09/25/2012 08:42 EDT | Updated 11/25/2012 05:12 EST

Proposal to merge Nova Scotia ridings with Acadian roots rankles critics

HALIFAX - An exercise in democratic reform has turned ugly in Nova Scotia.

Amid talk of legal challenges and claims of government interference, the province's Electoral Boundaries Commission recommended Tuesday changes to four ridings set up 20 years ago to provide representation for black and French-speaking residents.

The final report from the commission says the minority ridings — each of which has an unusually small voting population — should be merged with neighbouring constituencies to ensure electoral fairness.

The problem, critics say, is that the minority groups in each riding will see their influence reduced at election time because they will suddenly have a smaller share of the voting population.

The commission had said in an interim report in June the ridings should be maintained to ensure input from francophone and African Nova Scotian voters.

The Halifax-area riding of Preston has a large number of black constituents. The Clare and Argyle ridings include communities with large francophone populations on the province's South Shore. The riding of Richmond in Cape Breton includes a minority Acadian population.

In June, Premier Darrell Dexter demanded the commission go back to the drawing board, saying its legally binding mandate included ensuring all ridings were within 25 per cent of the average number of voters by riding — about 13,000.

None of the minority ridings meets that requirement.

Dexter has repeatedly said the 25-per-cent rule should take precedence over providing a voice to minority groups because voter parity is a fundamental principle of democracy.

However, commission member Paul Gaudet, an Acadian from Saulnierville, N.S., said the government wrongly imposed its will on an independent body and is now poised to deprive Nova Scotia of Acadian voices in the legislature.

"With the intervention of the government ... I felt that we were thrown under the bus with our report," the retired educator told a news conference at the legislature as the seven other commission members looked on.

"The feeling is that the recommendation is not the recommendation of the commission but the position of government using the commission as a smokescreen to impose its wish."

Gaudet issued a lone dissenting opinion, saying the last time a boundary commission was appointed 10 years ago, it maintained the protected ridings even though it, too, had to abide by the 25-per-cent rule.

He said the government's edict puts Acadian identity at risk in Nova Scotia.

"Expulsion, assimilation and now the threat of losing our voice in the Nova Scotia house of assembly leads me to believe that the slow and painful extinction of the Acadian people is in the works," Gaudet wrote in the report.

Ross Landry, the province's attorney general, said Gaudet's accusations were wrong.

Landry said it was his duty as attorney general to inform the commissioners through an open letter in June that they had to adhere to terms of reference drafted by a select committee of the legislature.

"An independent committee that has a set of guidelines must follow those and answer to the legislature," he said. "At no time did I direct or did I advise them how to do it."

Landry bristled when responding to Gaudet's suggestion that the Acadian culture is being eradicated.

"To use such language is to fabricate a historical belief," Landry said in an interview.

"We are a government that is caring, loving, that believes in fairness and equity. Many of us have deep-rooted Acadian roots. ... That's why we put in the 25-per-cent rule. To allow for minority groups and population shifts."

Other members of the committee said they felt the independence of the group had been compromised, but member Jim Bickerton said the group did not have the expertise to challenge the government's directive.

Bickerton said other provinces and the federal government have similar voter-parity rules, but Nova Scotia is the only jurisdiction where no exceptions are granted.

"I think there are grounds" for a court challenge, said Bickerton, a professor of political science at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.

He also said the government had gone too far.

"It's a limitation on the independence of the commission, everyone recognizes that. If you interpret that as tainting the commission, then I guess it is."

Still, the commission's chairwoman, Teresa MacNeil, said she didn't feel the government unduly influenced the group.

"We were not feeling terribly comfortable with it, (but) we decided to continue," she said.

Rustum Southwell, the only black member of the commission, said the riding of Preston, won't be affected by the changes in the same way the Acadian ridings will be.

He said the riding has produced few successful black candidates over the years, which suggests its protected status hasn't worked the way it was intended. As well, the community reaction to the proposed changes was muted, he added.

The Liberal and Progressive Conservative opposition parties condemned the recommendation to merge the minority ridings.

"It's Nova Scotia's loss for losing the ability to have Acadian voices in the legislature and a representative for the African Nova Scotian community," said Liberal Michel Samson.

He also accused Landry of tainting the work of the commission.

"It's very clear that even the commission members felt that their work was compromised." said Samson, who represents the affecting riding of Richmond.

Samson also said lawyers are looking into the possibility of taking legal action.

The commission also recommended the addition of two ridings in the Halifax area to reflect the region's growing population.

In rural Nova Scotia, the commission says the declining population there means three seats should be eliminated: one in Cape Breton and two from mainland Nova Scotia.