Change on the ground, change on the map

A new electoral boundary commission could see significant changes to riding boundaries in the Fraser Valley. But those changes are just more than lines on a map

By Grace Kennedy | January 27, 2022 |5:00 am

It’s all just lines on a map—until suddenly it’s a lot more complex than that.

We are referring, of course, to electoral boundaries: the lines drawn on a map that determine which communities are represented by which MLAs. The lines are ephemeral, yet have distinct power. They decide which regions get more voting power by determining how many elected representatives are from each part of the province. They help inform which communities get which resources, and can help make disaster response more efficient. And in the Fraser Valley, they could all be changing.

Last fall, the province appointed a three-member Electoral Boundary Commission to review all 87 of BC’s ridings and determine what changes should be made. A commission is formed after every two elections to make sure that every MLA represents a similar number of people. But the task is more challenging than it sounds. In addition to ensuring each riding has a similar population, the commission also needs to create ridings that are geographically coherent and representative of “communities of interest.”

In May of last year, the province announced amendments that would allow the commission to deviate from past guidelines that had restricted some commission decisions. It removed the requirement to have a combined 17 ridings in Northern BC, the Cariboo, and the Kootenays, for instance. It also allowed the commission to make riding recommendations that are significantly smaller or larger than the average population size. And importantly, it allowed the commission to recommend the creation of up to 93 ridings—six more than currently exist.

That is what could have significant impacts for the Fraser Valley, particularly as the region continues to grow faster than the rest of the province.

“It’s the suburbs of Vancouver and, increasingly, the valley that is getting the growth,” UFV political science professor Hamish Telford said. “So if new ridings are going to be created, this is where it’s going to happen.”

In the last five years, the Fraser Valley population has increased an average of 7%, compared to the provincial average of 5%. Most of that growth was centred in Abbotsford and Langley, although Chilliwack was growing too. The region’s population is anticipated to increase another 7% by 2025, with South Langley expected to see a whopping 12% population increase.

That increase could spur the creation of new electoral ridings, and it wouldn’t be the first time. In less than a lifetime, the Lower Mainland east of Burnaby went from three electoral areas to 23. Before 1965, the Dewdney riding covered the area north of the Fraser River, while Chilliwack and Delta covered the land south of the river. Now there are nine electoral districts in the Fraser Valley alone.

The Fraser Valley’s electoral areas have grown and shifted over the years, with more districts being added between 1999 and 2015. 📸 Grace Kennedy

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The commission will study the changing demographic data of the Fraser Valley. “Then they’ll try to map it so that you’ve got ridings, to the extent that it’s possible, that make a certain amount of geographic sense,” Telford said. “And this is where I think changes are in order in the Fraser Valley, certainly in Abbotsford.”

Telford lives in Abbotsford, which is divided into three separate ridings: Abbotsford South, Abbotsford West, and Abbotsford-Mission. They are, in Telford’s words, “awkwardly shaped.” A highway is a natural boundary for a political riding, as is a river. But both are ignored in Abbotsford’s ridings: Abbotsford South’s topmost point extends above the highway, and Abbotsford-Mission extends below the river and into the downtown core. (This is not uncommon, as the Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon federal riding extends across the river as well.)

Many communities are either too large (Abbotsford) or too small (Mission) for a single riding, and attempting to join those with neighboring ridings can create challenges and absurdities.

“They created boundaries in Abbotsford to have the right sort of population, but geographically they don’t really make sense,” Telford said. “And this is a problem because it does create confusion for voters as to what riding they live in when they’re driving around the community” during election campaigns.

It could have been much weirder though.

In 2015, the last time a commission was busy redrawing the provincial boundaries, Langley’s ridings were facing some growing pains. The region was getting too big for two self-contained ridings, but wasn’t yet big enough for a third. The commission at that time considered creating three ridings: a Langley riding that centered on Langley City and Willoughby, a Fort Langley-Abbotsford riding north of Highway 1, and an Aldergrove-Abbotsford riding that extended from Surrey to the Sumas Prairie.

