12/30/2011 05:11 EST | Updated 02/29/2012 05:12 EST

Nova Scotia Electoral Boundary Rules Eroding Minority Rights, Tory Says

Andrew Vaughan, CP

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government is eroding minority rights by altering electoral boundary rules in a way that will hurt Acadians and African Nova Scotians, the opposition Conservatives warned Friday.

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie issued a statement saying changes made to the Electoral Boundaries Commission — approved late Friday by an NDP-dominated select committee — will lead to the elimination of four seats that represent small populations of those minority groups.

"Under cover of the looming New Year holiday, an NDP majority voted ... to effectively eliminate the protected seats that have traditionally allowed Acadians and African Nova Scotians a realistic chance to elect representation from their own communities," Baillie said in the statement.

"What they did, and the sneaky way they did it, was utterly disrespectful to Acadians and African Nova Scotians."

However, an NDP member of the committee, Leonard Preyra, said the Tories were wrong to assume the end is near for the Acadian ridings of Argyle, Clare and Richmond, and the African Nova Scotian riding of Preston.

"They won't disappear and there will be a larger number of constituencies affected," he said in an interview, adding that the changes are needed to make sure voters receive equal representation.

"A cardinal principle of representative democracy ... is that constituencies should be roughly equal in size."

Preyra said the boundaries of the four ridings, which all have smaller-than-average populations, will be changed to reflect a new rule that says the population of each constituency can't be 25 per cent above or below the overall average.

However, he said the boundaries could be changed without eliminating the ridings themselves.

In the 10 years since the province's electoral boundaries were last reviewed, population shifts have led to over-representation for some and under-representation for others.

The rural district of Argyle, for example, has 6,372 voters, while the suburban district of Bedford-Birch Cove is roughly three times the size with 20,550 voters.

"But we accept the fact that certain communities of interest, certain cultural and linguistic minorities and large geographic constituencies will have to have some kind of special accommodation," Preyra said. "The commission can gerrymander boundaries to make that possible."

That's why the 25 per cent rule was put in place, he said, noting that the difference between the largest and smallest ridings could still amount to 50 per cent.

As well, Preyra stressed that no changes will be made without public consultation.

But the Conservatives insisted the NDP rammed through the change to get rid of constituencies that are not held by New Democrats.

"This kind of crass manoeuvre by the NDP is a despicable deed," said Chris d’Entremont, the Tory house leader and the member for Argyle.

"The re-election campaign of (Premier) Darrell Dexter has started with him stabbing minorities — both Acadian and African Nova Scotian — right in the back."

Preyra said that argument misses the mark because there are 14 constituencies that are either too big or too small to keep their current boundaries. When all 14 ridings are considered, the New Democrats will also lose their share of voter support, he said.