06/06/2012 09:54 EDT | Updated 08/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Electoral Boundaries Commission will do something for minority groups: chairwoman

HALIFAX - The head of Nova Scotia's Electoral Boundaries Commission is taking issue with reports suggesting the independent body is headed back to the drawing board when it comes to four so-called protected ridings.

Teresa MacNeil says the commission accepts it will have to shed a preliminary recommendation that the ridings, each with an unusually small number of voters, should remain as they are to protect the influence of their black and Acadian voters.

However, MacNeil says that doesn't mean the commission is prevented from ensuring the minorities in those ridings are given some level of accommodation.

"It's not that we're going back to the drawing board," she said in an interview late Wednesday. "As a group, we wish to continue with our work."

The ridings of Argyle, Clare and Richmond each have a significant contingent of Acadians among the voting population. The riding of Preston is considered an African Nova Scotian riding. The overall population of each riding has been kept small over the years to ensure the minority groups retain influence on election day.

Both opposition parties have supported the retention of the protected ridings, saying they preserve the rights of minority groups in the province.

Earlier this week, the commission came under fire from Premier Darrell Dexter, who said the eight-member group had violated its terms of reference, one of which states that the number of voters in every riding must come within 25 per cent of the overall average.

MacNeil says the commission will move on to the next phase of its work, which includes public hearings that are sure to include discussions about the special ridings and their role in representing black and Acadian voters.

"It's not that we are reconsidering," she said. "It's that we're going to work with the public to see what revisions might achieve ... the requirement for voter parity, which is the whole purpose of this effort."

The commission has until Aug. 31 to submit a final report.

MacNeil said none of the commissioners had been approached by Dexter or any representatives of his government. However, she said all members were aware of his comments through the media.

"We have paid great attention to the terms of reference," she said. "(But) we took the view that we could not meet that term (on the 25 per cent rule). It's not that we ignored it or that we challenged it — we've just taken that view."

The chairwoman said it's now clear that the government might not accept that position.

However, she said it would be wrong for the commission to simply tell voters in the four ridings that the boundaries will simply be changed to meet the 25 per cent requirement.

"It's not exactly the way you want to deal with a conscious and thoughtful public in the province of Nova Scotia," she said. "We're going to see if there's another way to achieve this."

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.

The NDP government has said that a key principle of representative democracy is that constituencies should be roughly equal in size. As well, the NDP has said the boundaries could be changed without eliminating the ridings themselves.

In all, there are 14 constituencies that are either too big or too small to keep their current boundaries.