The politics of geography

The thing about an effective representative democracy, especially in a ragged and far-flung jurisdiction like British Columbia, is that keeping it working properly takes a lot of hard work.

That cliché must have occurred to British Columbia’s Electoral Boundaries Commission on quite a few occasions between its first public hearing in downtown Vancouver on September 25, and its 34th, and last, on November 29 in the Southern Interior town of Merritt.

But reading through the 72 submissions that the three commissioners gathered on their journeys does tend to give the impression that British Columbians aren’t shirkers, and there’s no shortage of good sense and generosity out there.

What’s noticeable is the absence of overt political calculation of the sort that tends to interest the big-city news media regarding these exercises in redrawing ridings’ boundaries—as in which party is likely to benefit most. (This time around it’s the Liberals, marginally, because Liberal MLAs tend to represent the faster-growing ridings.)

What concerned most people who took the time to write up their thoughts were questions of community and fairness: which towns and villages properly belonged in which ridings, and which boundaries best suited the existing social and economic patterns on the ground.

This is heartening, because the demographic changes the province has recently undergone have raised a grim scenario that Corky Evans, the colourful NDP MLA for Nelson-Creston, likes to point out: it’s now possible for a political party to win control of government in British Columbia without electing a single MLA outside the Lower Mainland.

Over the past 15 years, Greater Vancouver’s population has grown by more than a third. No other region has matched that pace, and in some vast stretches of countryside, such as the North Coast and the Cariboo-Chilcotin, they’re losing people.

As British Columbia—which, we tend to forget, is bigger than the American states of Washington, Oregon, and California combined—becomes an ever more urban place, the things that matter most to rural people tend to get eclipsed by big-city concerns. It’s a dynamic that feeds on itself, exponentially. While the metropolis grows, the countryside’s political clout diminishes, and so does Victoria’s commitment to the higher per-capita infrastructure costs associated with small-town life. As a result, it’s harder for B.C.’s small towns to hold on to their hospitals, schools, roads, libraries, and all those other things that city people tend to take for granted.

As basic infra ­structure withers,small-town life be ­ ­comes an even bleaker prospect, owing to declining provincial attention to sustainable forestry, fisheries, farming, and all those other bread-and-butter rural concerns that tend to have only an abstract meaning for city people. The hinterland then loses more people, and small towns spiral ever faster downward.

The dynamic is compounded by the inevitable deracination and atomization of British Columbian society. Politics and public policy become less rooted in place, less influenced by the landscape itself and by the distinct regional cultures and communities that evolved precisely because of those landscapes.

The abiding sense of place that is so often at the heart of a sense of shared community—and, consequently, the functioning of a healthy democracy—has been especially pronounced in British Columbia. And it’s very old.

When you look at a map of British Columbia’s ancient “bioregions”, say, you’re also looking at a map of B.C.’s traditional cultural and economic regions: the Kootenays, the Southern Interior, the Cariboo, the Chilcotin, and so on. And that map is a palimpsest of ancient linguistic, political, and cultural territories—Sinixt/K’tunaxa, Nlakapamux, Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in, and so on—that also ended up defining, more or less, the boundaries of B.C.’s electoral districts.

It’s a complicated cartography, and it’s not the sort of thing you want to mess with unless you give it a lot of thought first.

One of the most contentious questions the commissioners will have to consider before they report to the legislature next August is just what to do about the Cariboo-Chilcotin, currently divided into the ridings of Cariboo South and Cariboo North.

The commission heard perfectly reasonable submissions from residents of such towns as Ashcroft, Cache Creek, and Cherry Creek to the effect that their communities properly belong in the Yale-Lillooet riding, not Cariboo South. But that could very well result in the two “Cariboo” ridings being merged into a single sprawling riding, which would be preposterous.

Under the law, the commissioners have quite a degree of discretion. They can take B.C.’s ragged geography into account, as well as the distinct history and legacy of rural communities, and although the legislation doesn’t explicitly identify the accommodation of Native communities as something that falls within the commissioners’ discretion, they’d be fools not to be mindful of it.

They can also deviate from the voters-per-riding calculus by 25 percent, and they’re allowed to add as many as six new ridings to the roster—almost all of which would likely come from the Lower Mainland—making room for as many as 85 MLAs in the legislature.

The 2001 Citizens Assembly’s splendid proportional-representation proposal for a single transferable vote is up for provincewide referendum again in 2009, and the electoral commission is also attending to drawing up a separate STV map, with multimember ridings. But a simple B.C. voter head count would never work under proportional representation either.

Just compare the riding of Columbia River–Revelstoke—which spans almost 400 kilometres between Bull River and Kinbasket Lake—with Vancouver-Burrard, which can be spanned in a pleasant 20-minute seaside stroll from the Cambie Bridge to Stanley Park.

The point is, small-town British Columbia needn’t lose representation in any of this. So here’s hoping the commissioners are as sensible as the people they’ve heard from. -

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