Canada's electoral history from 1867 to today

It should be easy but they're moving targets!

by Maurice Y. Michaud (he/him)

A riding mapRiding, district, county: those are all terms referring to the same thing — a given geographical area whose citizens send one (and in the past sometimes several) person(s) 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 (e.g., 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 The property ownership requirement was rescinded around 1920 in all jurisdictions; women were given the vote franchise from 1916 (Manitoba) to 1940 (Québec), and large cities were gradually given more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 often 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 (e.g., Russell was named after Peter Russell).

Here is where it starts to get really complicated

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:

  • At the federal level, after Nova Scotia's Queens County ceased to be a standalone riding in 1896, it was at times coupled with Shelburne County to the west or Lunenburg County to the east, whereas today all three counties are part of South Shore—St. Margarets along with portions of Halifax and Yarmouth counties.
  • Again at the federal level, New Brunswick's Victoria County was coupled with Carleton County in 1917 but then coupled with Madawaska County in 1968. By 1997, the name "Victoria" disappeared entirely from the federal map for New Brunswick, with Victoria County becoming part of Tobique—Mactaquac and rejoining Carleton County along with a sizable portion of York County and a tiny slice of Madawaska County in the northwest of the new riding.
  • Provincially in Québec from 1981 to 1994, the riding of Bertrand was in the Montérégie region south of Montréal and had been carved out of parts of the ridings Chambly and Verchères. But, since 1994 to this day, the riding of Bertrand is located to the northeast of Montréal in the Laurentides and Lanaudière regions, after having been carved out of Labelle, Prévost and Rousseau.
  • Occasionally, only the name of a riding changed, not its boundaries (or very little). A few examples include:
    • British Columbia, 1933–34, Colombia merged into Revelstoke as Colombia-Revelstoke but de-merged a year later
    • Ontario (federal), 2004, Durham. → Clarington—Saugog—Uxbridge. → Durham
    • Québec, 2018, Crémazie. → Maurice-Richard
    • Québec, 2022, Bourget. → Camille-Laurin

  • And in Ontario, the original Simcoe South created in 1867 was abolished in 1886. Re-established from 1908 to 1926, it then became Simcoe Southwest until it was merged into Simcoe Centre and Simcoe East in 1934.
As a result, the electoral history of ridings cannot be distilled and summarized as easily* as can be the overall results of general elections by jurisdiction, like you can find here or here.

Unlike in the United States, gerrymandering is not a problem in Canada thanks to reforms in the 1960s that removed the process from the political class, and placed it in the hands of independent commissions in each province that are chaired by judges and made up of experts like political scientists. However, as Christian Paas-Lang explains in a March 2023 article on the redrawing of the federal map in the 2020s, the addition of ridings can have a ripple effect through much of a jurisdiction. A striking example in his article is the proposal for Don Valley East, which has existed since 1979 but would disappear and be merged into Don Valley North, Don Valley West, and Scarborough Centre. So while one might reasonably ask what's the voting history of the people in the Don Valley Village area, the answer is not obvious because that area has likely belonged to different ridings over the years.

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 40,406 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.

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.

* 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 other website provides as simply and intuitively.

© 2022, 2023 Maurice Y. Michaud ::
Pub.:  3 Aug 2022 17:20
Rev.: 19 Mar 2023 00:24 (but data revised dynamically)