Last month, the Far North Electoral Boundaries Commission (FNEBC) released a report recommending that the current riding of Timmins–James Bay be divided into two new ridings: Timmins and Mushkegowuk. One of the commission’s goals was to increase the representation of Indigenous and francophone Ontarians. But the lack of reliable demographic data means it’s unclear whether Indigenous voters will indeed be getting a stronger voice in the northeast.
The FNEBC’s first report, released in July, indicated that Mushkegowuk would be 15 per cent Indigenous and 61 per cent francophone, making it Ontario’s second majority francophone riding, after Glengarry-Prescott-Russell. Timmins was projected to be 3 per cent Indigenous and 39 per cent francophone. Currently, Indigenous people are estimated to make up 17 per cent of the population in the Timmins–James Bay riding — so the implication seemed to be that if the recommendations were voted into law this fall, proportional Indigenous representation would actually be reduced.
Gilles Bisson, who’s been the NDP MPP for James Bay–Timmins since 1999, wants to see Ontario’s northern Indigenous communities better represented at the Ontario Legislature — and he had serious concerns about the July report. “Currently, in Timmins–James Bay, the total population of First Nations is much higher by percentage than it would be in this new Mushkegowuk riding,” he said. “If the intent was to give First Nations a voice, you’ve actually diminished their voice.” The commission should instead, he said, have given Indigenous communities in the ridings a better chance to “elect one of their own to represent their issues at Queen’s Park.”
Nishnawbe-Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he hoped to work with FNEBC throughout its process, but that didn’t happen. It wasn’t until the FNEBC’s report was released that he knew the boundaries of the proposed new ridings.
“We were led to understand that these proposed new ridings would be majority Indigenous,” Fiddler said. “But when you break down the numbers, that turns out to not be the case.”
Fiddler said that Indigenous people are concerned that the proposed majority francophone riding could use the name of the local Mushkegowuk Council — which represents eight northeastern First Nations. “Mushkegowuk was used without their consent. Without their permission,” Fiddler said.
The true demographics of these ridings remain difficult to pin down, because different datasets contain different figures. Since the 2016 census data on the number of Indigenous and francophone people living in the area was unavailable, the initial report relied exclusively on the 2006 census. Before its final document was prepared, though, the FNEBC gained access to additional data from the 2011 census and adjusted its numbers accordingly. (Absent from either report is an explanation of why it took so long for FNEBC to obtain this data, and whether the discrepancy had any impact on its final recommendations to the provincial government. It does not appear to have had any influence, however, as the final report largely reiterates the FNEBC’s preliminary findings.)
The recalibrated results suggest that Mushkegowuk would be 27 per cent Indigenous and only 60 per cent francophone — meaning it would have greater Indigenous representation than the current Timmins–James Bay riding. The riding’s Indigenous population could, though, even be as high as 36 per cent, according to 2017 statistics compiled by the then Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, using a different methodology.
The new Timmins riding would be 12 per cent Indigenous — 9 per cent higher than the numbers presented in its interim report, but 5 per cent lower than the current Timmins–James Bay — and only 36 per cent francophone, down from the commission’s previously reported 39 per cent.
Bisson was unaware of the adjustment and expressed doubt about the accuracy of the data, saying, “I’ll take a look at the discrepancy between the two numbers, because I’m just going by what I remember when I looked at the interim report.” He added, “I sat with the commission as I looked at the maps and looked at the numbers at that time. It was pretty clear to me that [Indigenous people] were not a larger percentage in the new riding.”
Although we made repeated requests for an interview, none of the commissioners was available for comment. A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General wrote in an email, “The government is confident that the proposed new ridings will help to improve representation for both Indigenous and francophone communities in Ontario’s north.”
Carol Jolin, president of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO), said his organization supports the commission’s proposal and is happy to see that the government intends to follow its recommendations. According to a written submission the AFO filed with the FNEBC during consultations, during the last five provincial elections, a francophone MPP was elected 68 per cent of the time in the province’s five most francophone ridings.
Jolin said that doesn’t prevent an Indigenous candidate from being elected in Mushkegowuk. “It opens the door. The probability is there that a francophone will be elected — but it isn’t guaranteed, and it could be someone from an Indigenous community.”
Jolin said he had spoken to Bisson regarding the MPP’s concerns about the proposed division of the new ridings. On that point, he said, “We agreed to disagree.”
Justin Dallaire is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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