By Tina Comeau
The chair of the province’s electoral boundaries commission says if people can come up with a better option for electoral boundaries in southwestern Nova Scotia – other than what's been proposed in a revised interim report – the commission would welcome hearing this at its public consultation sessions in Yarmouth and Church Point.
In an interview with the Yarmouth Vanguard – and this is also reflected in the wording of the interim report – commission chair Teresa MacNeil says when it comes to what has been proposed for the areas of Yarmouth, Argyle and Clare, including other options that were also looked at, none stood out as being truly desirable.
The interim report proposes splitting up the riding of Yarmouth and creating two new ridings: Yarmouth-Argyle and Clare-Yarmouth. The former protected Acadian ridings of Argyle and Clare would be absorbed into the new ridings. The Town of Yarmouth and a portion of the Municipality of Yarmouth would be in the Yarmouth-Argyle riding. The remainder of the Municipality of Yarmouth would be in the Clare-Yarmouth riding.
According to the revised interim report, what is being proposed is intended to provide the strongest possible voice for Acadians of this region in the legislature.
However, the proposal has not been well received. Acadians worry that by not having protected Acadian ridings in the province they will lose their voice in the Nova Scotia legislature. Charles Gaudet, executive director of Nova Scotia’s Acadian federation (FANE) says they intend to pursue the issue in court. “We consider this a direct attack, an assault, on minorities in our province by the premier,” he said.
In Yarmouth a petition is circulating within the community and online against dividing the Yarmouth riding and a Facebook group has been established where people are being urged to turn out for the public consultation session in Yarmouth, set for Aug. 13 at the Mariners Centre, starting at 6 p.m. On Tuesday, Aug. 14, a consultation session will take place in Church Point at Université Ste.-Anne, also beginning at 6 p.m.
Asked if the commission is surprised that people are not pleased with what is proposed in the revised interim report, MacNeil says not at all. Even the commission, she says, had to settle for the best of the worst this time around since what was felt to be the best scenario for this region is what the commission had included in its original interim report. But the government flat out rejected the commission’s recommendation for the status quo in its first report due to the low population numbers of the protected Acadian ridings as compared to other ridings in the province.
“So we choose this,” MacNeil says about what is contained in the revised report. “It doesn’t mean it's going to be the one that remains. If people can come up with something that is going to work better, that will be lovely.”
However, MacNeil says an option the commission has been told it cannot again propose to the government is one that calls for the Argyle and Clare ridings to remain as they are today. Since neither of those ridings meets the population threshold outlined by the government in the commission’s terms of reference, the government says it won’t accept a report that proposes the status quo. The NDP government deemed the first interim report that did so to be null and void.
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“We have been told in no uncertain terms and they made us kind of look like we were idiots in the sense that we didn't read the terms of reference,” MacNeil says. “Of course, we read the terms of reference, we just did not heed to that particular aspect.”
But the commission has been told the terms of reference are legally binding and so it has followed that directive.
“Once you’re a commission and you’ve been appointed and you’re being told by the minister of justice that it’s legally binding, you’re not going to go and flaunt the law on that,” MacNeil says.
In coming up with a new option for the region, the commission looked at merging Clare with the constituency of Digby-Annapolis and merging the constituency of Argyle with the constituency of Shelburne.
“But then you start fooling around with communities of interest and, indeed, some ethnicity,” says MacNeil.
So this left the riding of Yarmouth to be tinkered with, even though the commission recognized that when it comes to population figures, Yarmouth has the ideal number to be a riding of its own.
“Adjusting it seems unfair,” MacNeil acknowledges. “However what do you do when you have to find numbers of people? You try to think of community of interest. People do travel to the hospital. People do travel to Yarmouth for services. Yarmouth is a kind of hub, in a sense, for those people whereas to put them along the shore of Shelburne might not be.”
Still, given the hard knocks Yarmouth has been through over the past few years, in particular with the ferry situation, many people see the elimination of the stand-alone riding of Yarmouth as another blow to the area. Asked whether any of this was part of the discussion by the commission, MacNeil responds, “Of course, yes.”
Another alternative the commission considered was leaving Yarmouth alone and merging the ridings of Argyle and Clare into one. But merging the two Acadian ridings was seen as problematic, says MacNeil, even though, she says, it is the alternative the commission hears all the time from the rest of the province.
MacNeil again reiterates that if people can see a way things can be done differently while still achieving the populations levels in the terms of reference, then share these ideas with the commission. She says the commission had to go for “this horrible alternative” but maybe the public has a better one.
“If there are people who can see a better way, wouldn’t it be grand,” she says. “And then it would really be coming from them.”