Madam Speaker, I will begin my comments on this important piece of legislation by sharing some anecdotes from recent federal elections. The names of the two people I am about to talk about are not their real names, but the people they represent are familiar to anyone involved in past elections.
My mind goes first to Sue. She is a loving grandmother who has spent her years tending to her family and household, volunteering for charitable causes in her community and enrolling as a poll worker when general elections were called. Her knowledge of the community and its members is derived from decades of friendship and service.
Her institutional knowledge of the electoral process is the kind that is acquired from working multiple elections at all levels over a lifetime. She is the kind of person that poll workers, scrutineers and volunteers flock to with their questions in search of answers and insight. Without people like Sue, elections in Canada would be a shamble. Her dedication is a credit to our country and is essential to the functioning of our democracy.
Also coming to mind is someone like like Gurpreet. He is a new Canadian, having arrived in his new homeland from abroad about a decade ago. As a poll clerk in his first Canadian election of any kind, he is proud of his role in promoting democracy, standing up for democracy, and ensuring a fair and transparent process of ballot counting and voting.
This is an exciting new experience for Gurpreet, which gives him an inside view of how the Canadian election system works. He has the added benefit of serving as a poll clerk alongside Sue, the seasoned DRO and loving grandmother, whose intimate knowledge of Canadian elections puts him at ease. It allows him to participate and work within the electoral process with comfort, confidence and pride.
Colleagues, these anecdotes are not exceptional. This type of interconnectedness, of community members coming together from disparate backgrounds and various life experiences, such as students, seniors, new Canadians and stay-at-home moms, to serve the rest of us by upholding the integrity in our democratic process is what happens in every federal election in polling places nationwide.
This coming together of the community is important for fostering trust in Canadian elections. The adage that all politics are local is especially salient here. People are more likely to trust their neighbours and friends. That trust is especially important when it comes to counting our ballots and having faith in the outcome of that count.
However, let me be clear: Canadians do not want an election during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the actions taken by opportunistic incumbent provincial governments over the last year, 80% of those surveyed are against forcing Canadians to polling stations at this time. Despite this, we are here debating government Bill C-19, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act, COVID-19 response.
Bill C-19 was introduced in December 2020. This was, I might add, before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs issued its recommendation after studying the matter in depth. Putting aside the misplaced hubris of the Liberal-knows-best approach, there are changes in this proposed legislation that do meet the threshold of common sense, but sadly this does not extend to all of them. There are a number of issues in Bill C-19 that have been overlooked.
If an election is held in a pandemic, the protection of poll workers, voters and our tried and true Canadian democratic process is essential. My first point is that, from the outset, I am especially concerned about the provision, or lack thereof, for voting in long-term care facilities and other institutions home to immune-compromised Canadians. These are the places where we have seen the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in this country.
We do not need the grave mistakes of this past year repeated by increasing the time our vulnerable citizens are exposed to the avoidable risk of external transmission. Everyone must be given the opportunity to vote, and clarifications are needed to ensure that those in long-term care facilities have the ability to vote safely. In these instances, polling stations should be open for the minimum amount of time it take for residents to vote, although at multiple periods of time during the 13-day provision mentioned by the president of the Privy Council.
My second point is the glaring issue of the absence of a built-in sunset clause to remove what must remain temporary changes. Instead, we have the following in the bill:
The enactment also provides for the repeal of the new Part six months after the publication of a notice confirming that the temporary rules in that Part are no longer required to ensure the safe administration of an election in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have been told to self-isolate for weeks upon weeks by the federal government and other governments in this country. We are not falling for that again. The addition of a sunset clause containing a fixed date that these provisions cease to be enforced is required.
My third point is that we need clarity when it comes to proposed powers for the CEO to withdraw the writs of election. It must be made clear to us now, while we debate this bill, how any decision to withdraw the writs would be made. Ending an election midway through is a decision with major ramifications that cannot be made arbitrarily.
