Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Appearing before the Electoral Boundaries Commission

Here is my presentation to the federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Saskatchewan.


Thank you for the opportunity to address you on the important matter of the redistribution of electoral boundaries.

While I am not here in any official capacity, I would note by way of background that I am an Anglican priest who has served in several multipoint point parishes and single point parishes across the Diocese of Qu’Appelle, which constitutes the southern third of the province geographically and the southern half of the province in terms of population.  I’ve served congregations
·        in Oxbow, Alameda, Carnduff, Carievale, Gainsborough, Alida, Carlyle, Manor and Cannington Manor
·        in Kerrobert, Major, Coleville, Smiley, Prairiedale, Kindersley, Brock, Eston, Loverna and Alsask
·        in Esterhazy, Cotham, Dubuc, Bangor, Llewellyn, Saltcoats, Churchbridge and Langenburg
·        in Balcarress, Cupar, Dysart, Kelliher, Abernethy and Katepwa
·        in Avonlea and Ogema
·        and in three different parishes in Regina.

I would suggest that this experience has given me some passing insight into the commonalities and differences between urban Saskatchewan and rural Saskatchewan. 

Early on in the boundary review process, there were widespread calls from academics, political analysts and major media to move away from the previous model of having no all urban constituencies in Saskatchewan.  The argument was simple and straightforward:
·        Urban and rural voters have different interests and different issues.
·        The previous practice of having no urban constituencies was an anomaly in that Saskatchewan was the only province without a single all urban constituency.
·        The previous practice resulted in distorted electoral outcomes, with Saskatchewan consistently having a greater variance between party popular vote and party seat distribution than any other province.

I am very pleased to see that your commission has heeded that advice.  I think the proposed boundaries make a great deal of sense, and while it has not been possible to eliminate mixed urban – rural constituencies entirely, the commission has kept it to a minimum.

Some have tried to argue from history that the previous mixed urban – rural constituencies are of such longstanding as to be almost an inviolable tradition in Saskatchewan.  I suggest, with respect, that the argument is entirely ahistorical and actually rather fatuous.

The geography currently known as Saskatchewan has been represented in the Canadian Parliament since 1887.  One cannot speak in any meaningful way of mixed urban – rural constituencies in Saskatchewan prior to 1968, when the former riding of Saskatoon was replaced with Saskatoon – Biggar and Saskatoon – Humboldt and the former riding of Regina City was replaced with Regina East and Regina – Lake Centre.  In other words, the inviolable tradition of rural – urban constituencies only covers 44 years of the 125 year history – barely more than one-third. 

And more importantly, what was that former commission’s motivation in dividing the two cities?  The answer is stunningly obvious.  By the mid-1960s, both Saskatoon and Regina were too large to constitute one constituency but not large enough to constitute two.  Not to mention that, in 1968, most residents of Regina and Saskatoon were no more than a generation or two off the farm - which is ertainly not the case today.

There are significant differences between the issues and interests of rural and urban voters in Saskatchewan.  While the arithmetic of subdividing Saskatchewan’s population into 14 more or less equal constituencies may not make it possible to adhere perfectly to the principle of communities of interest, it is absurd to argue (as some have) that the interests of a voter in the Rosemont neighbourhood of Regina, where my current parish is, are essentially no different than the interests of my former parishioners in Carlyle or Coleville or Cotham.  The significant variance in voting patterns alone suggests a significant divergence.

But the current pattern has served the interests of one political party very effectively over the past ten years.  That party has doubtless encouraged many of the presenters who will appear before you to argue in favour of having only mixed urban – rural seats in Saskatchewan.

Indeed, if they are serious that mixed urban – rural ridings are just the thing, then wouldn’t a replication of the existing boundaries leave the seven all rural ridings at a significant disadvantage?  Surely the logical corollary of their position is to have seven long, thin ridings radiating out of Saskatoon and another seven out of Regina, each extending to the provincial boundaries.  Instead, they apparently believe that having all rural constituencies is just fine, so long as there are no all urban ones.  It seems intellectually inconsistent, perhaps even a trifle disingenuous.  The only logical argument in favour of the current arrangement is an argument rooted in partisan advantage – an argument which, by statute, the Commission cannot take into account.

You have been appointed to serve the citizens of Canada and the citizens of Saskatchewan, not to serve the interests of any political party.  You have demonstrated your integrity by producing a very well balanced set of electoral boundaries that effectively honours the principle of communities of interest with as few exceptions as reasonably possible.  While some presenters may suggest minor tweaks here and there, the overall proposal is sound, reasonable and fair.

I would note one anomaly, though it is not related to the question of urban – rural ridings.  That is the two proposed constituencies of Lloydminster – Battlefords – Rosthern and Kindersley – Rosetown – Humboldt.  It does strike me as odd to have two constituencies extending from the Alberta border to somewhere east of Saskatoon.  I would suggest, respectfully, that the commission might consider maintaining the outer boundaries of the two ridings but dividing them east and west rather than north and south.  I don’t have a specific suggestion, but something along the lines of Lloydminster – Battlefords – Kindersley – Rosetown and Rosthern – Humboldt, if you will.  As a former resident of Kerrobert, it strikes me I’d have had more commonality with both Kindersley and the Battlefords than with either Rosthern or Humboldt.

But that is merely a proposed tweak.  Your overall proposal is very sound and will, I hope, be finally adopted with very few changes.

Again, thank you for this opportunity.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

September Midday Mass

The tall old priest entered the half-lit sacristy,
fresh from his usual Tuesday morning studies.
The fair-haired acolyte with the bad complexion
was ready, vested, standing in the dimness
quietly.  The old priest noticed he was sniffing
and his eyes were red. A failed romance,
he thought; but keeping his own rule on chit-chat
in the sacristy, vested silently.
The old familiar motions and the prayers
displaced whatever thoughts he might have had;
the only dialogue to break the stillness was
the rote exchange of formal preparation.

Then, in one motion as he slipped his hand
beneath the pale green veil, the other hand
upon the burse, he lifted vested vessels,
turned and followed in the sniffing server’s
wake. Eyes lowered to the holy burden
in his hand, he failed to notice that
the chapel for this midday feria —
on other days like this with one or two
at most — was full of worshippers; until
he raised his eyes, and saw the pews were filled —
but undeterred began the liturgy:
the lessons and the gospel from last Sunday,
his sermon brief, but pointed, on the texts.

It wasn’t till the acolyte began
 the people’s prayers, and choked out words of planes
that brought a city’s towers down, and crashed
into the Pentagon, and plowed a field
in Pennsylvania, that the old priest knew
this was no ordinary Tuesday in
September —
not ordinary time at all,
that day he missed the towers’ fall.

Tobias Haller BSG March 8, 2008
Reposted now annually as a traditional observance