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Canada: Nova Scotia Decision to Eliminate ‘Minority’ Ridings Headed for Legal Challenge
Source: nationalpost.com
Source Date: Sunday, December 09, 2012
Focus: Electronic and Mobile Government, ICT for MDGs, Thematic Website, Knowledge Management in Government, Citizen Engagement
Country: Canada
Created: Dec 11, 2012

The Nova Scotia government is headed for a legal challenge over last week’s decision to stamp out minority ridings that aim to ensure Acadian and black representation in favour of population-based ridings, provoking discussion around whether ethnically based districting has any place in today’s political landscape — there or anywhere.

The ridings are believed to be the only such seats in Canada, but by abolishing them the provincial government would be only partway down the path toward shedding its special treatment of minorities in elections: According to a government spokesperson, the new boundaries will have no effect on the handful of school board seats reserved for Nova Scotia’s black, Acadian and First Nations populations.

But with the legislative map slated for a revamp, the Acadian Federation of Nova Scotia has promised to a launch a court battle over concerns the changes will disperse French-speaking voters into larger ridings and dilute the collective clout they have enjoyed for two decades.

“We’ll have less representation,” said Justin Mury, the president of the federation that represents the 4% of the population that is francophone.

Unwavered by the group’s threat, Premier Darrell Dexter has staunchly defended his NDP government’s majority vote last Thursday to change the map, arguing that the boundaries should be rejigged so that every Nova Scotian’s vote is equal in weight — not discounted or cast at a premium depending on whether a voter is in a large district or one of the four smaller ones effectively dedicated to Acadians or black Nova Scotians.

“I’m surprised those kinds of districts still exist,” said Christopher Wilson, a senior research fellow with the University of Ottawa’s Centre on Governance. “Our governance process has evolved over time … In this day and age, we just wouldn’t do that.”

The provincial electoral boundaries commission’s report, released in September and entitled Toward Fair and Effective Representation, said the ridings emerged in the first place to make sure that no matter how “territorially fragmented” the Acadian and black populations — both with a history of discrimination in the province — they will succeed in electing one of their community members to the provincial legislature.

Ironically, though, the majority-black riding of Preston has for more than a decade chosen a white candidate, while the province’s only black MLA, Percy White, was elected by the predominantly white community of Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank.

In the riding of Argyle, for example, there are 6,200 voters — roughly 8,000 less than the average of about 14,000. About 60% of voters there are Acadian, but under redistribution that number plummets to about 22%, according to Chris d’Entremont, the Progressive Conservative member of the riding.

With Conservatives criticizing their traditionally minority friendly NDP counterparts for moving away from minority representation, the situation playing out in Nova Scotia is quite obviously punctuated by quirks and anomalies. Chief among them is the survival, at least so far, of the minority-based school board positions.

The province reserves a certain number of board positions for black and First Nations people, and it has a designated Acadian school district with Acadian representatives, too. (Those posts fell into controversy in October after it appeared that non-blacks may have voted in the election for the seat reserved for black Nova Scotians.)

A spokesperson for the province’s education ministry said minority representation on the school board is protected by the Education Act — immune to any House Assembly Act changes recommended by the boundaries commission and passed by the government. Dan Harrison said he is not aware of any current plans to move away from the practice.

Ryerson University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki defended ethnically based districting as a bold electoral experiment that helps ensure minorities get a seat at the table, deeming the Dexter government’s latest move a “retrograde step.”

“Representation by population is an important principle, but so too is representation of diverse identities within a political jurisdiction,” he said. “At this point, I think it’s more important to ensure minority representation.”

He does not agree with Mr. Wilson’s contention that the practice divides Canadians along bloodlines rather than unites them around common social, political or economic interests. In fact, he said strictly population-based ridings will be detrimental to unity or equality because the legislature will likely become more homogeneous than it is today.

“I don’t accept the argument that says, ‘Gee we’re magnifying differences that don’t really exist, and we’re dividing people so let’s just have one person, one vote,’” he said. “That’s just going to guarantee us a false togetherness.”

Evidently, the commission went to great lengths to find a way to uphold minority representation and at the same time move toward 51 ridings with an average of 14,000 people, give or take the allowable variance of 25%, or 3,500 voters. They considered, for example, letting Acadian and black voters choose between voting in their geographic district or in one of four “at-large” seats — three dedicated to Acadians, and one to black people. But that is rife with potential problems, not the least of which being that those voters would find themselves doubly represented — on the one hand by their “at-large” MLA and on the other hand by their constituency MLA, no matter where they chose to cast their ballot.

“This all reminds me of an old expression of [former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister] Joe Clark’s, when he described Canada as a community of communities,” Mr. Wilson said. “There are communities of all kinds of sizes, ethnicities, and languages all across the country. But Canada is a community of all of these. The challenge for government is how it will represent all those voices and not just pander to a particular subset.”

(By Kathryn Blaze Carlson)
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