Nova Scotia electoral map violates charter, says province's highest court

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has ruled the province's electoral map, redrawn in 2012, violates the charter rights of Acadians.

Federation representing Acadians in the province launched court action after map was redrawn in 2012

A federation representing the interests of Acadians in Nova Scotia began legal action against the provincial government after the electoral map was changed. (Jean-Luc Bouchard/Radio-Canada)

Nova Scotia's Court of Appeal has ruled changes made to the province's electoral map in 2012 that Acadians argue took away their voice in the legislature violate a fundamental charter right.

The decision is a victory for Acadian groups that challenged the new map because it eliminated the special protection afforded to three Acadian regions of the province by merging them with neighbouring electoral districts.

The federation that represents Acadian groups in Nova Scotia (Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse) began legal action not long after the new boundaries were confirmed by the legislature. The then-NDP government of Darrell Dexter pushed ahead with the changes over the group's objections.

The case involves three small so-called protected ridings, originally conceived to give the Acadian communities concentrated in Clare, Argyle and Richmond a stronger voice and a greater ability to elect Acadian members of their communities to represent them in the legislature.

Unclear how decision will impact map

In Tuesday's ruling, a panel of five Appeal Court justices agreed the redrawn map violates Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

That section states, "Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein."

Although the ruling is a moral victory, it's unclear what effect it will have on the current electoral map.

The Court of Appeal has no power in this case to order a change. It is up to the current Liberal government to decide what to do next.

Michel Samson, minister of Acadian affairs and Francophonie, could not say what impact the court's decision will have on the electoral map. (CBC)

Cabinet minister Michel Samson, who represents Cape Breton-Richmond, could not say what the next step might be until talking to the Acadian federation.

"We'll want to have those discussions with the Acadian federation to get a better understanding of what should be the next steps and what is the time frame for those next steps."

Marie-Claude Rioux, executive director of the Acadian federation, was also at a loss to say where this ruling would lead.

"I don't know what kind of form this is going to take," she said. "I don't know what kind of of solution is going to be presented but we definitely have to collaborate, co-operate together, the government and the federation acadienne, and see what are the solutions that are possible."

Process tainted

Tuesday's ruling suggested the previous NDP government tainted the process when a cabinet minister declared null and void an independent commission's interim report.

The electoral boundaries commission had followed in the footsteps of earlier commissions in safeguarding three small so-called protected ridings: Clare, Argyle and Richmond.

After Ross Landry, the NDP justice minister at the time, ordered the commission to redraw the map strictly based on population size, it filed a final report with the Acadian ridings merged with neighbouring communities, effectively eliminating their protected status.

"The attorney general's intervention forced the commission to sign a final report with electoral boundaries that did not represent the commission's authentic view of effective representation according to constitutional criteria," the appeal court said in its decision.

Commission's view stifled

The court suggested the government had an opportunity to redraw the map by amending legislation introduced at Province House to formally adopt the commission's work.

"The government's rejection of the independent commission's recommendation would play out on the stage of the legislature. There might be heated presentations from the public to the law amendments committee and pointed debate in the House," they wrote.

"Those prospects do not justify stifling the independent commission's view of effective representation. Public debate, challenge and justification energize a 'democratic right.'"

A victory for Acadians

Chris d'Entremont, a Progressive Conservative MLA, called Tuesday's court ruling a victory for Acadians.

"I think the Acadian community will be happy, but again it's up to the government to decide what the next step is," said d'Entremont, who represents Argyle-Barrington.

"Do they start a new boundary commission to take a look at what has happened? Do they make a decision for this election or do they look at the 10-year mark, when that 10-year boundary review has to be initiated once again?"  

The province's chief electoral officer appeared caught off guard by the decision, saying any change to the electoral map "takes some time."

Asked whether it could happen before the next election, Richard Temporale wouldn't even hazard a guess.

"They have until the fall of 2018 to have another election so I couldn't answer that question."

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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