Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I participate today in this debate on Bill C-6, which here and now, in this House, renews the debate on veiled voting.
In these early hours of this debate here in the House of Commons, the whole issue surrounding this bill is a very emotional one. I see that my colleague who spoke this morning and gave a speech filled with emotion is now leaving the House. I can see this is a very emotional issue.
I want to begin by saying that I have a great deal of difficulty, after hearing the first comments by the Liberals, in understanding the Liberal Party's position today in this House. As recently as September 7 of this year, the Liberal Party of Canada was calling for amendments to the act. It called on the Chief Electoral Officer to take action and to reverse the decision he made concerning voting in the byelections that were to take place on September 17 in Quebec. Indeed, it is hard to understand today's statements by the Liberals on this matter, when we heard the leader of the Liberal Party stating the opposite on September 7.
However, the debate here is not new. We must remember that it is part of the debate that has been taking place in Quebec in the context of two recent votes. I think first of the byelection that confirmed the election of Pauline Marois. As it happens, while the issue of veiled women voting was not at the heart of the campaign it certainly was raised during that byelection.
We must also recall that this debate was also raised during the September 17 byelections in Quebec. As a matter of fact, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada announced that women wearing veils could vote in the next federal election and in the Quebec byelections on September 17 without being required to uncover their faces. The following day, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party—I emphasize that—and the Bloc Québécois intervened, calling on the Chief Electoral Officer to reverse that decision. Later, naturally after some pussyfooting and hesitation, the leader of the NDP thought better of it and also demanded that the Chief Electoral Officer's opinion be reviewed.
The result is that we are now considering Bill C-6 which seeks to amend the Canada Elections Act to require male and female voters to have uncovered faces when voting or registering to vote.
Of course, the bill before us today includes some exceptions, one of which involves allowing voters to keep their faces covered for health reasons, but only on the condition, of course, that two pieces of identification be presented.
Furthermore, under Bill C-6, certain exceptions would determine under what circumstances—and these are the cases for which the law provides flexibility—a voter must uncover his or her face.
I would remind the House that this kind of debate has already been raised this year, when we amended the Canada Elections Act in order to be able to confirm the identity of voters. As I recall, we thought that the problems raised in the context of the two byelections—especially the one on September 17—had been resolved by that amendment. However, Bill C-31, which we examined clause-by-clause in February 2007, made it mandatory for voters to produce photo identification in order to vote.
Thus, it seemed sufficiently clear that voters were obliged to prove their identity. Fundamentally, that is the spirit of this bill. It is not a racial question, as some members have said here today. Rather, it is a question of verifying the identity of voters. At the time, we thought that amending the Canada Elections Act through Bill C-31 was enough to clarify the situation regarding voter identification.
I would remind the House, however, that the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada refused to use his special authority to require all voters to uncover their faces in order to vote. The Bloc Québécois would like to see that legislation amended as quickly as possible. This is why my hon. colleague from Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord introduced Bill C-465, to amend the Canada Elections Act: in order to ensure that voters vote with their faces uncovered.
I would remind the House that this accommodation, which would allow certain voters to keep their face covered while voting, is not the sort of reasonable accommodation called for by the Muslim community.
I remember that, during an interview on Radio-Canada on September 10, 2007, Ms. Asmaa Ibnouzahir said that Muslim women had decided themselves to take the initiative and unveil their faces because they thought it was a normal thing to do so as a security matter, just as they do at the customs or the passport office. The Muslim community itself, therefore, as represented by Présence musulmane Montréal—an organization that is quite representative of the community—said that these women had been voting for years and had never asked for special treatment, although they knew they had the right to do so.
There is no demand or request for this kind of accommodation, which would mean that women would not need to uncover their face. That is why we need to act as quickly as possible. Is Bill C-6 perfect? No, it is not, but it has the advantage of dealing with the situation in principle, in view of the fact that the Chief Electoral Officer refuses to use his powers under the Elections Act.
What are the imperfections in Bill C-6? We think that it does not abide by the principle of equality between men and women. Under the first five clauses in Bill C-6, deputy returning officers and poll clerks can delegate their powers to another person. Under this provision, a male deputy returning officer could therefore accommodate a female elector by designating a woman before whom the elector could uncover her face to confirm her identity. This is totally unacceptable.
It is as if citizens of Arab or Muslim origin came into my riding office but refused to be served by my assistant because she is a woman. I would tell these people that my assistant is perfectly competent and is there to serve the citizens. There is no possible doubt in this case that the equality of men and women is a basic right. I fail to see why this principle of the basic equality of men and women cannot be upheld in the bill.
I will finish by saying this is clearly an emotional debate. It is a debate that we need, though, because of our responsibility for democracy. We need to find the right balance in our ability to accommodate people. It is important to be able to identify people when they exercise their voting rights. Of course there can be some exceptions for medical reasons, but in general, we should ensure that when a citizen comes to a polling station, he or she must address the deputy returning officers or poll clerks who are there, regardless of whether they are men or women, and identify himself or herself, in accordance with the legislation that we are trying to amend today.