Archived - Notes for an address at the conference “Finding a balance between parity in the number of voters and the community of interest or identity” organized by Elections Canada
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Ottawa, February 22, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.
I would like to thank Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand and François Faucher for inviting me to take part in this conference. The process of redrawing electoral boundaries is a subject to which my office has devoted a great deal of study over the past 10 years. As such, this afternoon I would like to share with you some of our ideas and findings. My hope is that they will provide some food for thought that will be useful in helping you achieve your mandate.
Canada is a country founded on values, fundamental freedoms and democratic rights. Our country extols the equality of its two official languages, English and French. As members of an electoral boundaries commission, respect for these values is clearly one of your central concerns given the country’s demographic evolution.
This morning, we heard the presentations by Messrs. Massicotte and Pal on the representation and definition of communities of interest or identity, which gave us a better understanding of these concepts. My task consists of stressing the importance of official language minority communities as communities of interest.
The concept of community is critical to the redrawing of electoral boundaries; it is thus an aspect to which you will be paying particular attention. According to the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, commissions must consider “the community of interest or community of identity in or the historical pattern of an electoral district”Footnote 1 when redrawing electoral “borders.” This is extremely sensitive work because electoral ridings have to be readjusted while ensuring fair representation of certain communities of interest, and while fostering the development and vitality of official language communities.
The values and shared sense of identity among members of official language communities have been forged by a number of historical, social and economic factors. The ties that bind citizens who share the same electoral riding are important.
The weakening of these bonds can lead to isolation and a sense of being uprooted.
The Official Languages Act is designed, in part, to support the vitality of official language communities. It stipulates that the “Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and supporting and assisting their development.”Footnote 2 In terms of your work, this means being fair with regard to Anglophone communities in Quebec and Francophone communities elsewhere in the country. Some of the English-speaking communities in Quebec and French-speaking communities in Alberta that could be better represented by a readjustment of the ridings where they are located come to mind.
A community is often rooted to a specific geographical area. Despite a population that is more and more mobile and despite more powerful modes of communication, a community’s sense of belonging or sense of place is a factor that continues to be very important in the lives of Canadians. For centuries, Canadians have identified themselves through their parishes, their schools and their neighbourhoods. Identity is forged, first and foremost, by spending time with our neighbours.
As a democratic country, Canada must ensure it strikes a balance between its national interests and the interests of its regions, cities, towns and villages.
When the last adjustments were made to electoral boundaries in 2002–2003, certain situations in which commissions did not completely fulfill their linguistic obligations with regard to official language communities were brought to the attention of my predecessor, Dyane Adam. These situations also resulted in complaints addressed to Commissioner Adam, who intervened in actions brought by some of the complainants. To examine all of these situations and determine whether systemic problems existed, Commissioner Adam decided to undertake a wide-ranging study of the issue. This study, Drawing the Line: The Impact of Readjusting the Electoral Boundaries on the Official Language Minority Communities, was published in June 2006. You can consult it on our website.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I must point out that there has been a significant change since the electoral map was last redrawn in 2002. In November 2005, the Canadian parliament strengthened the Official Languages Act. Federal institutions now have the obligation to take positive measures to meet the objectives of Part VII. Parliament told institutions: “You are now legally obliged to do everything you can to promote the vitality of official language communities and recognize the equality of English and French in Canadian society.”
Just as the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act does not define the concept of “community of interest,” neither does the Official Languages Act define the concept of “positive measure.” In concrete terms, this means that federal institutions must ensure their programs enhance the vitality of official language communities.
Your obligations under Part VII of the Official Languages Act and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act are certainly compatible. You must ensure that the interests of official language communities are foremost in mind when redrawing electoral boundaries.
More than four decades after the Official Languages Act came into force, official language communities are still very much present throughout Canada. There are roughly a million Anglophones in Quebec and close to a million Francophones in the rest of Canada—all in all, that’s more than two million Canadians living in official language communities.
As is the case for all federal institutions, electoral boundary commissions are required to offer services of equal quality in English and French. However, your obligations are not limited to offering all of your services in both official languages.
