by Maurice Y. Michaud (he/him)
Riding, district, county: those are all terms referring to the same thing — a given geographical area whose citizens send one person (and in the past sometimes several) to represent them in a legislative assembly or the federal parliament.
At the beginning of Confederation in 1867, ridings were entirely based on the provinces' counties, which is why, in French, the terms "comté" (county) and "circonscription" (riding) are used interchangeably to this day, although in English the word "county" has rarely been used in an electoral context other than to refer to the place name. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, there were as many ridings as there were counties and, at the provincial level, those with a larger number of enfranchised electors — property-owning men aged 21 or over — sent more members to their respective legislatures than those with a smaller number of electors. For their part, the more populous counties in Ontario were divided (for example, Brant North and Brant South), while in Québec, only the cities of Montréal and Québec City were divided into three ridings each.
The federal and provincial electoral maps were identical for the first two decades of Confederation, except that the counties in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia would send fewer MPs to Ottawa — only one per county, except two each for Saint John (City & County) and Halifax — than MLAs to Fredericton and Halifax. Today, only Ontario has similar federal and provincial electoral maps, with the provincial version having a few more ridings in the north to provide better representation for vast areas that are sparsely populated primarily by indigenous and/or minority francophone people.
Although Canada from the time of Confederation to the return of the soldiers from World War II was primarily a rural country, the result of this county-based electoral map and the limited vote franchise was that the rural communities were vastly overrepresented compared to the urban areas. Arguably, there were proportionally more property owners in rural areas than among city dwellers, but for a city like Montréal, with a population of about 100,000 people in 1867, it meant that there were only three MLAs and three MPs, compared to Trois-Rivières which had one of each for its approximately 10,000 citizens. The property ownership requirement was rescinded around 1920 in all jurisdictions; women were given the vote franchise from 1916 (Manitoba) to 1940 (Québec), and large cities were gradually given more representation beginning in the late 19th century. But despite those reforms, the strong overrepresentation of rural areas persisted in all jurisdictions well into the early 1960s. It still exists to a much lesser extent today — moreso in some jurisdictions than others — but it is allowed in order to take into account the notion of equity, namely to recognize the challenges faced by geographically isolated rural residents and those who represent them.
But more significantly, the importance of counties as a jurisdictional unit gradually diminished through the 20th century. For instance, they disappeared entirely in Québec by the early 1980s, being replaced by regional county municipalities (RCM) and larger administrative regions into which they are grouped. Counties still exist today in New Brunswick but are decreasingly used as an organizational unit, the judiciary system being one of the few that still relies on them. On contemporary electoral maps, counties merely serve in some cases to lend their name to a riding, such as Glengarry—Prescott—Russell in Ontario, even though the riding may not cover all the territory of the counties lending their name. In fact, while ridings are generally named after geographical entities — towns and villages in rural areas and neighbourhoods in urban areas — some jurisdictions such as Alberta and Québec name some of their ridings partly or entirely after historical figures or former politicians, like Calgary-Klein in Alberta and René-Lévesque in Québec, although it can be argued that several counties themselves got their name from historical figures (for example, Russell was named after Peter Russell).
Generally, the number of ridings and seats in each legislature and in the federal parliament has grown over time. Notable exceptions are Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. In the former, the 16 dual-member county-based ridings were abolished in 1996 and replaced by 27 single-member ridings that can ignore county lines. In the latter, this number has gone from a high of 52 in 1985 to the current number of 40 since 2015. This fact, coupled with the reshaping and renaming of ridings through redistribution, makes it very difficult to summarize the electoral history of specific locations in all jurisdictions. For example:
Consequently, when it comes to finding the electoral history of ridings, you have to come to terms as I have had to do with the fact that such a seemingly simple question does not have a similarly simple answer, because ridings, despite being based on geography, are in fact moving targets.
Is there absolutely no easy way?
The Canadian alphanumerical postal code system, which was introduced and implemented in the early 1970s, could provide a means of looking up electoral history by location (thus riding). However, while I could probably design such a search engine with a lot of work and research for the most recent elections, I would require the help of several historians with excellent local knowledge in each jurisdiction and experts in political geography to correlate the over 830,000 active postal codes today to the 40,509 ridings (or "races") recorded so far in the PoliCan site. I cannot begin to entertain such an undertaking while this project remains a part-time endeavour, plus I'm thinking it might be a fool's errand given how much on-going maintenance this scheme would require as more postal codes would become active, not to mention that I am not convinced that, in the end, such a tool would be overly useful for most researchers.
Yes, it could definitely be worse! It could be like in the United States, where ultra-partisan politicians in each state are in charge of redrawing the map. That can lead to absurdities like the 2011 version of Pennsylvania's 7th congressional district in the U.S. Congress, pictured here. Colloquially, it became known as the Goofy Kicking Donald Duck district.
That bafflingly illogical district was the result of what is known as gerrymandering. That's a practice named after Elbridge Gerry, who was the 5th vice-president of the United States, and previously the 9th governor of Massachusetts, as well as the representative for Massachusetts's 3rd district in the Congress of the United States in the late 18th century. As this 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine explains, in the early 19th century, in order to ensure that his party would win more representation, Gerry drew a district in Massachusetts that resembled a salamander. That is how the term "gerry-mander" was coined. While it was not the first time that such a manipulation had been done, it certainly became the most famous, and the practice continues throughout most of the United States to this day. In fact, it seems like, for many in that country, this ridiculous way of doing things is perfectly normal.
In Canada, however, this process has been removed from the political class in the 1960s. Instead, it has been placed in the hands of independent commissions in each province, that are chaired by judges and made up of experts like political scientists. After a decennial census, and following a formula entrenched in the Canadian constitution, each province is allotted a number of seats in Parliament. (Each province has its own similar formula to allot seats in their legislature.) It is then up to the commissioners to redraw the map for their province.
As the CBC's Aaron Wherry wrote in an analysis in August 2022, the elected officials — and, occasionally, some citizens — are not always happy with the maps that result. Public hearings are held during the redrawing process, which give people an opportunity to voice their concerns. But, in the end, the commissioners have the final say and, generally, the results have been deemed fair and reasonable — at least under the circumstances, given how some disparities are baked into the Constitution. And, as the experts Wherry interviewed pointed out, the process could be tweaked in many ways to make it even better.
But without a doubt, when we compare our system to the one that exists in the United States, we are definitely better off.
*. It wasn't "easy" to do; it was time-consuming and meticulous work, but it is now easy for you and me to pull that information that no website other than PoliCan provides simply and intuitively.