As long as concentration of poverty exists, residents living in these neighbourhoods remain a community of interest that should be considered when electoral boundaries are set.
By Sara Mayo
Published November 23, 2012
The 2012 Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario is currently working to change electoral boundaries to reflect population growth.
In Hamilton, some concerns were raised about the first set of proposed boundaries, including residents in Hamilton's West Mountain who voiced that they did not have a community of interest with Ancaster. "Community of interest" is one of the primary criteria in the legislation that sets out how ridings are to be re-drawn.
In light of these concerns, the Boundary Commission released revised maps for the five proposed ridings for Hamilton.
The revised set of boundaries raise a different set of concerns and issues that should be brought to the Commission's attention. The Social Planning Research Council (SPRC) has particular interest in the promotion of social inclusion as a key strategy to increase community engagement (including voter turnout), especially among the large number of Hamiltonians who are living in poverty.
The riding redistribution process could benefit from applying a "social inclusion lens" when the boundary commission makes its decisions.
The City of Hamilton defines social inclusion [PDF] as:
[G]enerating the feeling and the reality of belonging... and taking deliberate steps to welcome, accept and value all individuals, understand reverse exclusionary practices, and create opportunities for people from marginalized groups to participate in the planning and delivery of services.
A social inclusion approach makes it clear that marginalized groups should be considered as communities of interest and steps must be taken so that their voices are represented where political decisions are taken. Given different rates of electoral participation and incomes across the city, certain electoral maps would risk denying this representation, by diluting some of Hamilton's most marginalized communities with the votes of more privileged neighbourhoods.
The SPRC's 2010 report, Hamilton's Social Landscape [PDF], devoted some attention to the issue of voter turnout and mapped the turnout across Hamilton for the previous provincial election (the most recent data available at the time of publication).
These were some of the findings:
Most of the polls with the lowest voter turnout rates are concentrated in the areas closest to the industrial areas in north and central-east Hamilton, areas that also have higher rates of poverty. As noted in the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre's No Community Stands Alone [PDF] report "there are many obstacles to civic participation and community involvement when you are poor."
Lower voter participation among residents who are struggling on low incomes creates a negative feedback loop: our city's most vulnerable aren't represented at the tables where policies that affect them are discussed and civic and political leaders don't hear their voices when making decisions, then those on the margins feel that the political system does not reflect their priorities and they become more disenchanted.
The SPRC has overlaid the two sets of proposed electoral boundaries compared on the map of voter turnout previously published. Applying a social inclusion lens to these boundaries highlights that the community of interest in a large swath of the lower city would be split in half by the second set of proposed boundaries.
Map 2: First set of boundaries for Hamilton's five ridings from the 2012 Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario (October 2012)
Map 3: Revised set of boundaries for Hamilton's five ridings from the 2012 Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario (November 2012)
In the second set of proposed boundaries, the part of the city with the lowest voter turnout, central Hamilton gets split into two ridings: Hamilton West and Hamilton East.
The Hamilton West riding boundaries would include Dundas, Westdale, and the central Hamilton neighbourhoods of, Kirkendall, Strathcona, Durand, North End, Central, Beasley, Corktown, Landsdale, Stinson and Keith. These latter seven neighbourhoods have much higher than average poverty rates and many polling divisions with lower than average voter participation rates.
With this revised set of boundaries, these neighbourhoods will be part of one riding with Dundas and Westdale, which have much higher voter turnout (and also much lower poverty rates). There is a significant risk that the voice of the most marginalized residents of Hamilton could become diluted and even more disenfranchised.
This isn't to celebrate concentration of poverty. Many groups in Hamilton are working to create more mixed income neighbourhoods across the city. Concentration of poverty in any city is a reflection of private real estate market trends, lack of investment in affordable housing in more desirable neighbourhoods, and an absence of inclusionary zoning policies to make sure all income groups are welcome in all neighbourhoods.
Until these issues are tackled in a comprehensive way, many marginalized groups, especially residents living in poverty, will continue to be connected by geography and not solely income.
As long as concentration of poverty exists, residents living in these neighbourhoods remain a community of interest that should be considered when electoral boundaries are set. These communities of interest reflecting current low income patterns are at least as important as other communities of interest in wealthier neighbourhoods.
The 2012 Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Quebec has explicitly raised the issue of declining voter turnout in the introduction of its report and suggested that in context of voter apathy it is especially important to ensure an adequate representation of electors (that is to say all citizens eligible to vote, not just those who show up at the polls).
Applying a social inclusion lens to the boundaries in Hamilton will support this task.
Note: this article was first prepared for the Social Planning Research Council of Hamilton (SPRC)