January 24, 2017 4:30 pm
Updated: January 24, 2017 8:43 pm

Nova Scotia Acadians win key court battle over French-speaking ridings

An Acadian flag on the waterfront in Cheticamp, N.S., July 31, 2015.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lee Brown
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The Nova Scotia government says it is eager to speak to the province’s Acadians about appointing an independent commission to redraw the province’s electoral boundaries, a move that could offer the French-speaking minority better representation in the legislature.

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“We’re very excited,” said Ghislain Boudreau, president of the Acadian Federation of Nova Scotia, a group that represents about four per cent of the province’s residents.

“We would like to see effective representation within the legislative assembly once again. We are ready to work with the government to establish how that’s going to look.”

Boudreau was reacting Tuesday to the government’s decision to accept an appeal court decision that says Nova Scotia’s previous NDP government was wrong to force an independent commission to redraw three predominantly French-speaking ridings to have them include a larger, English-speaking population.

Since the early 1980s, each of these so-called ‘protected ridings’ had maintained a smaller-than-average population to ensure Acadians had a strong influence in provincial elections – exceptions that were endorsed by previous boundary commissions.

In 2012, then NDP premier Darrell Dexter argued equal representation in the legislature had to take precedence over providing a voice to minority groups because voter parity is a fundamental principle of democracy.

The province’s attorney general then insisted the electoral boundary commission adhere to terms of reference that said all ridings in the province should have a population that does not vary more than 25 per cent from the overall average of about 14,000.

The commission complied in its final report, and effectively abolished the ridings of Clare, Argyle and Richmond.

In the riding of Argyle, for example, there were only 6,200 voters, and about 60 per cent of them were Acadian. Under redistribution, the Acadian proportion dropped to about 22 per cent.

In its decision Tuesday, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal found the NDP government violated the voting rights section of the Charter of Rights.

Justice Minister Michel Samson said the Liberal government is open to having an independent electoral boundaries commission take a look at all of the province’s 51 ridings, but he said that won’t happen until he talks to the Acadian federation.

“We now have a decision from the court saying that what was done by the previous government was interference in the system,” he said. “It was an attempt by the previous government to change … particular ridings that they knew they had no hope of winning.

“The court has wrapped them on the knuckles for what they tried to do.”

Samson, an Acadian from Cape Breton whose riding was altered, said it remains unclear whether the commission could be appointed before the next election, which is expected as early as this spring.

Boudreau said it seemed unlikely it could be pulled together so quickly, given the fact that the governing Liberals entered their fourth year in office last fall.

Normally, such commissions are appointed every 10 years in Nova Scotia, which means it wouldn’t normally be needed until 2022.

However, Samson made it clear there’s nothing in the legislation that prevents an earlier move.

“Nova Scotians expect, and our courts have clearly said, if we’re going to have an independent electoral boundaries commission, it has to be allowed to do its work,” he said. “We have to take the politics out of it and ensure the government of the day can’t manipulate the results.”

The Nova Scotia legislature currently has 51 seats.

© 2017 The Canadian Press

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