Electoral clock ticking
Time not a friend of Friends of Democracy

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Dec 11/98) - Chances of finding a political alternative to the electoral boundaries court challenge are somewhere between slim and none for the time being.

Nevertheless, an attempt to get the assembly to change its mind may be made today.

Government not backing down

Those who thought launching a legal challenge would be enough to get the government to reverse its decision on electoral boundaries are mistaken.

"The government will be appearing and defending the legislation," said Don Cooper, deputy minister of Justice.

Cooper said the government does not share the Friends of Democracy's understanding of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it applies to electoral boundaries.

"The 25 per cent variance is not a hard and fast rule. It is one guideline that has been adopted by one court that isn't binding on this jurisdiction," said Cooper. He said he was referring to a B.C. Supreme Court ruling in which the court said populations of different ridings should not vary by more than 25 per cent from the average.

Cooper said the government will be arguing that the NWT is a unique place requiring unique consideration where electoral boundaries are concerned.

Those arguments, he said, will focus on, "not just aboriginal versus non-aboriginal considerations, but tribal considerations within the aboriginal population in terms of logical groupings of electors and issues of remoteness and access to government which are particularly acute in this jurisdiction.

"There are arguments to be made, and it will be for the court to decide whether those arguments are sufficient to sustain the legislation."

At a fund-raising information session of Friends of Democracy Wednesday, Frame Lake MLA Charles Dent said Yellowknife MLAs have been lobbying other MLAs.

Political solution unlikely

Asked how long it would take to enact legislation to change electoral boundaries, Dent said, "If the will is there, it could be done in one day."

The first step would be the most difficult. Today is the last day of this sitting of the assembly. Reopening the debate without the required two days notice of motion requires unanimous consent. In other words, if one MLA votes against it, the debate will not happen until the assembly sits again in mid-March.

Dent said Wednesday he did not know whether Yellowknife MLAs would attempt a political solution. He said MLAs, so far, don't appear willing to reconsider their Nov. 12 rejection of the Electoral Boundaries Commission report. The report recommended the city get two more seats in the new Western assembly.

"There hasn't been a groundswell of change," said Dent after the meeting.

In the courts

Members of the Friends of Democracy emphasized the purpose of the court challenge is not to get more seats for Yellowknife, but ensuring all residents of the NWT have an equal say in government.

Executive member Bob MacQuarrie noted that the principle being defended, equal and effective representation for all citizens, is documented in the notice filed in court Wednesday.

Time is a big factor in the dispute.

Electoral boundaries must be established at least six months before an election is held, though there is a provision for shortening that lead time. The election is currently scheduled for next Oct. 4, making April the deadline for any boundary changes.

First appearance in the case is scheduled for Friday. At that time, a judge will be appointed to hear preliminary arguments.

"At this point, it's difficult to say when the case will be heard, but I'm hoping for early in the new year," lead lawyer Brian Wallace told the 45 people who attended the Wednesday meeting.

In addition to supplying information, the meeting was also called to collect contributions to the court challenge.

Friends treasurer Bill Enge said the group has so far raised $27,700 for their legal fees, $25,000 of it from the city.