The second phase of overhauling the province's election map got underway Wednesday with mayors, community leaders and citizens in northern New Brunswick complaining that their "communities of interest" are being broken up.
The independent commission that proposed a new map in December launched a series of virtual public meetings designed to gather feedback on their initial effort.
The meetings will continue until Saturday, and after that the commission will finalize a new map of the 49 ridings that will be used in the next provincial election in 2024.
During the first session, several local leaders in the Restigouche area complained that the commission hadn't listened to their suggestions on how to divide up the area.
Two areas of the new Restigouche Rural District, created Jan. 1 through the province's local government reform, are in two different proposed ridings.
"Why would you split rural Restigouche and take half of rural Restigouche and put them in another riding to vote, after just putting us together?" asked Brad Mann, chair of the Restigouche Regional Service Commission.
Kedgwick Mayor Éric Gagnon said he hoped his community would be in the same riding as Campbellton.
"They're our neighbours," he said. "If people are going to make the effort to submit something, maybe it should be followed once in a while."
Numbers did not add up, commission said
The mayors argued the commission was dividing "communities of interest" — the term in the law that refers to places near each other that share common concerns and collectively benefit from having a single MLA to represent them.
Commission co-chair Roger Clinch answered that some of the Restigouche proposals would not have complied with the legal requirement that all ridings must be within 15 per cent of the average number of voters, which is 11,667.
"The numbers in some cases did not add up," Clinch said.
"If some of the things ended up the way they ended up, it's likely because of that."
When Restigouche West Liberal MLA Gilles LePage spoke in support of the complaints, commission member Roger Ouellette, a political scientist, reminded him that "as a commission we operate within the framework of the act.
"It's you, the MLAs, some MLAs who are here, who passed that act."
Under provincial law, the 49 election constituencies have to be redrawn every decade to account for how the number of voters in each riding have changed.
The independent commission released its proposed map in December and must release a final version 90 days later, which means early March.
'If it's not broken, don't fix it'
The complaints from Restigouche were echoed Wednesday by presenters in Tracadie and Neguac.
"I'm a big believer in 'if it's not broken, don't fix it,'" said Neguac resident Rachel Allain.
Under the proposed new map, the village of Neguac, now in the riding of Miramichi Bay-Neguac, will be added to the Tracadie riding.
But at the same time, some parts of the Tracadie regional municipality, created in 2014, would be cut off and put in the Bathurst-Péninsule Centre riding.
And francophone communities surrounding Neguac would remain in the Miramichi Bay constituency.
Tracadie Liberal MLA Keith Chiasson told the meeting that would isolate them twice: in a different riding from the village where they go to shop and access services, and as a smaller francophone minority in the more overwhelmingly anglophone Miramichi Bay riding.
Tracadie Mayor Denis Losier said when the larger regional municipality was created nine years ago, "it was essential to build a community of interest and create a feeling of belonging.
"But it's difficult to create a sense of belonging … when we're seeing a fragmentation of services with our government partners."
Mayor Ernest Robichaud of Alnwick, a newly created municipality which includes Tabusintac, said the newly-created municipality will be cut up between the Tracadie and Miramichi Bay ridings.
"As a new municipality we have a lot to learn. Having to work with two different MLAs will make it that much harder — pretty must impossible."
Another feedback session was scheduled for Wednesday evening, and more meetings are planned for Thursday, Friday and Saturday around the province.