06/01/2012 10:07 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Keep ridings for black and francophone voters: N.S. electoral commission

HALIFAX - An independent Nova Scotia commission is calling for the retention of four so-called protected ridings for francophone and black minority groups despite their relatively small populations.

The interim report issued Friday by the Electoral Boundaries Commission recommends keeping the three ridings with large francophone populations and one that has a significant black population.

The legislature's term of references for the commission had said all constituencies be within 25 per cent of the average number of electors — a criteria none of the minority-group ridings meet.

Commission chairwoman Teresa MacNeil said if the eight-member body had strictly followed a term of reference from the legislature, the protected constituencies would have been merged with neighbouring ridings.

"A literal interpretation ... would have required to substantially alter the boundaries of the four constituencies within the protected status, and that have been protected for 20 years," she said at a news conference.

"Removal of this protection raised significant social, cultural and political issues."

MacNeil said the commission balanced the population requirement with another term of reference that allows commissioners to take into account that constituencies should reflect linguistic and cultural diversity.

However, commission member Jill Grant wrote a dissenting opinion, saying the report runs against the will of the legislature.

The professor at Dalhousie Univesity's school of planning said the legislature had clearly directed the commission to give a higher priority to ensuring parity in the voting power of each citizen.

"I believe the legislature is the appropriate body to debate the relative merits and implications of strategies for effectively representing minority populations," she wrote.

She said members of the legislature could consider alternatives for preserving the representation of francophones, such as setting up constituencies without specific boundaries.

Grant argued that such systems were a preferable method of representing minority communities, "while securing fair and effective representation for all Nova Scotians."

Francophone groups have argued they should keep the three seats in the 52-seat legislature because they roughly represent the percentage of Acadians spread across the province.

Charles Gaudet, the director of the Nova Scotia Acadian Federation, said the Acadian population is declining along with other rural communities, and taking away political representation would have been a blow.

"We're very pleased that the commission chose to protect the rights of minorities and the black community," he said.

The Acadian constituents are concentrated in the ridings of Clare and Argyle, on the province's southwestern shore, and in Richmond in Cape Breton.

The riding of Preston, which has a large black population, is on the eastern outskirts of Halifax.

Opposition parties said the province's majority NDP government should never have insisted on including the clause that imperilled the minority group ridings in the original terms of reference.

Attorney General Ross Landry declined an interview request, but he said in a news release he would meet privately with MacNeil to discuss the report.

"The final report must meet the terms of reference as set out by the House of Assembly," said the release.

Both the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals issued news releases accusing the NDP of trying to interfere with the independent commission.

"The NDP interfered at the beginning of this process and now they are trying to interfere at the end," said Tory Leader Jamie Baillie.

Liberal Justice critic Michel Samson said it was inappropriate for Landry to meet privately with the commission chairwoman.

"It looks like the justice minister is overstepping the boundaries of what is acceptable," he said.

The commission has also recommended that Halifax receive two new seats and that a constituency in Cape Breton and another in northeastern Nova Scotia be dropped through revised electoral boundaries.

The report says the two new constituencies in Halifax should be set up to take into account population growth on the western side of the harbour.

The commission, appointed in December, said the legislature should continue to have 52 seats.

The eight members will now hold another round of public consultations and issue a final report on Aug. 31.