TORONTO — Ontario may create at least one new northern riding in addition to 15 new seats that will be added for the 2018 election because of population growth, and it could result in the election of the province's first indigenous member of the legislature.
The province's two northern most ridings — Timmins-James Bay and Kenora-Rainy River — could be divided to create one or two more ridings, which would be made up primarily of First Nations communities who could elect one of their own as MPP.
"That opportunity becomes that much more real if there are ridings that are more focused and dedicated to (Indigenous communities)," said Attorney General Yasir Naqvi. "This affords us an exciting opportunity to have ridings that are predominantly indigenous in nature in terms of people who live in those communities."
The two ridings have only 161,000 people in total, but encompass 589,000 square kilometres between the Quebec and Manitoba borders, and north to Hudson Bay, and include many fly-in First Nations communities with no year-round road access.
Naqvi said part of the Liberal government's motivation for creating the commission is to improve service to First Nations communities following Truth and Reconciliation report into the legacy of Canada's residential school system.
"As we are on the journey of reconciliation, we are far more attuned to the needs of Indigenous communities," he said. "It's important that their voices are strong and effective in the chamber where laws and policies are being developed."
New Democrat Gilles Bisson, who represents Timmins-James Bay, said his party has long pushed to increase the number of northern ridings to give local communities a stronger voice in the legislature.
"Who better to represent First Nations than their own people?"
Bisson is a pilot who owns a small plane that he uses to visit the fly-in communities in his riding, but he gets reimbursed only for the "mileage" as if he were driving a car, and pays the difference out of his own pocket. Budgets must be increased for any new northern MPP and others with such huge, remote ridings, he added.
"You shouldn't expect a member to buy an airplane, learn how to fly and pay out of their pocket to service their constituents," said Bisson. "I've got all of the James Bay and Hudson's Bay communities and I've got all the in-land communities towards the northwest, and they're not even serviced by the same airline."
Ontario already had one more northern seat than the federal government — 107 provincial ridings compared with 106 federally — before 15 new federal seats were added for the 2015 general election. Population growth in southern Ontario means most of the 15 new provincial seats being added to match the federal riding boundaries will be in the big cities.
So when the Liberals introduced legislation to move Ontario's "fixed" election date to June 2018 from October, to avoid a conflict with municipal elections, they also created an all-party commission to look at the need for additional northern seats.
The government needs the legislation passed before the house takes its Christmas break Dec. 8 so the commission can look at the issue and make recommendations that can be implemented before the 2018 election, added Naqvi.
"We all want to ensure that the chief elections officer gets the time that he needs to make sure that the Far North Electoral Boundary Commission is set up, they can do their consultations and develop their recommendations to the government in the timelines provided for in the legislation," he said.
"The commission will be giving us the advice whether to create one or two ridings."
Premier Kathleen Wynne seemed to jump the gun on the commission's eventual conclusions when she told the Liberals AGM earlier this month she would visit all 124 ridings before the 2018 Ontario election.
Keith Leslie, The Canadian Press