The proposed boundary changes for Langley in 2015 would have seen the community divided into a small Langley district, a Fort Langley-Abbotsford district north of the highway, and an Aldergrove-Abbotsford district covering everything between Surrey and Sumas Way south of the highway. 📸 Electoral Area Boundary Commission 2015 preliminary report

When it was time for public input, residents gave a resounding no to the proposal. “Submitters explained that Langley does not share a community of interest with Abbotsford and these communities should not be combined in the same electoral districts,” the commission’s final report explained.

That’s why so-called “communities of interest” are so important: they prevent what could be an otherwise logical division of population in the Fraser Valley from fracturing communities in ways that make little sense to the people who live there.

There is no exact definition of a community of interest—and that’s partly what makes it an important tool in electoral boundary creation. A community of interest is an area that has a common identity and purpose, and with it a sense of belonging, but isn’t so prescriptive as to create issues when making reasonably-sized ridings.

Take Hope. The 2015 commission’s preliminary report said that people were divided on whether “Hope is the gateway to the Interior and therefore belongs in the Fraser-Nicola electoral district, or whether it is the gateway to the Fraser Valley and therefore belongs in an electoral district with Chilliwack.”

The decision was tough. Those in favour of having it remain part of the Fraser Valley spoke about its inclusion in the FVRD, and the fact that Chilliwack is the community’s major hub for shopping and services. Those seeking to join it with the Interior highlighted its similarities with the rural, resource- and tourism-based Cariboo-Canyon region. Hope had also flip flopped in the past, as it was part of the Yale-Lillooet electoral district until 2008, after which time it was joined with the Fraser Valley.

The electoral boundaries commission ultimately decided to not make a decision on Hope’s identity, and instead looked to the impact on other communities. Without Hope in the Fraser Nicola district, that riding would have almost 50% fewer people than the average—too large a deviation for that part of the province. (Although something like that may be allowed with the new commission this year.)

Geography is also key. This November’s flooding disaster on Sumas Prairie took place almost entirely inside of Abbotsford South, which extends from Aldergrove to Yarrow.

A map of the eastern portion of the Abbotsford South riding with an overlay of the Sumas flooding on Nov. 19 shows how neatly the disaster fit within the electoral boundaries. 📸 Elections BC; Peregrine Aerial Surveys

“I always thought Abbotsford South was a bit of a peculiar riding,” Telford said. “But that was mostly the flood plains. I don’t know if at the eastern end it had spilled into another riding, but it kind of worked in that case.”

Using geography as a boundary line can help administer resources in the event of a localized disaster, which may affect one area more than another. If geography is a guiding principle in creating electoral boundaries, it could mean that most of the disaster response can be delivered through one government source. Creating boundaries that follow natural patterns can also help residents—who are more likely to look at a political map than a

Changes to electoral boundaries have informed the Fraser Valley for the last two provincial elections. (Similar changes on a federal level have also impacted Fraser Valley politics. Jati Sidhu’s 2015 win and subsequent loss in Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon can be partially attributed to the creation of a new riding; so can the election-by-election flip flops between the Liberals and Conservatives in Cloverdale-Langley City.)

What changes will be coming next to the Fraser Valley will depend on the Electoral Boundary Commission. The commission will have until next October to develop a preliminary report identifying what electoral boundaries should change for the next election. They will also be seeking community input through provincewide consultations, particularly in areas impacted by potential changes. The commission’s final report will be due six months after the release of the preliminary report.

Of course, the provincial redrawing isn’t the only electoral boundary changes on the horizon. The federal electoral area boundaries are also changing this year. BC will be getting one additional seat in the House of Commons, although where in BC that new riding will fall is still under debate. A federal commission will release its proposals for BC sometime between March and August of this year. The new federal boundaries will be given final approval by September of next year.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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