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A sign marks a voting location for the Nova Scotia provincial election at the community centre in Granville Centre, N.S., on May 30, 2017.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Nova Scotia government says it will introduce a new law to make it easier for Acadian and black candidates to get elected in certain ridings.

Government house leader Geoff MacLellan said Thursday the province would follow the key recommendations of a committee that studied Nova Scotia's voting rules.

"There's nothing that strikes us as problematic," said MacLellan.

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The committee was appointed in April after the province lost a court battle with a group that represents Nova Scotia's Acadian population.

The three-member committee submitted 29 recommendations to the Liberal government Thursday, saying the province should ensure black and Acadian minorities have a bigger say in elections, and also strengthen other means of representation.

"It's definitely a win for the Acadian community," said Ghislain Boudreau, president of the Acadian Federation of Nova Scotia. "We're very pleased with the report."

Doug Keefe, chairman of the committee, said the proposed law must include the broad principles for setting electoral boundaries.

Nova Scotia is the only province in Canada without such a law, he said.

The lack of legislation set the stage for an incendiary standoff in 2012, when then NDP premier Darrell Dexter rejected a proposed electoral map drafted by an independent electoral boundaries commission.

At the time, Dexter took aim at the province's four so-called exceptional ridings, established in 1992 to give Acadian and black voters a stronger voice in the legislature.

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By 2012, the populations in the four ridings had become much smaller than the provincial average, which was about 14,000 people. Dexter said the boundaries had to be changed because the number of residents did not fall within a range of plus or minus 25 per cent of the average.

In September 2012, the boundaries commission effectively abolished the predominantly French-speaking ridings of Clare, Argyle and Richmond, and it said the Halifax-area riding of Preston, with its large black population, must be merged with a neighbouring district.

"That was the end of the exceptional ridings," Keefe said.

At the time, critics said minority groups in each riding would see their influence reduced at election time. In the old 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.

Three months later, the Acadian federation said it would launch a court challenge to quash the redrawn electoral map.

In January 2017, Premier Stephen McNeil's Liberal government accepted an appeal court decision that said the previous NDP government had violated the constitution by forcing an independent commission to redraw the map.

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On Thursday, Keefe's committee stopped short of recommending restoration of the exceptional ridings. The committee said that decision should be left to another independent boundaries commission, which will be appointed before the next election.

With a new law in place, the provincial government will be required to accept the map drafted by the commission, Keefe said.

As well, he said the commission should have the ability to recommend the creation of additional ridings, over and above the 51 that already exist.

Keefe said with the province's rural population in decline, some ridings have become so large they make little sense to the voters who live there. He said some other jurisdictions in Canada have already created exceptional ridings in rural areas.

He also said the committee heard during public consultations that members of the province's black community, which makes up about two per cent of the population, had expressed their support for exceptional ridings.

Boudreau, whose organization represents about four per cent of the province's population, said the federation is in favour of creating new ridings.

"We hope that there will be some protected ridings that will be re-established," Boudreau said, adding that the federation will be pushing for a new, exceptional riding in the Cheticamp area of Cape Breton, which has a large Acadian population.

MacLellan said it will be up to the boundaries commission to decide if the province needs more members of the legislature.

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