It is also imperative that your commissions adequately consult the organizations representing the official language communities in the provinces. You should be aware of what factors and characteristics you need to take into consideration to determine whether official language communities will be effectively represented in the readjustment proposal you present during public consultations.
Official language communities will therefore be in a position to promote awareness of their community of interest and of their identity early on in the readjustment process.
Notices that commissions are required to publish by virtue of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and notices that they have the legislative authority to publish must meet the stipulations of section 11 of the Official Languages Act, and therefore appear in unilingual format in English- and French-language publications that are widely distributed in the region in question. However, to reach official language communities effectively, the commissions must also disseminate all public notices through the media of the minority group. Don’t forget that, when information is provided to the public, federal institutions must rely on the media most apt to reach official language communities.
As I mentioned previously, the obligations arising from the provisions of Part VII of the Official Languages Act are compatible with the discretionary powers conferred on you by section 15 of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.
To reconcile your obligations by virtue of Part VII of the Official Languages Act and the discretionary power enabling you to apply the “community of interest” criteria, you must take into account the language factor and the specific characteristics of official language communities in the various regions of the provinces.
Thus, a commission must not limit itself to merely considering the big picture of the community on a province-wide scale. Such an approach could result in court action. I’ll use Raîche as an example. As I mentioned, in 2004, my office intervened before the courts following complaints submitted to my predecessor.
In the New Brunswick riding of Acadie-Bathurst, all of the citizens who expressed an opinion on the issue had been in favour of maintaining the status quo, invoking the concepts of community of interest and identity. Despite these interventions, the commission maintained its recommendation for reasons of parity of electoral power, in other words, the establishment of a certain balance in the number of voters per riding. Three complaints were submitted to the then commissioner of official languages Dyane Adam. She concluded that the commission had not fulfilled its responsibilities in this regard under section 41 of the Official Languages Act. This case then went to court.
Examining the legal scope of this part of the Official Languages Act, the Federal Court agreed with the Commissioner’s position. The Court also examined the obligations given rise to by section 15 of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and concluded that the commission had not fully considered whether it was advisable to allow a variance provided for in the Act as a means to preserve a community of interest in a riding. The Court therefore annulled the commission’s decision. However, it suspended this declaration of invalidity for a maximum period of a year to give the authority in question time to act.
This led to a long series of measures:
- A commission was established to review the adjustment of the federal electoral boundaries in Acadie-Bathurst;
- This commission based its findings on a desire to respect the community of interest, and submitted its final report in December 2004;
- It was recommended to reincorporate the French-speaking parishes of Allardville and Bathurst back into their original riding;
- To carry out this recommendation, Parliament passed Bill C-36;
- The law received Royal Assent on February 24, 2005;
- The French-speaking parishes of Allardville and Bathurst were then reincorporated into their original riding.
In conclusion, it is incumbent upon your commissions to adequately consult with the associations that represent official language communities. By doing so, you will be aware of what factors to take into consideration in the interest of official language communities and whether it is possible for these communities to remain adequately represented in the proposed readjustment, and thereby avoid another problematic situation. It is essential to take into account the element of communities of interest that are official language communities at the outset of the consultation process.
Language is an essential part of the identity of citizens who thrive in a community, in networks and in institutions. Establishing relationship networks enables English- and French-speaking minority communities to preserve their identity and maintain a community of interest. It enables them to avoid economic and social marginalization.
In closing, I once again invite you to consult our study, Drawing the Line: The Impact of Readjusting the Electoral Boundaries on the Official Language Minority Communities, available on our website.
Official language communities are “communities of interest.” It is not enough that citizens have an equal vote; their communities must be recognized and must benefit from fair representation.
It is also imperative to initiate a dialogue with individuals from official language communities and to act in a proactive manner by taking positive measures. My recommendation is that, in readjusting electoral boundaries, you strive to ensure the vitality of official language communities. This is likely the positive measure that has had the most impact on our official language communities since the amendment to Part VII of the Act in 2005.