Acadians give boundary hearings a loud and colourful welcome

Jonathan Riley, Digby Courier
Published on April 22, 2012

The Acadians say "tintamarre". It means a loud parade where participants try and see how much noise they can make with whatever noisemaker they can find: banging on drums or pots and pans, blowing whistles and horns, and singing and shouting.

That is how the people of Clare welcomed the MacNeil Commission to Church Point on Friday, April 20.

The eight-person commission chaired by Teresa MacNeil of Johnstown, Richmond County, is reviewing the provincial electoral boundaries and has just wrapped up a first set of hearings around the province. Nowhere did so many people welcome the committee and none so loudly.

More than 500 people dressed and draped in the blue, white and red of the Acadian flag, adorned with face-painted yellow stars, waving flags and making a tintamarre, marched across the campus of the Universite de Sainte Anne in Church Point and into the gymnasium for the hearings.

They filled the gym seating, lined the walls and sat on the floor to show support for the 20 presenters who spoke without exception in support of the status quo.

The last provincial electoral boundary commission in 2002 (legislation requires the province to review the boundaries every 10 years) allowed four ridings in particular to vary inordinately from the average: the three Acadian ridings of Clare, Richmond and Argyle and the African Nova Scotian riding of Preston.

Most of the speakers in Church Point expressed concern that the commission's terms of reference leave them no choice but to change the boundaries of the previously protected ridings.

In particular, Acadians feel threatened by clause 2(d), which says no riding may vary in size by 25 per cent from the average number of voters per constituency.

That would mean all ridings in the province would have to contain close to 10,400 voters. Clare currently has only 6,700.

"We do fear that the addition of clause 2(d) to the commission's terms of reference may force the commission to recommend some drastic changes to the provincial electoral riding map including eliminating the riding of Clare," said Jean Melanson, warden of the Municipality of the District of Clare.

He told the commission that too much focus on voter parity would undermine effective representation for Acadians in particular and rural voters in general.

"With the addition of 2(d), the government of Nova Scotia essentially gerrymandered the process of the Commission," said Melanson. "Seats will be removed from rural areas and moved to Halifax, an NDP stronghold.

"The Commission is limited to recommending 52 seats even though the addition of seats in the Metro area would both increase the voter parity and protect the voice of the Acadian minority. At a time when governments and community groups everywhere are working to insure that their legislated bodies are more representative of the general population, Nova Scotia would be going backwards."

Melanson's presentation covered the high points of Acadian struggle.

He mentioned Col. Winslow who was responsible for the deportation of Acadians from Grand Pre in the 1750s, then Governor Franklyn, who allowed the Acadians to return to Nova Scotia in the 1760s. He mentioned the Garneau Commission that wanted to move the Universite de Sainte Anne to Yarmouth in the 1960s.

Then he told the commission despite the seemingly strict terms of reference, they, as an independent commission, do have a choice.

"Now it is up to you, members the MacNeil Commission, to decide how history will judge you," said Melanson to close his remarks. "Are you going to be the commission that defended the voice of the Acadians or are you going to be the commission responsible for silencing our voice?"

Former MLA for Clare Guy LeBlanc made the point that using pure vote parity to determine riding size would be an oversimplification of the situation.

He quoted the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who said: treat different things differently.

The crux of his argument was that "equal treatment of inequal groups does not produce equal results".

"The idea that no constituency can vary in number of eligible voters by more than 25 cent may appear on the surface to be equal treatment," said LeBlanc. "But this is not equal treatment, because the impact on the Acadians is much greater than on any other group."

Wayne Gaudet, the current MLA for Clare, like speaker after speaker, urged the commission to see the terms of reference as guidelines only.

"We hope they are only a guide to spark your deliberations and not a directive handed down from government, which would diminish the autonomy and independence of your commission."

He said after the hearings that the terms of reference shocked him.

"If you had told me the reform party wanted to do away with our ridings, I wouldn't have been surprised. But a lot of people are wondering why the NDP is looking at eliminating the Acadian ridings."

He said the government appears to be in the early stages of preparing for the next election, possible as early as the fall of 2013 or Spring 2014. That could have an effect on the final decision by the provincial government.

"We don't how this will play out but remember there are 35,000 Acadians across the province and we have lots of family and friends. There is no doubt this will be a huge political football in the next election."

The commission must present an interim report by the end of May. After that there will be a second round of hearings.

Gaudet says commissions have traditionally held those meetings in ridings affected by their recommendations.

The commission's final report is due by the end of August and any boundary changes would have to be implemented before the end of 2012.

[Corrected number of voters in Clare]