MP Marc Serré’s riding will get a lot bigger
Northern Ontario will be seeing some drastic changes, including the loss of one federal riding, on April 1, 2024 when newly redistributed ridings come into effect. For members of the Nickel Belt riding, this will mean welcoming Manitoulin Island, and communities as far as Espanola and Massey. However, the change is also accompanied by the departure of the old Nickel Centre communities, such as Coniston, Falconbridge, and Garson as they become part of the Sudbury riding. After nearly two years of work by the Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario, the result is the redrawing of many of the north’s electoral boundaries, and the notable loss of the Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing riding entirely. That riding will be divided amongst its neighbours, including Nickel Belt.
Every 10 years, the government must go through the process of reassessing and readjusting electoral boundaries. It uses recent Census data to ensure that ridings reflect population quotas established by the provinces. The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act outlines the process, which began October 16th, 2021 with the establishment of Electoral Boundaries Commissions for each province. Ontario’s commission submitted an initial proposal for the boundary changes on August 19th, 2022.
That initial proposal saw some very drastic changes in the north, many of which were modified after public feedback. Still, while many argued against the elimination of a Northern Ontario riding, the Commission held firm on that point in its second proposal released February 10, 2023, citing Ontario’s population quotas per riding. The province has a quota of 116,300 people per riding, and the Commission’s mandate was to make sure that quota is maintained across Ontario in the spirit of voter parity.
The initial proposal would have placed West Nipissing, Marstay-Warren and the other municipalities along the highway 17 corridor up to Sudbury, into the Nipissing-Temiskaming riding. That proposed change was reversed in the follow-up report, which indicates that the francophone community was a deciding factor in keeping this part of the Nickel Belt riding intact. “The submission suggested that the Commission explore various changes to better regroup the Francophone population, especially as concerns the proposed district of Manitoulin—Nickel Belt. The Commission has done so and regrouped to the extent possible. As a result, in drawing the final map, the Commission has returned the largely Franco-Ontarian municipalities of West Nipissing, St.-Charles, French River, and Markstay-Warren to MANITOULIN—NICKEL BELT (with a population that is 31% Francophone), rather than NIPISSING—TIMISKAMING (which is 14% Francophone),” reads the February report.
“I am grateful that the commission did pay attention to the echoes of the francophone communities and the various francophone organizations in Nickel Belt-Greater Sudbury,” wrote Marc Serré, Nickel Belt M.P. in a letter to constituents from March 2023. In a recent interview with the Tribune, he added “The good news is that the commission backed away from their original map last August, that was separating West Nipissing from French River. They listened and I want to thank the residents. There’s several residents that wrote to the commission. All the councils and mayors of Markstay-Warren, St Charles, West Nipissing, French River and Killarney, they wrote to the commission to keep that all as one, and the commission heard that clearly,” he said.
In its report, the Commission did bring up several difficulties, recommendations and requests that fell outside their mandate. For example, the Commission recognized that Northern Ontarians wanted to keep 10 districts, if not add 1 or 2 additional ones to allow for better representation of Indigenous peoples and francophone communities. “However, these recommendations fall outside the mandate of our Commission and the timelines imposed by the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. These issues are within the sole jurisdiction of Parliament,” their report explains.
Of course, there are also geographic considerations in the sparsely populated North, where a 116K population can make for an incredibly vast riding. Marc Serré outlines the challenges of having to serve a much larger riding. “I’m keeping an office in Sturgeon Falls, that’s for the residents in West Nipissing, and French River, St Charles, Markstay-Warren, they can still come to Sturgeon. But, there will be pressures for residents in Espanola and Manitoulin, they’re going to have to come to Val Caron now for services. Before, they were going to Elliot Lake for service,” he describes.
The added financial pressure of having to serve a larger part of the province on the same budget is something the Commission does touch on in its report. “What are portrayed as problems of district boundaries could likely be addressed if Parliament were to approve substantially increased constituency office budgets in order to enhance public accessibility and help Members of Parliament manage their workload within the district, and thereby enhance the effective representation of constituents,” the report reads. Serré points out that there is currently a special allowance in MP budgets for rural areas, but that it only amounts to approximately $20,000 per year. “You can’t even hire staff for that,” he deplores.
Carol Hughes, the MP for the current riding of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, is obviously disappointed in the changes. The NDP member will be seeing her riding disappear. “It’s not about my seat, because at the end of the day I’m not going to be MP for 100 years and you just don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring. It’s whoever gets elected, it doesn’t matter what party, it’s about making sure we have effective representation here in northern Ontario,” she explains.
Hughes echoes Serré’s concerns about providing proper service to the people of her riding once it is re-divided. She explains that her offices in Kapuskasing and Elliot Lake are often quite busy, and with the elimination of a riding and an MP, these communities won’t be served as effectively in her opinion. “Right now, we’re stretched with two offices, but then will he [Serré] be able to afford three offices? It may not just be the rent, there’s the staffing as well,” she points out, concerned that the offices will not be able to be maintained with current MP budgets.
Serré puts things into perspective: “I’m getting 12 new mayors, about 9 new First Nations,” he describes. “My riding is the size of Spain or most countries, as-is. Now, I’m adding more areas, and my offices are dealing with immigration, and Revenue Canada, and a lot of services that government may not be providing properly.” Hughes also weighs in on those services, explaining that Kapuskasing often deals with low-income individuals’ taxes during the tax season.
She adds that the north has a particular burden placed on constituency offices that isn’t as prevalent in the south. “When you’re looking at places like the south, Brampton or Toronto, they have reliable transportation, they have reliable internet, cell service, all kinds of organisations and groups that reduce the burden on MPs’ offices,” she points out. “Jack Layton used to say to me ‘Carol, I don’t know how you do it!’ He could drive one end to the next of his riding on his bike in half an hour!”
Serré, Hughes, and the other Northern Ontario MPs had an opportunity to point out these, and many other issues they have with the February 10th proposals. Most of them brought up their objections to the Standing Committee on Procedures and House Affairs (PROC), which compiled a report and presented it to the Electoral Boundaries Commission on June 8th. The PROC report contains the objections of Charlie Angus, NDP M.P. for Timmins-James Bay; Carol Hughes, NDP M.P. for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing; Vivianne Lapointe, Liberal M.P. for Sudbury; Marc Serré, Liberal M.P. for Nickel Belt; and Terry Sheehan, Liberal M.P. for Sault Ste Marie. Lapointe also filed her complaint on behalf of the Northern Ontario Liberal Caucus, which includes Anthony Rota, M.P. for Nipissing Temiskaming, and Patricia Hajdu, M.P. for Thunder Bay-Superior North. Notably absent amongst Northern Ontario Members of Parliament were Scott Aitchison, Conservative M.P. for Parry Sound Muskoka, and Eric Melillo, Conservative M.P. for Kenora.
“We were all taken aback (…) that the Conservatives indicated they didn’t feel that losing a seat in northern Ontario would provide less representation. Of course it will. The ability for an MP to be able to go to all of those communities is reduced now,” says Carol Hughes. Marc Serré suspects that this lack of support was politically motivated, as the seat being eliminated is an NDP one. “There’s politics involved here. The Conservatives advocated to have that seat in southern Ontario for political reasons. Rest assured, I will be very vocal about that in the next election,” he vows.