By Tina Comeau
Opposition parties in the Nova Scotia Legislature called it a shameful and dark day for democracy in Nova Scotia that the province’s next slate of electoral boundaries has been supported and enacted by just one political party in the province.
Only the NDP-majority government – with the exception of Shelburne MLA Sterling Belliveau – voted in support of Bill 94, the House of Assembly Act, that sets out the electoral boundaries that will be used in the next provincial election. Belliveau voted against the act because it divides up the riding of Shelburne.
On Thursday, Dec. 6, the bill was approved by a vote of 26 to 22.
Both the Progressive Conservative and the Liberal parties voted against the bill, accusing the NDP government of interfering in what was supposed to be an independent process by pushing through a terms of reference that the opposition parties said had a pre-determined outcome for the four protected minority ridings in the province.
Because the three Acadian ridings of Argyle, Clare and Richmond, and the one African Nova Scotia seat of Preston, didn’t meet the population thresholds set out by the terms of reference, which were only supported by the NDP government, these minority ridings will cease to exist as they have and will instead be expanded or merged with other neighbouring ridings. When an electoral boundaries commission tried to maintain the status quo for these ridings in its interim report, the NDP government declared that report null and void, despite the fact that the status quo for these ridings is what the commission heard from Nova Scotians.
During a vote on Bill 94, which saw a discussion by MLAs that went on for nearly three hours prior to the vote, Argyle MLA Chris d’Entremont noted the electoral boundaries commission was told by the public that the Acadian ridings were important to them and that the government should find a way to keep them the way they are.
“This is what they wanted, this is not what they got,” said d’Entremont.
Instead, he said the government took that information and decided it wasn’t important. What message, he questioned, did that send to the people who became involved in the process? And, he questioned, how will you engage people in the future if you ignore what they say that they want?
“Nowhere along this did the people of Nova Scotia get what they asked for and you know why? Because politics got involved,” said d’Entremont.
Said Wayne Gaudet, the MLA for Clare, “At every step of the electoral boundary review the NDP government did not take into consideration the will of the people.”
The NDP have a majority government and they felt they didn’t have to listen to what the people had to say, said Gaudet, who added it is wrong for the government to have said that only voter parity should be a deciding factor in electoral boundaries, which is essentially what, he said, the population variances in the terms of reference did.
“This was a done deal before the commission got on the road and started its consultation,” said Gaudet. He called the entire electoral boundaries review process a mockery of democracy because it didn’t take the will of the people into consideration.
“History will blame this NDP government for the elimination of the Clare riding that has existed for many years," Gaudet said.
Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill said he hopes that the lesson everyone takes away from this electoral boundaries process is that democracy cannot be based on a simple mathematical equation. He said geography, communities of interest and cultural, linguistic and minority interests have to count for something.
“This is a process that has hurt people, that has been divisive and didn’t need to happen,” Churchill said.
Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie said the province was making history for the wrong reason.
“What a shame for a province that prides itself on its democratic traditions, that something as important as drawing the rules of the game for the next election, as putting together community of interests and making sure that their voices are heard in this chamber, of determining the boundaries on which people will place their votes, of striking that important and right balance between parity of vote and effective representation, that all of that will be determined exclusively by one political party alone.”
The Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse (FANE) indicated earlier this week that it intends to launch a legal challenge over the elimination of the Acadian ridings.
Not only did this bill eliminate the protected Acadian ridings, it also does away with the riding of Shelburne. The constituency is being divided with part of it merged with Argyle and the other part merging with Queens.
Shelburne MLA Sterling Belliveau, a member of the NDP government, said the people of Shelburne were blindsided by the electoral boundaries commission’s final report that included this scenario for Shelburne since it had not been discussed during the review and the people of Shelburne never got a chance for input on this with the commission.
“This is wrong,” he said. “The commission failed Shelburne County . . . As their MLA, I want them to know I stand behind them.
The opposition, however, said it was the government, not the commission, that failed Shelburne by putting in terms of reference that meant the riding of Argyle could not stand alone and voter numbers had to be found somewhere.
Belliveau was told by the opposition that if he truly wanted to stand up for Shelburne he should have walked away from the NDP government.
The three-hour debate on the bill was heated and became quite testy when Leonard Preyra, the Minister of Communities, Culture and Heritage, spoke in favour of the bill. He said the opposition parties were being hypocritical when it came to the rights of minorities. He said he found it ironic that the opposition parties were attacking the NDP government, when it is the most diverse government in history of the province.
“We have more women on this side, we have more women in the cabinet. I myself . . . am the first Asian Canadian that has ever been elected to this house. We’ve got African Nova Scotians . . . We’re being lectured to by opposition parties that have not even pretended to incorporate diversity in the principles that they pretend to preach for,” said Preyra, drawing boos from the opposition side. “That's way over the top,” someone could be heard saying.
Preyra said if the opposition parties were truly committed to having an African Nova Scotia in their caucus perhaps they would have considered nominating more African Nova Scotian candidates.
The Speaker had to call for order several times as the opposition parties reacted to what Preyra was saying.
Yarmouth’s MLA Zach Churchill said as the only MLA of Lebanese descent in the House he took very real exception to Preyra’s words. When Preyra continued to speak he said the government would not be lectured to “by one of the most homogenous oppositions that we have seen in the history of this province."
“You’re an embarrassment,” shouted Churchill, who was told by the Speaker he was using un-Parliamentary language. Churchill retracted the un-Parliamentary language but he said what the minister was saying was offensive.
But Preyra said, “We know that the political parties have the tools to promote diversity if they really wanted to.” He then said there are members in the house with the last names Theriault, Boudreau, Belliveau and Landry who are not elected in Acadian seats. When members of the opposition said these members were not Acadians the minister went on to question what test they were using to determine this.
He ended his comments be saying he was delighted the government had taken the high road and introduced the bill without any changes or amendments to what had been contained in the electoral boundaries commission’s final report.
“It respects the spirit of the House of Assembly Act. It respects the principle of parity of voting power. It respects the principle of effective representation and it respects the role of boundaries commission, Mr. Speaker, and I’m happy to support this bill.
A review of electoral boundaries is required every 10 years.