Common sense can foresee that any decision to end the election before voters have had their say would sow chaos, confusion, and distrust that would last for generations. With great power comes the great responsibility to explain its use. If we cannot explain to Canadians why the CEO would pull the plug on an election, perhaps we should do likewise and pull the plug on this clause of the bill.
Another significant area of concern is the mail-in ballot provisions proposed by the legislation. Bill C-19, as it is presently written, states that an elector who requests a special ballot:
...shall ensure that the special ballot is sent before the close of polling stations on the last day of the polling period and is received by the special voting rules administrator in the National Capital Region no later than 6:00 p.?m. on the Tuesday following the last day of the polling period.
This would mean that Elections Canada would count a hypothetical vote received as much as 23 hours after the general election polls had closed.
I have heard of ballots being disbursed and cast prior to a general election having been called. This scenario was central to the case of Mitchell v. Jackman, which made its way to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador. The main argument in that case was whether it was constitutional for special ballots to be issued to voters in Newfoundland and Labrador prior to a provincial election. It was decided in 2017 that such a rule was an infringement of voters’ Charter rights under section 3, the democratic rights clause.
On the other hand, I am at a loss when it comes to finding an example of an election in Canada where ballots were accepted after the close of general election polls, notwithstanding the present electoral calamity that has befallen Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, who are mired in an election that should have wrapped up almost a month ago. Counting ballots after polls have closed is one thing. It is very normal, and it happens in every election. Accepting ballots after the general election polls have closed is another thing. It is abnormal because it does not happen.
If this bill passes in its present form, who knows how long the tallying process will take for millions of mail-in ballots received by Ottawa and, under the current bill, counted in Ottawa. Valid ballots accepted for the count should be received prior to the close of voting. That is why we have an election day. Even in British Columbia, whose recent provincial election garnered notoriety for the 13-day lag time between the close of the polls and the counting of mail-in ballots, it was only those votes received by the close of the polls that were counted.
I agree with the provision for the Chief Electoral Officer to increase the number of elections officers. Arguably, this is something that should have been done in previous elections. It is going to take a coordinated, collaborative civic effort to ensure the proper execution of an election during a pandemic. This is especially true when it comes to special ballots. Once the writs are issued, there should be a large and well-advertised window of opportunity for voters to request a special ballot online within the context of this new extended writ period.
To streamline the process from the beginning when applying for special ballots electronically, voters should be required to provide evidence that they are Canadian citizens over the age of 18 and it must be verified that they are indeed living. There are those on the other side of this place who vilify my party for expecting voters to provide identification. I do not understand this. We must strive to provide as many options for voting as possible. We cannot infringe on the sacred right of citizens to vote, but, quite simply, voters do have to be verified citizens. Elections Canada's current ID verification options are many, so I will not belabour that point.
It is a safe assumption that demand for mail-in ballots will be high in the next federal election, likely the highest ever seen. There is a clear precedent in Canada for giving people a window of opportunity, contained within the writ period, to vote by special ballot.
We all want the next federal election to be conducted with the utmost integrity, as we do for every election, but allowing the receipt and counting of ballots after an election day opens our process up to the speculation of electoral fraud and uncertainty. Special ballots should be postmarked one week before the election period commences in order to be counted on election day. Otherwise, if mail is not an option because of time, special ballots should be accepted at returning offices and polling places in a designated drop-box up to the close of polls on election day, as previously discussed.
Moreover, people trust their friends and neighbours. For folks like Sue and Gurpreet, who I mentioned earlier, sending special ballots to riding offices to be counted by local officials will enhance Canadians' trust in election outcomes, especially when we are anticipating that the next federal election will see an astronomical number of votes by mail. We cannot have an extended period of uncertainty between the close of polls and the ballot count during the pandemic and in a minority Parliament situation especially.
Now is not the time to fundamentally change the way we do elections in Canada. During these unsure times, our institutions must perform at the highest standards. Again, as we saw in British Columbia's election, mail-in ballots will comprise a significant portion of the total vote count, as over 30% of all votes cast in B.C. were by special mail-in ballots.
