B.C. Supreme Court Justice Nitya Iyer, chair of the B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission takes notes during public consultations at the Hudson Bay Lodge in Smithers April 28. (Thom Barker photo)

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Nitya Iyer, chair of the B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission takes notes during public consultations at the Hudson Bay Lodge in Smithers April 28. (Thom Barker photo)

B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission exists to make sure gerrymandering does not take place: Chair

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Nitya Iyer, chair of the three-person electoral boundaries commission was in Terrace last week, as part of the public consultation process. Here is an edited version of Iyer’s interview with the Terrace Standard.

Terrace Standard (TS): When is the initial report expected to be out?

Justice Nitya Iyer (JNI): People have until May 31, to give us input towards the first report. We are anticipating releasing that first report, making it public in the fall. And our final report must be presented to the legislature by April 2023.

TS: So between the first and the final report, is it, say, open to change based on public opinion or recommendations?

JNI: Yes, that’s the whole point of having a preliminary report. And a final report is to give people an opportunity to comment, and to require us to revisit our initial recommendations and to think about whether we really believe they’re justified or should be revised.

And I can tell you that past commissions have made revisions after that second round of comment. But yes, very much, we will be looking to the public, for input after we’ve published our first report, and that’s why we want to have that time between getting the report first report out by the fall, have a second round of consultation.

TS: People asked questions today about consultations with First Nation communities in the north, has the commission been doing that?

JNI: Well, I can tell you that what we have done, and we are at the beginning of our process, so this is our first round, where we’re seeking public input from everyone. And we have reached out actively to various First Nations, organizations and groups across the province, as well as local governments, chambers of commerce, anyone we can think of as well as directly to individuals, through various social media like Twitter, Facebook, our website, radio, prints… So absolutely, we’re reaching out to First Nations, we’re reaching out to all sorts of organizations.

I can’t tell you right now, what the response rate has been from different communities. But I can say that we’ve already received about 600 submissions through the [BC Electoral Boundaries Commission] website.

And in terms of the communities that we were able to visit in person, in this round, we’re visiting 48 communities in five weeks. And trying to cover the province is a challenge in that amount of time.

But because of the timeline between our appointment and completion of the report, and finances, we only have so much time and money to travel. So those are the constraints that we have.

TS: The consultation is open to all public, anyone and everyone from these communities that the commission visits?

JNI: Yes, anyone who lives in B.C., is a person we want to hear from. I can tell you that to date, we have heard from quite a broad spectrum of people – those who are involved in governance, so city councillors, MLAs, people who work for constituency offices, school trustees. We’ve heard from a fair bit of people like that because they’re more engaged and more likely to know about what we’re doing. But we have also heard from people who are residents of various communities, and have something to say and want to express their feelings about this issue and we welcome all of that. But as you know, B.C. is a very diverse and complicated province and so our ability in terms of outreach is something that we’re learning as we go.

TS: A lot of concerns raised by people today had to do with effective representation across vast geographical areas in the north. And that distance is something you would have experienced while travelling here as well. Do these experiences, along with the public consultations, factor into the commission’s decision-making?

JNI: Yes, in the sense that, just like people have been talking about the experience of trying to access an MLA in a rural or remote community and we have also heard people talking about the burden on MLAs to access their constituents. The very fact of us travelling, informs the way that we think about the province.

How could it not? And so, yes, I mean, we have [undertaken] very extensive road trips. We are travelling by a mixture of road and air all over. And with that comes the reality of travel in British Columbia, which is it takes a long time.

TS: Would you like to comment on the non-partisan nature of the commission, since there are concerns about the provincial NDP government’s legislative reforms to remove the boundaries protection for rural ridings where liberals historically have had a stronghold?

JNI: Our commission is non-partisan. Because of the legislation, the chair is a judge. In this case, myself. The legislation says the chief electoral officer of the province is also a commissioner. And the third member, Ms. [Linda] Tynan is a person that was chosen by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. So, it is designed and thought has gone into it being non-partisan. Of course, people have opinions about the current legislation. I am sure people had opinions about the legislature that enacted the former Act that created the protected regions that are now no longer protected. That’s a political process.

It is the legislature that will decide whether to accept our recommendations or not. That’s not us. So that is the process – that is our structure and our democracy. And it’s not our job to change it. Of course, we listen to what people say, but no part of our work is going to be influenced by different theories about why the Act is the way it is. We are governed by the Act. And we will respect that

TS: Any additional comments ?

JNI: I think the big theme is that we really want to hear from people. And I personally think that this is a very important process–drawing the boundaries… It is about access to representation and that’s a very fundamental democratic process. One of the presenters today talked about gerrymandering, and that is why these commissions exist – to make sure that doesn’t happen within the larger democratic structure.