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Boundary commission reaches for phone

VICTORIA – B.C.'s Electoral Boundaries Commission won't venture north of Quesnel when it resumes hearings in the new year, using a conference call to make up time in its delayed effort to redraw provincial seats.

The two-hour conference call Jan. 14 is the last chance for northern residents to speak out on the commission's proposal to eliminate one seat in each of the North, Cariboo-Thompson and Columbia-Kootenay regions. Its preliminary report also called for adding seats in the Okanagan, Fraser Valley, Surrey, Burnaby-Coquitlam and Vancouver regions to rebalance population changes.

Live hearings are scheduled to follow in New Westminster, Castlegar, Kelowna, Quesnel, Nanaimo, ending with a session for MLAs in Victoria Jan. 24.

When the B.C. Liberal government abandoned new legislation that was designed to add more seats and preserve rural constituencies, it also lost a time extension that would have given the commission until April to complete its work. Now the three-member panel, headed by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, has to have recommendations to the legislature by Feb. 15.

The commission is allowed to increase the number of seats in the B.C. legislature from 79 to as many as 85, but it chose instead to drop rural seats for a net increase to 81. There were protests over rural isolation and already-sprawling electoral districts when public hearings began in Prince George and Burns Lake in September.

The commission proposed combining the two Peace River seats and creating a new Northlands seat that would extend all the way from Fort St. John in the northeast to the Yukon border and westward to the North Coast, an area that would take two days to cross by car.

At the other end of the spectrum, it suggested dividing the current Vancouver-Burrard seat into two, since the population in Vancouver's downtown area has grown to several times that of rural seat totals.

The suggestion of dropping rural seats alarmed voters and politicians in both parties, and prompted Premier Gordon Campbell to intervene. His proposed legislation would have blocked the option of cutting seats and required the commission to add eight new seats in growing areas. The NDP said that would dilute rural representation and add unnecessary expense. They also accused Campbell of partisan interference by forcing new seats into B.C. Liberal-friendly regions.

The NDP called for a new rule to protect rural seats, but used delaying tactics to resist the government legislation. B.C. Liberal house leader Mike de Jong said the government would not use its majority to push their bill through, and it died on the order paper at the end of November.

Conference call and hearing participants are asked to pre-register by calling 1-877-660-1203 or online at www.bc-ebc.ca. The schedule for live hearings and the full preliminary report is also available on the website, along with a form for online submissions.

People can also record up to a four-minute submission by calling 1-877-660-1203 or email comments to info@bc-ebc.ca.

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