If there is one thing the voters of Memramcook and Tantramar could not agree on more it is that the two regions should not be merged into one electoral riding, as proposed by the Electoral Boundaries and Representation Commission (EBRC).
The local civic centre meeting room was filled, mostly with residents of the Memramcook Valley, on Tuesday night and they rose as one to give standing applause to Sackville Coun. Ron Aiken when he said, "Memramcook has very different interests than ours and amalgamation is not in our best interests."
The EBRC was mandated to reduce the number of seats in the New Brunswick Legislature by six, from 55 to 49, and to make every effort to ensure that New Brunswickers enjoyed equality in voting. They provided the five-member panel with the number of eligible voters in each existing riding and were ordered to reshape the system so that each new riding consisted of 11,269 or to within five percent of that figure.
Tantramar, an Anglophone enclave butted against the Nova Scotia border, the Northumberland Strait and Francophone communities on the remaining sides, has but 7,700 voters and thus needed to add many more in order to meet the guidelines. The EBRC, in November, proposed that all of Memramcook be added to create what they proposed to be the riding of Sackville-Memramcook.
To compound problems even further, the former Memramcook riding, which included Dieppe, was well over its limit of voters and changes would be required to correct the imbalance.
However, the seven local service districts making up the Village of Memramcook, held a special meeting in mid-February and the unanimous vote was to continue in the Dieppe group rather than join with Tantramar.
Speaker after speaker stressed how closely the two Francophone communities are united, while the concerns, desires and goals of Memramcook and Tantramar are so different.
Dorothy Theriault explained that the riding of Memramcook currently consists of 87 per cent Francophones. If they are forced to join Tantramar that percentage will drop to lower than 30.
"To meet the needs of the Francophone community we need our own Francophone MLA," Theriault said. "We have a distinct Acadian culture and with us Dieppe is a natural fit."
Former MLA Greg O'Donnell described Memramcook as a rural area of fishing and farming and he called for the French language to be respected, fearing that it could be lost should they become far outnumbered with an Anglophone community. And he demanded assurance that the Valley would not be split in two in an effort to find a solution.
Pierre Roy, an articulate school teacher, agreed Tantramar is in an unusual position, being surrounded by Nova Scotia and Francophone communities, but said living in French is a daily challenge faced by the residents of Memramcook.
"We need efficient representation to ensure our linguistic rights and to enjoy linguistic equality," he said.
He went on to note that Memramcookers look to Dieppe for education, shopping, medical care and recreation and being placed in a different political riding could have a negative impact on that.
Paul Emile LeBlanc urged the Commissioners to revisit a decision made in 2006 when exceptional circumstances allowed Anglophone Tantramar to be left unchanged and not to "play with numbers" since it could lead to some form of court action.
Memramcook was described as "the cradle of New Acadie" by one 80-year-old lady, who added that as such it has the right to choose who will represent the riding.
"I believe this is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
At no time was there a sign of rancor or unfriendliness between the larger Tantramar region and Memramcook but simply that there is little in common between the two. In recent years there has been an increasing exchange of those visiting both directions. However, it is clearly recalled that the local region was the site of many battles between the French and English leading up to the Expulsion in 1755. Many of those Acadians found their way back from along the US Eastern Seaboard to the Memramcook area where they put down new roots, resulting in the claim of being home of the New Acadie.
The co-chairs of the commission – Alan Maher and Anise Hebert-Hollis – admitted there is a clause in the mandate that might permit the use of the term extraordinary circumstances when extreme difficulties are experienced in finding the proper balance. However, there are already 18 requests for this action, which is simply impossible to accommodate.
"We were given very precise instructions and guidelines and we do not have the power to make changes," said Maher. "Requests for adjustments would have to go back to the legislature through the local member."
In his presentation, Aiken suggested that the students of Mount Allison be included in order to increase the voter list in Tantramar. He estimated that as many as 1,600 might be added after non-Canadians and first year students who have not established residence here are removed from the 2,500 total. However, the EBRC does not have the authority to add or subtract from the numbers they have been provided and it would require Elections New Brunswick and the Legislature to permit such a move.
It was also explained that even by adding the students the total still would not meet the 25 per cent special concession possibility.
In another effort, Aiken wondered if the inmate population at the two institutions in Dorchester might also be added to the Tantramar total.
Mahar explained that the EBRC must have its recommendations prepared by April 15 and the MLAs have two weeks to call for any alterations. But he predicted that the final report will be in place by May 15 with no changes allowed after that point.