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The new NDP constituency: Far more francophone, far less multicultural

NDP Leader Jack Layton and his wife, Toronto MP Olivia Chow, walk to Parliament Hill on May 18, 2011.


When New Democrats more than doubled their historic best on election night, the constituency Jack Layton's party represents was radically transformed. They broke through in Quebec and won 59 seats, more than any single party has taken in the province since Brian Mulroney in 1988 - before the birth of the Bloc Québécois. Accordingly, the NDP constituency has gone from being overwhelmingly English-speaking and more diverse than the national average to mostly French-speaking and less multicultural.

These are the findings of an analysis of the changing face of the NDP constituency, a comparison of the demographic profile of the ridings represented by New Democratic MPs before and after the May 2 federal election.

With a gain of 67 seats on election night, the NDP went from representing 3.8 million Canadians to 11.2 million, or roughly one-third of the country's population.

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In the process, the regional weight of the NDP's caucus drawn from the West, Ontario, and Atlantic Canada was reduced dramatically - despite the party's gains in each region. While the NDP increased its Western caucus from 14 to 16 seats, that now represents less than 16 per cent of the entire NDP caucus. Prior to the election, the West contributed almost two out of every five NDP seats.

With five seat gains in Ontario, the party's caucus is still only 21.4 per cent from that province, while the two seat gains in Atlantic Canada come with a reduction in the region's weight to only 6 per cent of all NDP seats.

Prior to the election, the one NDP seat in Quebec represented less than 3 per cent of its national caucus. Now, the 59 New Democrat MPs make up the majority (57.3 per cent) of the party.

Vancouver, Hamilton, Toronto, and Winnipeg were the four most important urban centres for the party prior to the election. But now the NDP's representation from the Greater Montreal region dwarfs the relatively smaller block of MPs drawn from Toronto, Vancouver, and Quebec City, which along with Montreal are now the most important centres for the NDP.

With the shift toward Quebec, the New Democrats now represents an older population. The median age of the NDP's constituents before the election was 39.2 years, slightly below the national median age of 39.5 years. The median age of those the party now represents is 40.2 years. The New Democrats nevertheless still represent some younger ridings. The northern Manitoba riding of Churchill, for example, has a median age of only 26.4 years.

The NDP's constituents are still poorer than the national average, with a median household income of $49,000 per year. That is a small drop from the $50,000 per year for the ridings Jack Layton's party held before the election.

But it is in the linguistic profile of people the NDP now represents that we find the most change. In the 36 ridings held by the New Democrats before the election, English was the mother tongue of 66.1 per cent, well above the national proportion of 57.2 per cent. Only 7.9 per cent of the NDP's constituents were native French speakers, while 24.3 per cent had a mother tongue other than English or French.

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Now that more than half of the NDP's seats are based in Quebec, 51.1 per cent of their constituents are native French-speakers, a more than six fold increase. This is aided by the large French-speaking populations living in NDP ridings in Northern Ontario and New Brunswick. The proportion of English speakers has dropped to less than one-third, while speakers of a language other than French or English now make up less than 17 per cent of the NDP's constituency, below the national average.

Similarly, the proportion of immigrants living in ridings represented by NDP MPs has shrunk from 22 per cent - more than the national average of 19.8 per cent - to 15.7 per cent, while visible minorities now make up only 13.2 per cent of the NDP's constituency, a drop from 17.8 per cent prior to the election. The proportion of Canadians with a university education in the party's ridings has also dropped below the national average.

Another significant change has been the decrease in the proportion of aboriginals among the NDP's constituents. Whereas 7 per cent of the NDP's constituency prior to the election was aboriginal, far in excess of the 3.8 per cent that aboriginals represent in the total Canadian population, only 3.2 per cent of the NDP's new constituency is aboriginal. However, nine of their ridings still have large aboriginal populations of 10,000 or more.

The profile of the New Democratic Party has fundamentally changed. The NDP never had any significant representation from Quebec before, but it is now a Quebec-based party. In effect, roughly four out of every five seats in Quebec were grafted onto the NDP's pre-election caucus, with a handful of seats in other parts of the country added to the mix. How the New Democrats will cope with suddenly being a party that represents a francophone-majority population will likely shape their next four years as the Official Opposition and their electoral fortunes in 2015.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at . The changing Liberal constituency was investigated last week. Next week, we turn to the Conservatives.

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