By Eric Bourque
The approach and the setting may have been different, but the message was basically the same.
A day after a packed Mariners Centre played host to a public meeting on provincial electoral boundaries, an estimated 300 people turned out Tuesday for a similar session in Church Point, where members of the commission reviewing the boundaries were told – as they were told Monday in Yarmouth – that the commission should have stuck with the recommendations of its first interim report.
There were only a few presenters at the commission’s session in Clare (unlike the one in Yarmouth, where there were about 30), but they were emphatic in expressing their opposition to the commission’s revised recommendations, saying these could leave Acadians with no voice in the Nova Scotia legislature and hurt an Acadian community already struggling to deal with the problem of assimilation.
The commission’s first interim report, dated May 31, had suggested no changes to the boundaries of Nova Scotia’s minority ridings, including Clare, but the provincial government’s rejection of that report made it necessary for the commission to come up with a revised interim report, one that suggests taking the riding of Clare and merging it with part of the riding of Yarmouth to create a new constituency of Clare-Yarmouth. (The rest of the Yarmouth riding would be merged with the constituency of Argyle to form what would be known as the riding of Yarmouth-Argyle. The net result of the recommendations would be to make two ridings out of three.)
Addressing commission members during their Tuesday night meeting at Université Sainte-Anne, Clare Warden Jean Melanson said he hadn’t anticipated the commission coming back to Clare for a second-round consultation session, given that the commission had decided, in its first report, that the best option for the minority ridings was to keep things as they are.
“I must confess that I could not have foreseen the series of events over the last few months culminating in the need for this second consultation,” he said. “We are all shocked and confused about how we now face being part of a proposed new riding with a portion of Yarmouth County.”
He had harsh words for the province and its rejection of the commission’s first interim report, calling the government’s actions “indefensible and unacceptable.”
- Read more special articles :
- - Yarmouth unchanged; Acadian ridings eliminated
- - Acadian commission member against changes
- - Landry accepts boundaries report will be late
- - Commission seeking 3-week extension
He questioned, as many others have, whether the boundaries commission really is independent, given what has happened.
“The need for ‘independent’ commissions to determine electoral boundaries is of vital importance,” he said. “Political parties must not be seen, in any way whatsoever, as manipulating the electoral map to their advantage. It clearly appears that, by not accepting the commission’s interim report, the government of Nova Scotia wishes to create an NDP stronghold at our expense, the minorities of the province."
The resolve of the people of Clare to keep their riding has not changed, Melanson said.
Of the proposal to merge the riding of Clare with part of Yarmouth, he said, “We fear the negative consequences that this would have on our communities and for future generations.”
Charles Gaudet, executive director of the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle Écosse (FANE), who appeared before the commission Tuesday with Ron Robichaud, the federation’s president, said there is “a real danger” that, if the changes put forward in the commission’s revised interim report go through, Acadians could be left without one of their own in the legislature.
The federation’s position on the electoral boundary situation hasn’t changed since April, when the commission conducted its first round of public consultation meetings, Robichaud said. FANE supported the commission’s first interim report, rejects the second and is looking at pursuing legal action on the boundary issue, he said.
Gaudet suggested the electoral boundary issue should be viewed in the context of Acadian history.
“We are a direct result of what happened during the deportation,” he said. “That’s why our population is divided (geographically). That’s why we’re located at the extremities of our province.”
The federation viewed the creation of minority ridings 20 years ago as a form of “restorative justice,” Gaudet said, something that would be lost according to what the commission now proposes to do with the boundaries.
The present number of Acadian seats in the legislature seems right, he said, given the percentage of Nova Scotians of Acadian descent.
Commission member James Bickerton said he agreed with Gaudet on this point – that three or four seats is an appropriate number of Acadian seats in the house of assembly, based on population – but he said the problem, also acknowledged by Gaudet, is the way Acadians are dispersed geographically.
The electoral system makes it hard to ensure everyone is represented as they should be, Bickerton said, “which is why, of course, we had the protected seats to begin with, to overcome that problem, and we certainly tried to make that case as best we could in our first report, that we needed to maintain those protected seats for that reason. As you know, the option now has been taken off the table by the government.”
The provincial government took it off the table when it rejected the commission’s first interim report, Justice Minister Ross Landry telling the commission that, by recommending no changes for the minority ridings, the commission had failed to ensure that all of Nova Scotia’s provincial ridings had populations within 25 per cent of the provincial average. The minority ridings all are below the average and outside the 25 per cent variance. The government’s position is that the 25 per cent variance has to be met, hence the need for the commission to prepare a revised interim report, whose recommendations have sparked so much criticism and opposition, as demonstrated at the public meetings of Aug. 13 and 14 in Yarmouth and Church Point, respectively.
Teresa MacNeil, the commission’s chairperson, opened the Yarmouth and Clare meetings by acknowledging that many people are upset by what the commission proposes in its second interim report.
Many have noted that the commission is in a difficult position, given what the government did in response to the commission’s first report.
At Tuesday’s meeting in Clare, Bickerton spoke of the commission having, as the saying goes, a rock on one side, a hard place on the other.
“It certainly feels like that,” he said.