Neguac pushes back at language-based riding merger on new map

Neguac Mayor Georges Savoie says francophone Neguac, the anglophone population in Tabusintac and members of Esgenoôpetitj First Nation all work together well. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Neguac Mayor Georges Savoie says francophone Neguac, the anglophone population in Tabusintac and members of Esgenoôpetitj First Nation all work together well. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

What's a "community of interest?"

The Village of Neguac is hoping New Brunswick's Electoral Boundaries and Representation Commission will think twice before it delivers its final answer.

The commission is redrawing the map of the province's 49 election ridings, and it's proposing to move Neguac into the same constituency as nearby Tracadie.

The idea is to give mostly francophone Neguac a better chance of being represented by a francophone MLA who speaks their language and understands their concerns.

But the village is telling the commission that language is too narrow a way to think about "communities of interest" — one of the key criteria the commission is using to define the term.

Village of Neguac
Village of Neguac

Mayor Georges Savoie says francophone Neguac, the anglophone population in Tabusintac and members of Esgenoôpetitj First Nation all work together well.

He and his council say they should remain together in the Miramichi Bay riding, because Miramichi is where they access most provincial government services.

"In our community of interest, language is not necessarily the major concern," Savoie said. "The services are the major concern and we want to get the best services for people.

"If we're talking about provincial ridings, an MLA should be in the same riding where the services are coming from."

The debate is a classic New Brunswick dilemma pitting language considerations against other more organic factors.

"It's really about how to reconcile differences," said Mount Allison University political scientist Mario Levesque.

"You want effective representation for sure, and you want to keep communities of interest together, but 'of interest' means many different things: linguistic, economic, social fabric. … There's a lot of factors in there."

Map redrawn every 10 years

Provincial law requires an independent commission to redraw the electoral map every 10 years to account for changing population figures.

The commission must aim to get each riding close to the average number of provincial voters per constituency — in this case, 11,667.

But it can deviate from that target if there are "communities of interest" that should logically be in the same riding: places that should share an MLA because of their natural links.

The law also requires the commission to consider "the effective representation" of English and French communities.

In its proposed map released in December, the current commission decided that meant moving Neguac into the Tracadie riding.

"Currently Neguac is located in an anglophone majority riding," the commission said in its report.

"Given the proximity to a francophone majority riding and given the enhanced importance placed on effective representation for English and French linguistic communities, the commission has placed Neguac and surrounding areas in the riding of Tracadie-Neguac."

That's only one of several unpopular moves in the region.

For us in this community of interest, we are what the province wants to be. - Georges Savoie, mayor of Neguac

Parts of the newly created municipality of Alnwick, which includes Tabusintac and is about 50 per cent anglophone, would also be in the new Tracadie-Neguac riding.

But other parts of Alnwick, including some francophone areas, would remain with Miramichi Bay, making them an even smaller minority in a majority anglophone riding — contradicting the commission's language-based approach.

The solution is sticking with the status quo, the commission was told during public consultations last week.

"We have friends in both directions, we have people who got married English-French," said Neguac resident Rachel Allain.

"If it's the French language driving the change, I'm a strong believer in 'if it is not broken, do not fix it.' … We're good here. Let us stay with Miramichi, where we belong."

Services in Miramichi closer

Savoie said it's better for Neguac if the village is represented by an MLA whose riding also includes the place where most provincial services are located — in this case, Miramichi.

He pointed out a francophone member, Réjean Savoie, was still able to get elected in the existing majority anglophone riding in a byelection last June.

But Savoie, the mayor, says there's another principle at stake too.

"We say we're a bilingual province. For us in this community of interest, we are what the province wants to be," he said.

"People outside this community can hardly understand that … how we can work together and be of different languages. But we don't see that. There's no barrier for us. … We find ways to do it."

During the last redrawing of riding boundaries a decade ago, the Acadian Society of New Brunswick filed a constitutional challenge to the map over the placement of Neguac and Memramcook in two majority anglophone ridings.

Other shifts in proposed mapThe lawsuit was abandoned in 2015 when the Gallant Liberal government amended the riding boundarie

s law to give the next commission greater leeway to deviate from the average number of voters to accommodate language concerns.

That's what has happened in three notable areas.

Along with the Neguac move, the proposed new map puts Memramcook in a riding with Dieppe. It also shifts Baie-Sainte-Anne from the majority anglophone Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin riding into majority francophone Kent North.

Levesque says the commission has adopted a "territorial" or "fortress" approach rather than recognizing that, in some parts of the province, "we have worked out mechanisms of understanding each other's cultures, each other's ways."

Savoie believes the commission moved Neguac to the Tracadie riding to avoid another legal challenge like last time. Levesque also feels they were trying to not "rock the boat."

Current Acadian Society president Alexandre Cedric Doucet said the organization believes effective representation requires majority-francophone ridings, but he respects Neguac's position.

"We see there's a will to stay with Miramichi. … We'll never oppose the democratic expression of a community's will."

Memramcook Mayor Maxime Bourgeois said he's happy his village will end up in a majority francophone riding, but he didn't want to wade into the Neguac debate.

"The Acadian in me would want to see Neguac with an Acadian Peninsula riding, but at the end of the day, it depends on what the community wants, and if they feel a strong connection with Miramichi, it's really a decision of the population," he said.

The commission didn't give any hints during public consultations of whether it will change its mind about Neguac when its final proposed map is released before March 12.

"I think the commission understands our position better," Savoie said, "and I hope they will look at it and try to put us in the riding that we belong to."