By Richard Bell
The painful history of trying to provide effective electoral representation for Acadians and African Nova Scotians was on full display at a public hearing at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook on September 19. The occasion was one of several hearings being conducted by the Commission on Effective Electoral Representation of Acadian and African Nova Scotians.
The immediate cause of the hearing was a decision by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal that the Dexter NDP government’s 2012 elimination of three special Acadian seats in the provincial legislature violated their Canadian charter rights. (Dexter also eliminated one special African Nova Scotian seat in 2012.)
But the court did not provide any guidance about what the legislature should do. In response, the McNeill Liberal government created a commission and charged it with coming up with recommendations by November 1, 2017, which would in turn inform a new Electoral Boundary Commission in 2018.
At the hearing at the Black Cultural Centre, people expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the 2012 elimination of the African Nova Scotian seat in the Preston area. (The Commission promised all speakers anonymity, so the Cooperator is respecting this promise by not identifying non-public figures.)
“We told the government in 2012 why we didn’t want to change, and they went ahead and changed anyway,” said one East Preston resident. “We had a designated seat, and there should have been a black person in that seat. Our boundaries being changed was a slap in the face. We’ve been here since the 1700s. It’s just heart breaking.”
The three commissioners, appointed by the Premier, were careful to point out that they were not a boundary setting body. What they were after, said Commission Chair Douglas J. Keefe, were ideas about “effective” representation.
But defining “effective” is, in the end, a political task. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the right to vote includes a right to “effective representation.” On its website, the Commission says that “special measures can and should be taken to assure the effective representation of specific geographic, ethnic, racial, or linguistic communities that would otherwise be submerged in a larger community,” exactly the kind of measure that Nova Scotia had adopted in 1992 and then rejected in 2012.
Several speakers asked the Commission to take the simple step of recommending a return to the four-seat system. There were also suggestions of abandoning the prior system, in which the four seats were tied to specific geographic areas, and instead creating a number of seats for Acadians and African Nova Scotians who would be elected on a province-wide basis. Several speakers recommended using the current system for electing School Board members as a model, which contains designated seats for Acadians and African Nova Scotians.
Shelley Fashon had several suggestions, based on her experience as a recent candidate. “Support come be in terms of an electoral advisory board that could help candidates with infrastructure.” And she emphasized how damaging the government’s decision to eliminate the historic polling place in East Preston had been in the last election
Commission Chair Keefe noted that there were other ways besides elections to strengthen the “effective representation” of minority communities, such as guaranteeing more seats on the dozens and dozens of boards and commissions that participate in making government policy.