Knowledge should drive representation - Keith Roulston editorial
Central Huron is once again contemplating abolishing the ward system in time for the next municipal election in 2022. For me, it once again brings thoughts of the delicate balance of people versus geography.
It sounds like an easy choice. People should be more important than territory. But the real value of regional representation is the knowledge a politician brings of the region she or he represents.
On the scale of Central Huron, geography probably isn’t a big factor, although even then, there can be a lot of on-the-ground differences between living on the edge of Auburn in the farming-oriented north compared to the edge of Bayfield where tourism is the economic driver.
Originally Central Huron had three wards, one for each of the original municipalities that amalgamated: Hullett, Clinton and Goderich Township. Today there are just two: Hullett and Clinton making up the east ward and Goderich Township, the west. Candidates in past municipal elections helped undermine the ward system when they discovered they didn’t actually have to live in the ward to run for council in that ward. As a result, people cherry-picked the ward they thought gave them the best chance of winning.
But what goes missing if a Clinton resident, who never so much as picked up a hoe, is supposed to represent the needs of farmers on Hullett-McKillop Road?
Several Central Huron councillors said ward lines didn’t really matter because when they make a decision at council, they do it for the entire municipality, not just the ward they represent. That’s why it may not matter which way they choose to go in a municipality the size of Central Huron.
It’s when political jurisdictions get larger that the importance of the regional knowledge increases. Urban media and intellectuals have complained for years about the fact it takes more votes to elect an MP or MPP from a city riding compared to far-flung rural ridings. It’s led to calls for modification of the system with some members directly elected by the voters but the rest are chosen by the per cent of the total vote their party received. It would probably be a boon for the NDP and Green Party, which seldom collect enough votes to win a riding but would get 25 per cent or 10 per cent of the pool of seats to be divvied out by proportional representation.
An additional argument used to support this proposal is that there would be greater diversity represented in Parliament: more ethnic minorities and LGBTQ2S members.
For “progressives”, such a move would also have the benefit of bringing more bright minds to the legislature, the sort of people they regularly associate with in the communities surrounding universities. After all, parliament should bring the best and brightest minds together.
But this approach would take us farther down the roads that have been undermining our governments’ efforts to solve many issues that weaken Canada. Because of the concentration of urban media on the blood sport of Parliamentary politics, because they and political leadership concentrate a lot on several big, sexy issues, we keep getting surprised by vicious regional disputes. The bitterness and violence between Indigenous fishermen of the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy bands and the commercial fishers of the region over the right to fish for lobster, the stand-off by Six Nations at Caledonia preventing construction of a housing development, the internal dispute with First Nations in northern B.C. that led to nation-wide blockades to stop the Northern Gateway gas pipeline – all these disruptions took us by surprise as media and politicians concentrated on “important” issues.
Some of the biggest threats to Canadian unity have come because of ignorance of regional issues by centralized authorities. While there were strong feelings for Quebec to separate from Canada back in the 1970s, some of the drive came from day-to-day grievances, such as the fact you had to know English to communicate with your own federal government or that there was no French-language information on food packages.
More recent grievances have come from western Canada over the lack of understanding involving the problems in the oil industry. Many urban thinkers have little sympathy for the plight of oil workers when they think carbons are destroying the earth.
That sort of disrespect for fellow Canadians is dangerous. Donald Trump found a ready audience in rural areas, willing to grasp his simplistic solutions, because these people had felt ignored for years.
So when it comes to political representation, what matters is not the geography or the people, but the knowledge politicians can bring about the problem of the forgotten areas of the country.