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Canada Election Ontario Politics Toronto

Wards and ridings: not quite representation by population

With the release of the 2021 Census population data, the disparities within federal ridings and City of Toronto wards become quite stark

When Statistics Canada released the first batch of 2021 Census data, it made the new population counts available for a wide variety of geographies, from provinces and cities, to local census tracts and even city blocks. It also released data for the 338 federal electoral districts, better known as ridings.

Because of constitutional requirements, the seats in the federal House of Commons are not allocated equally by population. For example, Prince Edward Island, with a population of 154,331, has four seats. At the other extreme, four electoral districts in Alberta and one in Brampton, Ontario have larger populations than Canada’s smallest province.

Electoral DistrictProvince/Territory2021 Population
LabradorNewfoundland & Labrador26,655
EgmontPrince Edward Island35,925
NunavutNunavut36,858
CharlottetownPrince Edward Island38,809
MalpequePrince Edward Island39,731
Average109,444
Banff-AirdrieAlberta155,580
Calgary SkyviewAlberta159,642
Brampton WestOntario162,353
Calgary ShepardAlberta163,447
Edmonton-WetaskiwinAlberta209,431

The federal electoral districts were last drawn in 2013, following the 2011 census. As a result, fast-growing ridings, particularly in Southern Ontario, Calgary, and Edmonton, have huge populations compared to the national average.

The interactive map below depicts all 338 electoral districts, depicting the differences in population.

Link

In Ontario, the provincial government uses the same boundaries for its provincial electoral districts, with the exception of Northern Ontario, where two additional seats help to compensate for the area’s vast and remote regions, where local MPPs may have to travel hours by car, train, or plane to meet constituents. The province imposed the same boundaries on the City of Toronto in 2018, in the middle of a municipal election for which new, fairer boundaries were just approved.

By 2021, the population differences based on decade-old data became stark, as shown in the map below.

Map depicting disparities in Toronto’s ward populations

Ward 23 Scarborough North, represented by Cynthia Lai, has a population of 94,717. Ward 23’s population dropped by over 4% since 2016, as households age and few new housing units built in that ward. Ward 16, Don Valley East, has just 95,039 residents, with a stable population.

On the other extreme, Ward 3 Etobicoke-Lakeshore, represented by veteran councillor Mark Grimes, has a population of 141,751, growing by 9.82% since 2016. New condominium developments in the Humber Bay neighbourhood and along the Queensway have driven much of that growth. Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York, saw an even greater number of new residents move in, growing by nearly 18% in the last five years.

As Toronto is stuck with these ward boundaries until 2028, the population disparities will only grow larger, with downtown and South Etobicoke residents becoming even more underrepresented. Compounding the unfairness is that councillors representing high-growth wards have much higher workloads, as they deal with mountains of planning applications while ensuring their existing constituents have access to essential local services like schools, transit, and park space.

The ward boundaries initially set for the 2018 municipal election would have accounted for future growth, ensuring that workloads would be more fairly distributed, and that city residents would have equal access to their local councillor.

The 2021 population counts will be used to set new federal riding boundaries, which will be drawn next year after a consultation period and used in the first federal election held after 2023. The province will likely adopt the new boundaries for the 2026 election (assuming a majority government is elected in June).

Perhaps in four years, Toronto will be able to set its own ward boundaries again. That, of course, will depend on electing a better provincial government and a council committed to equity and good governance.

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