Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise for this side of the House and discuss Bill C-6.
I was quite taken aback by the previous speaker's comment about a punitive voter arriving at the polls with a pumpkin on his head. I had not read that and I wondered if the hon. minister had made a complaint to Elections Canada about that or whether, in fact, any complaints were made to Elections Canada. I can only assume that the comment about the pumpkin on the head of the punitive voter was intended to make light of a very grave situation. It shocks me that the government and ministers of the government, people in the first rows, not even people in the back rows on the other side, would take such a very important issue so lightly.
I stand to be corrected if there actually was a voter who arrived at the polls with a pumpkin on his head, and I see that as a complaint from the hon. minister who may have witnessed it, then I will eat all of the words I just said, including the pumpkin.
Bill C-6 attempts to solve a problem that I submit does not exist. It is rather like that pumpkin on the head, which I presume is a problem that does not exist. What we have is a situation where a major political response is taking hold within the government benches.
The primary question that I hope in my brief remarks might be addressed is: Does Canada really have a problem identifying voters? I will get into the background about Bill C-31, which was studied indepth by a very capable committee of all parties and which, presumably, dealt with these issues and attempted to solve them.
The other issue that I want to keep in mind while discussing this issue is that voters who cast their ballots by mail do not, obviously, show their faces. Is there a different standard for someone who is an absentee ballot holder compared to someone who makes the effort to go to the polls to vote? This is a very important question when we discuss the overall scope of voter identification.
Bill C-31 was not perfect. It was the first stab at having people, who present themselves at the returning office, identify themselves in some manner, through some form of identification.
As we know from a sister bill, there are very serious problems being addressed with respect to addresses for rural voters. We have had information on our side that this may not only affect rural voters but that it affects many voters across Canada. That is a serious bill to address a serious problem.
This bill, on the other hand, does not seem to address an existing problem. The rural voters bill, which we will debate at another time in this place, addresses a real issue that has resulted from complaints from people who feel they will be disenfranchised and, upon examination, it seems pretty clear might very well be. The numbers are in the hundreds of thousands across the country and in some ridings it is particularly high, especially in rural ridings in western Canada. That seems to be a real problem.
In this case, we have a situation where no complaint was ever filed to Elections Canada about allegations that during recent byelections in the province of Quebec this was an issue.
I will get into much more substantive issues with respect to our Charter of Rights, which is enjoying its 25th anniversary. That is not spoken of very much by members on the government side. I wish I had a chance to ask the minister, although not the Minister of Justice responsible for charter compliance nor the Minister for Democratic Reform introducing the bill, whether Bill C-6 complies with the charter. All members of the House know that every bill that a responsible government, new or old, brings to the House must be certified as to pass charter compliance.
At first glance, members may think that a roads bill or a bridges bill might not have any charter implications, and they may well not, but when we are dealing with something as quintessential as one's right to vote, which the Canada Elections Act in general deals with, the first thing that should go off in any responsible government is whether it complies with the charter and whether we have an opinion to that effect.
I wish I had the chance to ask a minister whether an opinion was tabled. We do not need to see the opinion but we need assurance from the front benches or any bench in fact that the government has sought and received charter compliance with the bill.
Let us get back to the root of the complaint. From the time of Bill C-31 from the last session, there was a movement to improve the integrity of the voting system. That was the background and the intention of all the hearings on Bill C-31 and the subsequent amendments. What Bill C-31, as amended, did not do was require veiled women to remove their face coverings for voting.
The flap that occurred in practice was during the byelections in Quebec and it was over the strict interpretation by the chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, of the bill as amended. He said that the wording did not require veiled voters to reveal their faces at polling stations. Therefore, he said, which is the reason we are here I guess, that either we amend the act of Parliament or we should let him do his job.
The Conservative government is bent on attacking Elections Canada and it is doing so in the courts. It puts the Elections Canada official to an ultimatum of whether “you require an amendment or let me do my job”, the government does the amendment. There is no record of a complaint to Elections Canada about the issues arising or allegedly arising. The Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities was very clear in his remarks. He participated widely and energetically in the byelections in Quebec and apparently witnessed problems. However, I guess he did not have the follow-through courage to effect complaints through the official channels, which would be a complaint to Elections Canada. He did not do that. No one did that. There are no complaints arising from the incidents that were of such widespread and common occurrence according to the government so as to cause us to be sitting here as a priority debating Bill C-6.
I am not suggesting it directly but it may have been the work of the government to create at the time a political crisis to cover other issues involving election campaign financing that the government felt some heat about at the time.
The bill, as presented, is intended, as I understand it from the framers, to explicitly state what they thought Bill C-31 implicitly said.
