Riding boundary changes raise representation challenges, say MLAs

Recommended changes to the provincial riding boundaries in the West Kootenay are mostly getting thumbs-up from observers – but some are concerned.

Last month, the BC Electoral Boundaries Commission handed down its preliminary report on redistributing the province’s ridings. The biggest change in this region would see the Silverton, New Denver, Nakusp and Trout Lake areas moved over to the Nelson-Creston riding (to be renamed ‘Kootenay Central’). The Kootenay West riding would be extended west up to the outskirts of Grand Forks, adding Christina Lake to make up for the loss in the North Slocan Valley population. (see ‘Redrawn electoral boundaries would see Slocan Valley carved in two,’ Valley Voice, October 20, 2022, pg. 9.)

The head of the electoral boundaries commission noted there were some big changes recommended, but said commissioners have to try to make all ridings roughly the same size, while balancing that with other factors that affect representation – like travel and communications challenges within a riding.

“Some people proposed to reduce from four to three electoral districts in this area,” said Commission Chair and Supreme Court Justice Nitya Iyer at a hearing in Nelson in October. “We felt that would be one way of doing it, but the principle of effective representation required us to consider whether readjusting the population could address that problem of being below the usual deviation range, and effective representation would be enhanced if all four Kootenay ridings were within that range.”

MLAs to weigh in

Probably the people most affected by the proposed changes are members of the legislative assembly, whose very work is defined by a riding’s boundaries. Both provincial MLAs for the West Kootenay were careful to point out that the commission’s work is non-partisan and praised the commission’s members for their hard work. But they have concerns.

“When I first looked at the maps, my initial reaction was ‘I love the communities of New Denver and Nakusp, and it would be awesome to spend more time there!’” says Nelson-Creston MLA Brittny Anderson. But then the reality sank in, she says.

The redistribution would put some of the people she represents more than three hours away by a difficult, and logistically very challenging, drive.

“Whatever the final decision, I’ll work really hard for those people I represent in the communities I represent,” she told the Valley Voice. “It does concern me that by extending the boundaries – and I completely respect the work of the commission – but by expanding the communities I represent, it makes it that much more challenging to be an effective representative in all of those areas… even if I love them so much.”

The MLA for Kootenay West said she was concerned about having to drive two hours through a neighbouring riding just to get to visit a part of her constituency, the Arrow Lakes communities of Burton, Fauquier and Edgewood south of Nakusp.

“It would be great if we still had paddlewheelers,” jokes Katrine Conroy. While she agreed the commission had a tough job, she’s not sure they found quite the right solution.

“I understand they have to get the numbers more even across ridings,” she added. “But whereas in the Lower Mainland they might be shifting neighbourhoods to do that, here they’re moving whole communities.”

Road conditions, distance and the limits of electronic communication will all impact residents in the affected ridings, she believes. Conroy said not only would it be harder for her to get to meetings (she will now have one of the highest passes in the province in her riding), but people in the affected regions will see big travel changes to meet their local MLA.

“It’s just from a rural perspective, I don’t know how easy It would be to represent people that far away,” she says.

Nakusp opposed

Most municipal governments have yet to take up the issue, and Silverton and Kaslo are expected to discuss the changes in the next week or two. Nakusp, however, moved quickly to pan the recommended changes, which would see the Village in one riding, but some of its outlying suburbs in another.

In an official response, the mayor of Nakusp said he was concerned the changes, which would see communities south of the Village remain in Kootenay West, would “in fact divide our community and its voices.”

“Nakusp is very much a part of the Arrow Lake Valley, which includes its southern communities of Burton, Fauquier and Edgewood,” Mayor Tom Zeleznik wrote to the commission. “We are a sub-region separate from the Slocan and Kootenay Lake Valleys on multiple levels and it’s distinguishable from the rest of the proposed new riding boundary.”

Zeleznik says he worries that with the population centres of the new riding two to three hours away, “our community’s voices will continue to be marginal and peripheral to the riding.”

The letter requests that Nakusp, the outlying community of Brouse and the rest of the southern Arrow Lakes remain in the Kootenay West riding.

Input sought

Reaction, otherwise, has been muted. An October hearing in Nelson attracted only one commenter. And at a province-wide online public hearing the next day, only about five people showed up to make a presentation.

While most overall commended the commission for its decisions, an East Kootenay resident wasn’t as impressed. Jenna Williams, who lives on the outskirts of Cranbrook, said she objected to her MLA now being centred three hours’ drive away, in Revelstoke.

“I am and always have been a citizen of the East Kootenays, which I feel is part of my identity,” she said. “I feel it is important to continue to be classified in an East Kootenay riding – not only due to my ties to culture and society, but I feel I am better represented by my political representatives in the East Kootenay sector.”

The commission is planning to hold more live public hearings this month in the Lower Mainland and Victoria. Rural British Columbians are getting another online meeting opportunity on November 8. Details can be found at https://bcebc.ca/public-hearings/. Written submissions are also accepted until November 22.

Then the commission begins its deliberation on final recommendations, with a report due to the legislature in spring of 2023.

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice