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Is Canada’s next government in the hands of suburban voters?

Harper government could add up to 34 new seats in our biggest suburbs

The federal government is reportedly on the verge of announcing new legislation that would add up to 34 seats to the House of Commons in some of Canada’s fastest-growing areas. If this goes ahead, British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario would receive the lion’s share of the new representatives.

This plan may raise the hackles of queer voters who are wary of a majority government headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. At this point, we don’t know where the new seats will land, but veteran political observer Nelson Wiseman — a poli sci professor at the University of Toronto — told Xtra that most of these seats would likely be added in the suburbs, as all but three of the 25 fastest-growing ridings are in suburban areas across the country.

The political loyalties of these voters is likely to determine whether we have a minority or majority Harper government for the next legislature.

But Steven Brown, the director of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, dismisses the idea that the Tories are attempting to add seats for partisan gain.

“I’m not overly suspicious that this is somehow a Conservative ploy to try to manufacture its majority,” said Brown, adding that independent commissions decide how to redistribute seats and Parliament can only dictate how many to add.  “Those are Tory-friendly areas of the country. But the political hue of the suburbs is prone to change.”

Suburban Toronto’s ridings, which are not only the biggest in Canada but also growing the fastest, is likely to get a few of the seats. Oak Ridges-Markham, Halton and Brampton West all grew by at least 50 percent between 2001 and 2006, and each population now exceeds 150,000 residents. Close behind are Vaughan, at just under 37 percent; Bramalea-Gore-Malton, at 27 percent; and Barrie, at 24 percent.

But the suburban growth doesn’t stop beyond the GTA.

In Alberta, Calgary-Nose Hill saw its population increase by 30 percent, Calgary West grew by 27 percent, and Edmonton-Leduc grew by 22 percent. Both the Ottawa-area riding of Nepean-Carleton and the Vancouver-area riding of Fleetwood-Port Kells also grew by 22 percent.

The Tories now hold 15 of the 25 fastest-growing ridings in the country, most of which are located in the suburbs. Of the remaining rapidly-growing ridings, the Liberals hold seven seats and the Bloc Quebecois hold three. Until 2004, the Liberals held 12 of those seats but have lost several to the Tories in the three elections since.

Historically, many Toronto and Vancouver suburbs swing back and forth between parties. It changes by the decade; the Mulroney Conservatives swept Toronto’s suburbs back in the late ’80s, but the Chrétien Liberals swept right back in the ’90s. Only in the last five years have those ridings become competitive again. In Vancouver, the three major parties have regularly stolen seats from each other for the last five decades. Starting around 2005, most of Ottawa’s suburbs also went blue after a decade of Liberal rule.

Alan Walks, a professor of political geography at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, attributed much of the back-and-forth to the cultural diversity of the suburbs.

“The suburbs are now more diverse than the central city,” he said, referring to Toronto and Vancouver in particular.

Although that diversity has long translated into Liberal votes, Walks said that the Liberals can no longer take the Toronto suburbs for granted. Immigrants voters and communities of colour have clearly been targeted by the Conservatives, he said, which has reinforced many suburbs’ reputations as swing ridings.

The outcome of that battle is still uncertain, but Roger Keil, the director of the Cities Institute at York University, says it will play an important role in any future elections.

Keil also said that important factors to consider are “the tremendous changes in the employment structure in [the] suburbs,” which he says could have an effect on voting patterns among immigrants and visible minorities.

“How does [that change] translate into other forms of social power, including trade union power, or social organization on the ground that might lead to political power?” he asks. “Do the suburbs have these sorts of social networks and, if so, to what degree do those social networks translate into political power?”