Harper government MPs are challenging a redrawing of federal riding boundaries in Saskatchewan that appears to advantage the NDP, with one Conservative accusing the commission that mapped out the changes of fiddling with electoral districts to benefit one party.
One by one, Saskatchewan Conservative MPs appeared as witnesses before a parliamentary committee Tuesday to shoot down an arm's-length boundary commission's proposal to create five entirely new urban ridings in the Prairie province: two in Regina and three in Saskatoon.
Today, federal ridings representing Regina and Saskatoon voters are pie-shaped combinations of urban and rural electors that each include a piece of the city and then run deep into the adjoining countryside. The Conservatives, who have proven adept at winning rural support, have managed over the years to capture all but one seat.
The Conservatives, who control the Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee, are expected to push for a report this spring that sends the redrawing back to the arm's-length commission that authored it, asking for a reconsideration of its conclusions. The commission, however, is free to stand by its findings.
The Tories, who argue they're trying to preserve a system that balances urban and rural interests, said the commission, chaired by a sitting judge, is misled on the role that MPs play in Saskatchewan. "I actually think the commissioners got bad advice from a small group of people early in the process who have presented themselves as experts," Souris-Moose Mountain MP Ed Komarnicki argued Tuesday.
Rob Clarke, MP for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, levelled an even more serious charge. "I found what the commission did is gerrymandering in trying to change the demographics of the riding," he told the committee. He was asked whether he really meant to say gerrymandering, which means carving up election districts to favour one political party. "I stand by that comment," Mr. Clarke said.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen said Mr. Clarke's accusation is outrageous and damaging to the reputation of Mr. Justice Ron Mills, the chair of Saskatchewan commission.
One analysis of riding changes suggests how the new boundaries might disadvantage the Conservatives. Calculations by Mitch Wexler at PollMaps.ca indicate the Tories might lose two Saskatchewan seats if poll-by-poll results from the 2011 federal election were poured into the revised riding map.
Opposition MPs and Conservative members of Parliament sparred over whether it made sense to place city dwellers in the same riding as farmers. "I'm confused with the idea that somebody working 500 acres has the exact same community of interest as somebody living in a 700-square-foot loft in Regina," Mr. Cullen said.
Randy Hoback, the Tory MP for Prince Albert, suggested that Saskatchewan urbanites are inextricably tied to their rural surroundings. "The reality is it's the daughter of the 500-acre farmer who bought the 700-foot loft in Regina."
Mr. Clarke, who is aboriginal himself, came under heavy questioning in the committee over a letter he wrote to the Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee where he appears to complain about the boundary changes increasing the concentrations of first nations in his riding.
"The proposed changes also make the riding population more homogenous and decrease the influence of communities of interest," Mr. Clarke wrote in his letter. "The already large percentage of first nations has increased and it diminishes the influence of the rest of the communities."
This reasoning drew a swift condemnation from Chief Tammy Cook-Searson of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Saskatchewan.
"Mr. Clarke seems to suggest that the 'already larger percentage of first nations' in his riding is somehow a problem that needs to be rectified," Chief Cook-Searson wrote in a letter to the Procedure and House Affairs committee.
"To suggest that the percentage of first nations people in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River is too large is to attempt to undermine the representation of aborginal people in Canada's democracy."
Mr. Clarke replied in the committee that "it was preposterous to insinuate" he doesn't want more natives in his riding, adding however that "I was hoping to maintain the status quo."
The NDP's Mr. Cullen said Mr. Clarke had no business "accusing a sitting judge of bias, a sitting commission of bias."
Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale accused the Conservatives of trying to "contrive as much hostility as they can against the commission and its proposed boundaries."