Monday, January 6, 2014

Riding profile: Cumberland-Prescott from The Best Laid Plans (and some lamenting on an opportunity for breaking down the two solitudes

Note: I've never read the book and am judging all this on one episode of the show and some conversations with friends who have read the book, but considering this is a (mostly) tongue and cheek post, it isn't going to matter much, although as a sneak preview, the portrayal of the riding seems to ignore the actual linguistic background of the people hypothetically living in it.

Like many political junkies across the land, I tuned in last night to The Best Laid Plans, CBC's new comedic political mini-series. I found it...lacking. I like to think we as a nation can do better as political satire than pratfalls on poop (although I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh at the sexual political euphemisms).

One thing that caught my eye, having spend some time in the eastern parts of Ottawa and beyond, was the portrayal of the fictional riding of "Cumberland-Prescott", represented in the book by super popular Tory Finance Minister Eric Cameron. In the book, the riding is portrayed as a safe Conservative seat, while the parties are unnamed in the mini-series.

First off, the riding itself is actually relatively easy to define, even if fictional. Based on the name, it can be assumed to be a slightly modified version of the existing riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell.

To make the boundaries for a riding that would match the name and fit the "nice place by the river" description, I've drawn up the following boundaries for the riding. They all match existing municipal administrative boundaries, so we don't really have to do anything too radical:

From the city of Ottawa, the single largest population centre would be the existing Cumberland Ward

Situated in the far east end of the city, it includes portions of the Orleans communities of Queenswood Heights, Mer Bleue, Avalon, Chaperal, Notting Hill, Fallingbrook as well as the rural areas of the former city of Cumberland and the village as well as the former villages of Sarsfield, Navan, Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Carlsbad Springs, Vars and Bearbrook.

The more eastern and rural areas would take from the northern parts of the existing GPR, largely focused on the former boundaries of the historic Prescott country, while keeping municipalities intact.

With this map of GPR as a guide, it would take all but Russell and North Glengarry.

Cumberland Ward in Ottawa (which is already mostly in GPR, with a smaller piece in Ottawa-Orleans and a sliver in Nepean-Carleton I believe) plus these municipalities gives us a realistically populated riding with a community of interest, the definition of any good riding. The population breakdown is as such:

Cumberland Ward- 33,405

Clarence-Rockland - 23,185
Alfred and Plantagenet- 9,196
Champlain- 8,573
Hawkesbury- 10,551
East Hawkesbury- 3,335
The Nation-11,668

This gives a population of 103,188, making it 198th in population of existing ridings making it slightly on the underpopulated size but is certainly in the ballpark of other eastern Ontario ridings such as Ottawa-Vanier (103,687), Renfrew-Nippising-Pembroke, (102,537), Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry (100,913 and which the riding would border) and Leeds-Grenville (99,306).

So the riding itself would certainly be realistic in terms of population and geography, but what about political and linguistic representation?

The riding being a Conservative stronghold is somewhat out of line with the political history of GPR and to a lesser extent Ottawa-Orleans. (Nepean-Carleton is a stronger Tory seat but the amount Cumberland in Nepean-Carleton isn't huge).While the Conservatives have held both GPR and Ottawa-Orleans federally since 2006, it hasn't been by huge margins (the 2011 election result in GPR gave the Conservatives an 18 point victory, it was a 10% victory in 2008 and a 0.4% nail-bitter in 2006), so the riding in "reality" wouldn't be a lock for the Tories as much as it is in the book/show. Worth noting that the Liberals hold both GPR and Ottawa-Orleans provincially. Also worth noting is losing parts of the southern half of GPR would hurt the Conservatives more, as they have done well in Russell and North Glengarry, as you can see here in this map of the 2008 election. The area historically has been strongly Liberal as opposed to Conservative (Liberals held GPR from 1953-57 and from 1962-2006 and Orleans from 1988-2006) 

That being said, one thing the book and the show attribute to the riding is a very popular local incumbent, which historically can be seen as more accurate. While no one has reached the 96% approval rating of Eric Cameron, former Liberal MP Don Boudria did win an impressive 80% of the vote in the 1993 election. Hypothetically, with the area having taking a stronger Conservative turn of late, a star Conservative candidate could realistically rack up big numbers, particularly against lack luster Liberal opposition, with the Liberals running a perennial candidate in the prior to the events of the novel.