Virtually all votes cast in the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election that is currently under way will be by special mail-in ballot. On the federal scale, this could mean 10 million ballots in the mail and possibly more. Banking on sending millions of special ballots directly to Ottawa for processing is a recipe for disaster and delay. Mail-in ballots, although they may be sent from anywhere, should be received and counted in the ridings in which they are meant to be cast. If Elections Canada feels it needs more personnel on the ground in constituencies, it can send more staff as needed, or better yet, it can train the local staff to perform these tasks, as it has always done.
It is an honour and a privilege to stand in the House. Having run in two federal elections, I fully grasp the importance of having local returning officers as administrators and arbiters. In my riding, our returning officer has the ability to bring candidates from across the political spectrum together so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the rules of the electoral game. I think of myself and all of the candidates in my riding in the last election. We felt more assured when our returning officer brought all the candidates together to sit at a table and hash it out so we were all on the same page. That needs to happen and that is a good thing.
I have the utmost confidence in my local returning officer, and I would place a friendly bet that most of my colleagues here feel the same way in their ridings. I trust my local returning officer to oversee the election in my riding. I have faith that they can also oversee the counting of special ballots cast by the voters I represent. If more special ballots are anticipated than ballots from voters on advance or regular polling days, why not have Elections Canada and its returning officer redeploy staff to handle the special ballot count in each riding?
Local elections must remain local. We do not elect Ottawa representatives for our communities. We elect community representatives to fight for our interests in Ottawa.
The importance of Elections Canada workers and scrutineers from the community cannot be overstated. This ensures trust in the local electoral process, and their involvement in it nurtures the Canadian values of inclusion and diversity. I believe local elections and the participation of Canadians within their own communities build confidence in our institution.
Scrutineers have been a fixture of Canadian elections since our earliest days. They cast a watchful eye on the proceedings of election day, the counting of the votes and on the behaviour of other scrutineers. They report this information back to the candidates they represent. Outsourcing the counting of special ballots to Ottawa is wrong and sets a dangerous precedent. For starters, local scrutineers, who are my scrutineers and my opponents' scrutineers, would not be able to observe the counting of special ballots that will impact the outcome of the election in any given riding.
While national leaders secure much of the spotlight, we must remember that in our Westminister parliamentary tradition, we do not elect a prime minister and a deputy prime minister as is done in republics with the president and vice-present. We elect members of Parliament from unique constituencies across the nation. Every member of the House is accountable to the electorate. We have 338 members. This raises the question of how transparent and accountable the vote counting would be in my riding when we are anticipating that a significant chunk of the votes in Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon would be cast by mail and counted by unfamiliar strangers situated several thousand kilometres away in the national capital region.
As my speech comes to a close, I readily acknowledge that the changes to the Canada Elections Act, as proposed by the government, are not meant to be malicious and were made with good intentions. However, we all know where that road leads. The implications of the changes in Bill C-19 are great and wide-reaching. These changes, if adopted, will change the way Canadian voters conduct elections.
If the Liberal government proceeds to make these changes unilaterally, then it will be undermining Canadian democracy. I am assured to hear from the previous speaker that this will not be the case. I do not say these words hyperbolically or inflammatorily. Amending the rules that govern elections in Canada requires buy-in from all parties in the House.
We on this side are open to amendments to the Canada Elections Act to account for the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our system works, but it requires updating from time to time. This is one of those times. I hope the government realizes that and engages all members in a better and more constructive way to get this right. After all, it is from the voters, represented by all members in the House, that the current government and any government derive their consent to govern.
All we have to do is look to our neighbours to realize that Canada's electoral system works best for Canadians. Our system is trusted. As I mentioned in the beginning, it is a system in which folks like Sue and Gurpreet contribute to the integrity of the electoral process and the final results. People trust their friends and neighbours. This is why we need mail-in ballot counting to be done at the local level: in the ridings, at the returning offices in the communities where electors—