wrapped up its province-wide road trip in Westlock Feb. 24, although few took the time to make their voices heard.
The five-member panel chaired by Judge Myra Bielby of the Alberta Court of Appeal made Westlock its final appearance on a 15-stop tour of the province. This is the first time in eight years that the electoral boundaries are under scrutiny.
“We all remember the representation by population principle, that requires each person’s vote to be relatively equal in weight in practice as every other person’s vote,” said Bielby.
“The job of the commission is to make recommendations to the legislature as to how to move the constituency boundaries to ensure that each Albertan continues to be effectively represented in the legislature.
“That means bringing constituency population size more in line with the average by making it larger or smaller geographically, but that’s not the only thing we have to take into account.”
Aside from ensuring an average population per riding, they must look into community issues such as regional organizations, natural boundaries like rivers or major highways, languages and industrial needs.
“That means we don’t want to inadvertently put a constituency boundary running through one community, or a First Nation reserve or Métis colony. They didn’t get that right the last time.”
That second factor in drawing borders was what brought Pembina Hills Public Schools trustee Jan Hoffart — the only person from Westlock who spoke at the meeting — to address the commission.
“Our school board is concerned about expanding constituency boundaries to capture the target number of residents,” said Hoffart. “We believe doing this runs the risk of creating constituencies that are so geographically large that an MLA would have a very difficult time articulating the divergent needs of the many small communities within their constituency. Voters would not have easy access to the MLA that represents them.”
Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater MLA Colin Piquette also addressed the commission, confirming Hoffart’s concerns that rural MLAs were already being stretched too thin over their constituencies.
“It would take me two full-terms to be able to attend every Legion’s Remembrance Day memorial in my riding,” he noted. “I would prefer the borders stay where they are.”
Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken was not able to make the meeting.
The provincial average is determined by dividing the province’s population by the 87 ridings — it’s predicted the average population per riding for the next two provincial elections will be 46,697.
“Over time, populations in constituencies change. In Alberta we have had particular growth as the result of other Canadians immigrating into our province,” said Bielby.
Under the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act, an electoral boundary commission needs to be formed every eight years to assess the province’s continually changing population distribution.
“Since 2010, our population has increased more than 600,000 people,” added Bielby. “To put that in comparison, the populations of Edmonton and Calgary are the first and second in the county in terms of rate of growth. Vancouver is third.”
She added that the newcomers to Alberta were mostly moving to the bigger cities — Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray, Red Deer and Grand Prairie.
According to Statistics Canada, the population of Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock is 42,091, placing it close to 10 per cent under the provincial average and requiring a boundary adjustment. Other ridings are considerably more skewed in their representation, with the riding of Fort McMurray-Conklin having 17,129 people, and Calgary-Southeast has a population 92,248, meaning that it would take 75,119 more votes to elect Rick Fraser than Brian Jean.
“If we had a provincial election tomorrow, the vote in Fort McMurray-Conklin would have four and a half times the effect as someone casting a vote in Calgary Southeast,” explained Bielby.
After reviewing the input the commission received over its hearings, as well as the 749 written submissions, the board will provide a recommendation for each riding to the Legislature by May 31.
A second round of public hearings will be held at the end of July or early August and the final report will be prepared for Oct. 31.
The new boundaries would remain in effect until the 2023 general election.