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Principles and Gerrymanders: Parliamentary Redistribution of Ridings in Ontario, 1840–1954 by George Emery (review)
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Principles and Gerrymanders: Parliamentary Redistribution of Ridings in Ontario, 1840–1954. George Emery. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 332, $95.00 cloth

This book describes, in exhaustive and at times exhausting detail, how the boundaries of electoral districts in Ontario were determined for more than a century after the legislative union of the two Canadas in 1840. Few potential readers will immediately recognize why the year 1954 was selected to conclude the story, but that was in fact the date of the last revision of Ontario’s electoral boundaries that was conducted by the politicians rather than by an independent commission.

The boundaries of the original forty-two ridings in what was then called Canada West (as well as the forty-two in Canada East) were determined by the imperial statute that united the two provinces in a legislative union. No less than twenty-two revisions followed over the next 115 years, four of them before Confederation (including that of 1867, which applied to both levels of government in the new Dominion) and eighteen afterwards, nine of which applied to Ontario’s representation in the House of Commons and nine to its provincial legislature.

The British North America Act (1867) required a redistribution of parliamentary seats among the provinces after each decennial census. The provincial legislature was not bound by any such requirement but in practice was redistributed just as often. The sensible idea of using the same electoral boundaries for Ontario at both levels was abandoned in 1874 and was not revived until 1996 when Premier Mike Harris’s government, to its credit, decided to use the federal boundaries in provincial elections. So far, at least, this reform has proved to be durable.

George Emery uses quantitative measurements to indicate the balance of party strength in each riding and its deviation from the average size of population. The book devotes more than twice as many pages to the federal redistributions as it does to the provincial ones. The text is supplemented by twenty-two tables, which are fortunately placed where they belong rather than being gathered at the end of the book.

As the title suggests, the author’s primary concern is with gerrymanders, meaning redistributions that benefit the governing party in [End Page 176] subsequent elections. He distinguishes between “intentional” gerrymanders, which change boundaries with this end in view, and “passive” gerrymanders, which give the government an advantage by failing to make changes that, in the author’s judgement, should have taken place. According to his data and criteria, nine out of ten redistributions by Conservative governments included gerrymanders, but only three out of eight redistributions by Liberal governments. He does not venture an explanation for this disparity. He is particularly harsh on John A. Macdonald’s redistribution of 1882, the description of which fills more than twenty-three pages.

The various maps and case studies illustrate the techniques, and consequences, of gerrymandering in considerable detail. A favourite technique was known as “hiving,” a term that appeared in the 1880s although it may or may not have been coined by Macdonald. Hiving means to concentrate as many as possible of your opponent’s voters in one riding (the “hive”), which your opponent is likely to win anyway, so that they will not be available to influence the outcome in other ridings. (Although not mentioned in the book, the Republican Party in the United States seems to have made effective use of this practice in recent years, particularly by “hiving” African Americans in districts that, like the original “gerrymander,” often have bizarre shapes.)

In fairness to Macdonald and other politicians, it should be pointed out that redistribution is a complicated business. As listed on pages 264–7, eleven “principles” (other than partisan advantage) have influenced the process as various times. The two most important of these, equalizing populations and following municipal and county boundaries, are mutually exclusive, although a strong argument can be made for both. Another principle, that rural ridings should have smaller populations than urban ones, emerged early in Canadian history and has proved very durable. Contrary to what readers may assume nowadays, for most of Canada...