By Tina Comeau
You know people are passionate about an issue when you have around 2,200 chairs at a meeting and it still isn’t enough to accommodate the crowd.
Such was the case at the Mariners Centre on Monday evening, Aug. 13, as around 2,500 people turned out for a public session to share their views on a revised interim report by the province’s Electoral Boundaries Commission. In comparison, some other sessions in the province have drawn less than 100 people.
And for a report that threatens to divide Yarmouth, there was a true feeling of unity in the arena as people gathered for a common goal: to protect their community identities.
The interim report calls for the elimination of the ridings of Yarmouth, Argyle and Clare and proposes they be replaced with a Yarmouth-Argyle riding and a Clare-Yarmouth riding.
There isn’t much support for the proposal that would divide the riding of Yarmouth and eliminate the two protected Acadian ridings.
Nor did the commission expect there to be.
“We know very well that there is much dissatisfaction with what we have proposed,” commission chair Teresa MacNeil said at the start of the meeting. She said the commission, therefore, needed to hear what can be done to make the situation acceptable.
“The status quo is not an option,” she said, which drew boos from the crowd.
The commission had actually included the status quo for the three ridings in its first interim report. But for that it got its knuckles rapped by the NDP provincial government, which said the commission had not adhered to the legally binding terms of reference that spelled out population variances that had to be met and the two Acadian ridings fell far short of that. Therefore the government rejected the first interim report.
But even after being told the status quo is a no go, many of the presenters still called on the commission to once again include this as its proposal in its final report that has to be prepared for the government by Aug. 31.
The commission was told they had gotten it right the first time. And they were also told it is wrong to take the riding of Yarmouth, which has the ideal numbers for a provincial riding, and carve it in two.
“Our political representation is a critical component of our history, culture, identity, morale and confidence as a community. It allows the collective interests of our community to be represented with one unified voice, which has served us for close to 200 years,” said Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill. “Your proposal takes that all away. This proposal is unfair and destructive on a number of levels.”
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Churchill informed the commission that close to 6,000 people had signed a written petition, and another 1,000 people had signed the petition’s online version, that calls for the riding of Yarmouth to be kept intact.
“I want to be clear; the concern over this isn’t about joining one or both of these communities (Argyle and Clare) to ours,” said Churchill. “We are all neighbours and interdependent on one another. But it is the destructive act of tearing Yarmouth in two and minimizing our political voice which we unequivocally oppose.”
He, and other presenters, said Yarmouth feels as if it is under attack by the NDP provincial government. People feel strongly about losing their political identity in the Legislature.
“You people have our sympathies. You are the ears for people who don’t want to listen,” Yarmouth resident John Sollows said, referring to the provincial government.
Sollows said he thought a duty of a government was to fight marginalization, not to increase it. But he said that’s just what this electoral boundaries review is doing.
“Nova Scotia’s rural voice needs to be strengthened, not weakened,” he said, as he later held up an Acadian flag saying he identified more with that flag at this moment than he does with the Nova Scotia flag.
Yarmouth Mayor Phil Mooney told the commission members that the proposal contained in the interim report does not guarantee an Acadian MLA from either riding will be elected. “But it does guarantee that Yarmouth will not have a unified voice in the Legislature,” he said.
Councillor Ken Crosby from the Municipality of Yarmouth said that dividing the municipality between two ridings will be problematic. If the municipality is represented by two MLAs from different political parties with differing views on issues or projects, how will that work for the area, he questioned? Crosby also said as the province is becoming more urbanized with more people moving to the Halifax area, basing ridings simply on populations numbers means in future years rural areas won’t be represented at all. David Sollows, one of the last presenters of the evening, also expressed concern that too many MLAs from HRM (the Halifax region) will be making decisions that impact all of Nova Scotia.
Crosby, meanwhile, told the commission it should once again recommend the status quo to the provincial government. If that isn’t acceptable to the premier and the government, he said, than the commission should do the honourable thing and resign.
During many of the submissions to the commission, people reiterated the difficult times that Yarmouth has been through over the past years. The ferry issue was referred to often.
Mike Mercier, the vice-president of the Yarmouth and Area Chamber of Commerce, said the business community is very concerned with what is proposed in the interim report.
“This is not the time to be dividing Yarmouth in two,” he said.
Michael Drew, the vice-president of the Yarmouth Liberal Association, applauded the commission for its first interim report.
“You had it exactly right the first time,” he said, adding, “Our Acadian neighbours ought to have their own protected ridings.”
He said there is more to be considered than just numbers when it comes to provincial ridings, there is the history of a community and its economic situation. Yarmouth, he said, has been fighting for its economic survival for the past three years. He said losing its political voice threatens the economic future of Yarmouth.
“This second interim report makes you look like the pawns of a vindictive government that for some reason seems to have the destruction of Yarmouth on its agenda,” he said, adding the interim report is divisive, because not only does it divide Yarmouth but it also pits Yarmouth and its neighbours against one another as they fight for the survival of their respective communities.
“Shame on you,” he told the commission, saying all of this comes at a time when the area is striving to unify to survive economically. “You kick us in the face. You gut us like a fish,” Drew said.
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