The one thing, however that the book seemed to miss (and I can confirm this speaking with some friends who have actually read it) is that Cumberland-Prescott, like the existing GPR and Ottawa-Orleans, would have a very heavy (if not majority) francophone population.

According to the invaluable Pundits' Guide, the existing GPR is the 5th most bilingual riding in the entire country, with 64% of the population knowing both English and French. 13% of the riding responds as knowing French only (higher than a number of Quebec ridings!) and perhaps most importantly, 56% of the riding speaks French at home (making it more francophone than almost a dozen Quebec ridings). Only a couple of ridings in Acadian New Brunswick are more francophone outside of Quebec, making Cumberland-Prescott easily the most francophone riding west of Quebec. Using GPR as a baseline and subtracting Russell and North Glengarry (both majority anglophone) would boost these numbers even higher.

Knowing these stats, and having spent a little bit of time out in GPR and Orleans during the 2008 federal election, it is somewhat disheartening to see an area of linguistic diversity seemingly portrayed as overwhelmingly anglophone. I understand the book at least has a reported named Andre Fontaine, who I am assuming is Franco-Ontarien but aside from that, the show and the book as far as I have been able to tell ignore linguistic geography. During the show last night, we saw a brief shot of protagonist Daniel Addision looking at Eric Cameron's campaign office, as far as I could tell the signage was English-only, something that would never fly in the "real" Cumberland-Prescott.

I now realize I'm a 1000+ words into a breakdown of a fake riding, and you probably have asked, so what?

I think the makers of the TV show missed an opportunity to break down the two solitudes a little bit. In a nation sorely lacking cross-linguistic political discussion, let alone satire, I think The Best Laid Plans could have been an opportunity for a cross-production in both English and French, along the lines of Bon Cop, Bad Cop. (I'm the hugest fan of the movie as a movie for what it's worth, but I admired at least the attempt to make a major Canadian film appealing to both official languages).

Despite being pretty much a unilingual anglophone myself, I have always had an interest in French-Canadian political culture and history, and my time spent in Ottawa and volunteering on campaigns where I had to at least be ready to ID a vote in French on the door steps gave me an appreciation for the uniqueness and diversity of franco-Ontario, this production of The Best Laid Plans was perhaps a missed opportunity to make a national political show.

Because if it is going to be a crappy show, it might as well be crappy in both official languages.


Nicole Hurdis said...

I'm really disappointed to see this. First of all this is nearly a breakthrough moment in Canadian entertainment. I don't believe I've ever seen anything you can compare this to, that is about Canada anyway. If you were looking for a canadian West Wing, you're looking in the wrong spot.

Canadian voters have been apathetic for years, and this show actually makes canadian politics accessible to many people who have little to no interest, and the humour is tongue in cheek and a little slapstick, because that is universally funny. I shouldn't be surprised, far from being the nation who apologizes too much, we're the critical nagging wife of the world.

Be grateful anyone is bothering to write political fiction, be grateful it won literary awards, be grateful the CBC thought it worth producing. Stop complaining about the lack of perfect representation.

This is art, and like it or not, the writer isn't the same from Bon Cop Bad Cop. As a franco-ontarian and someone who is interested in politics, I'm not offended by the lack of french representation in the novel or the series. Cumberland-Prescott isn't meant to be perfectly accurate, it was a somewhat plausible setting.

The book is great and it is fun to watch the series. Why can't that be enough? We have to start somewhere. Maybe some day someone will write a series like the West Wing, maybe called the Centre Block, but if it is not going to be you, perhaps don't look down your nose at what is out there.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Nicole. I have read both of Terry Fallis books and enjoyed them both. The series on CBC is an oppurtunity to get people interested in politics again and its funny. If your so focused on minute details that breakdown the whole point of this story(how GoC is that!) then why not gather up all the details and write your own Canadian political satire novel and just wait and see how many people care enough to ever read it.

Anonymous said...

The show is cute to pass time for a few giggles. It is satire more in line with "Parks and Recreation" because of the overall ridiculous tone and unconvincing take on simplistic issues. "Yes, Minister" it is not. Although first produced over 30 years ago, its relevance and lessons are not to be taken lightly. It is the only show that makes you bust your gut yet angers the viewer because of its cutting take on political reality.