EDITORIAL: Sauce for the goose

If schools are vital to rural P.E.I., are electoral districts any less so?

Published on April 20, 2017

Gerard Mitchell, chairman of the Electoral Boundaries Commission, speaks during one of the commission’s meetings seeking public input at East Wiltshire. Next to Mitchell is commissioner Lynn Murray.

©Mitch MacDonald/The Guardian

After launching hearings in late January, P.E.I.’s Electoral Boundaries Commission finished public meetings this month but Islanders have until 5 p.m. today to provide written submissions.  

However, as the public consultation portion of its work concludes, the commission must grapple with a new reality when it begins its deliberations.
The commission is charged with re-drawing the 27 districts to provide for equal voter representation. It is required to present a new electoral map to the legislative assembly by June 6.
The province has just come through a bruising school review process. After a series of emotional and often acrimonious meetings, the government backed away from school closures.
The province said the school process saw a re-energized rural P.E.I. forcefully state its case. The government then challenged rural Islanders to direct their energies toward economic revitalization to stabilize populations and ensure schools remain viable.
If schools are vital to rural P.E.I., are electoral districts any less so?
While rural P.E.I. fought passionately for its schools, things were more sedate for the commission as it concurrently went about its business. But the commission is well aware of the implications from the school review. It must consider the fallout as it prepares a report.
The commission will feel pressure to respond to rural concerns. Will its report reflect that rural P.E.I. just demanded and won special consideration after flexing its political clout?
If rural seats are reduced while Charlottetown and Summerside benefit, a public uproar is sure to follow. The commission’s report is binding on the legislature - unless MLAs feel it’s unfair and that legislative changes are needed.
The commission must consider factors such as public input, population trends, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, geographical features, municipal boundaries and communities of interest. Before rural P.E.I. rebelled against school closures, the work of the commission seemed routine. Things are not so clearly defined any more. It will be interesting to see if the commission’s recommendations reflect the fallout from the school debate.
The report is binding – except the legislature may amend the act to favour rural P.E.I. Based on recent government responses to the plebiscite on electoral reform and the school review, anything is possible. The final decision on closing schools was decided by cabinet. Will the loss of districts in Kings and West Prince counties also become a political issue?
There are always exceptions, such as the special consideration for P.E.I.’s Acadians. A higher variance is designed to guarantee an Acadian MLA for Evangeline-Miscouche, but its MLA is English-speaking, who also won by the largest percentage in the last election. And what about the large Acadian populations in Rustico, Tignish and other areas?

Why not guarantee a seat for P.E.I.’s indigenous peoples to represent reserve members in Green Meadows, Scotchfort, Rocky Point and Lennox Island, as well as off-reserve and native council members?

The commission must try to make every vote equal, but it must be fair. Is there a greater good beyond a rigid adherence to 3,698 voters in each of the 27 electoral districts?