Mr. Speaker, you are learned in the law and members of the House pass laws and should examine laws. Laws are meant to be interpreted for what they say and not to be guessed at about what they might say. What we have is a situation where the chief elector officer read the law very carefully and did not require people to show their faces. There were no complaints. The question remains: why are we here?
I think we are here because it is seen as politically efficacious for the government to support such a bill. It seems, however, that this bill is targeted at a very specific population. It seems that this bill is attempting to target a group of people who deserve, as much as anyone here, the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It seems that this small group also needs the protection of human rights legislation, perhaps more than every member in this House.
Now, the anomaly, as I mentioned, is that a person who has been through a trauma and has his or her face bandaged, or a person, frankly, who wishes to have an absentee ballot, can vote without making visual, that is, facial, identification necessary. In fact, we do not even have to go that far. I submit that the effect of option two from Elections Canada's methods of voting puts into play the fact that one can show up at the ballot box or the place to vote and not show one's face.
That seems a little difficult for people to understand, but I will explain. Option one for voting is to provide one original piece of identification issued by a government or a government agency and containing the person's photo. It is one piece of identification. In the province of New Brunswick, that would be a driver's licence. The person shows up at the voting station, shows a picture ID driver's licence and is able to vote.
It is not written in the law. This is where we get into explicit and implicit. It is not written in the law, but it is the practice of Elections Canada, I assume--but it is not in the law--for officials to look at the photograph as submitted and compare it to the person who is before the officials. However, nothing is written in that respect. One presumes, then, that facial visual identification of the voter is required when a person submits the driver's licence with the photo on it.
However, option two is where I say a person does not necessarily have to be visually identified. In that situation, a person could show up with two original pieces of identification authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. Both pieces must contain the person's name. One must also contain the person's residential address. There is a long list of what those cards might be, but let us say that they might be the hydro bill as the second piece and the first piece might be the person's social insurance card.
If a person submits those two pieces of information, which do not have the person's photo on them, I submit to members that no one is required under the second option to submit to visual identification. It does not matter what they look like or what colour their eyes are or whether they have eyelashes or not, or for that matter if they have a pumpkin on their head, they are not going to be examined against any standard because two pieces of identification do not have a photo.
The third option, which was sought as an improvement under Bill C-31, was for the potential voter to swear an oath and be vouched for by a registered elector who is on the list of electors. That seems to work very well.
However, we can see that the intention of the parties, the committees and the people who did all of this work on Bill C-31 does not seem to have been put into effect perfectly, specifically as we speak about rural addresses being at odds with the list and, I would submit, secondly, on how we find ourselves here discussing Bill C-6.
Bill C-31 received royal assent on June 22, 2007. It amended the Elections Act to require all voters to prove their identity and residence before voting, with no mention whatsoever of having to show one's face. It is not in the act. It seems to me that if we were to right things, if it is now a requirement that to vote, everyone, including members of this Parliament, would have to show his or her face to vote. and I have just indicated that by absentee ballots or by the submission of the two pieces of identification they do not have to. So why is it now that if I have two pieces of non-photo ID I can vote, but a person who wears a veil for religious reasons must show her face to vote?
Leading into the second arm of my argument, is that not then in violation of the basic right of being treated equally under the law? The charter of rights has a number of profound and entrenched articles respecting people's rights and one of them is to be treated equally under the law.
I submit that this is targeted legislation taking away that equality. That is why it is essential for us to know this, perhaps down the road at committee if this is where this bill ends up. That should be among the first round of questions for the Minister for Democratic Reform, or whoever he sends there that day, to satisfy the committee members as to whether in fact this bill is charter compliant.
What would be the political, social or societal basis for the government bringing forth such a bill? It might be because the government received news from certain community spokespersons that it is okay, that people who wear veils for religious reasons generally remove them for voting purposes anyway. That could be the spokesman on one day.
What we know is that there are people who say different things regarding the requirement for one small group in our community to do something different from what we--the majority, I might add, or just members of Parliament in general--do when we present ourselves to vote. There are political underpinnings for this bill. Frankly, everything that comes from this government is political. Everything is a knee-jerk reaction. Everything is targeted. Everything is intended to divide a country and a segment of a population. That is what the government does.
In that regard, this bill might be quite successful. The government should laud itself for promulgating yet another bill that divides, that targets groups and creates havoc, but what we should be concerned with here in this place is creating laws that are constitutional, legal and non-discriminatory.
The reason I say the government is politically and societally wrong is that it may have relied on the spokesman du jour when this was introduced and it may find that there are in fact other stakeholders who do not agree with its rationale. I might in fact quote items from the Montreal Gazette of September 10.
One comment is from Mr. Elmasry. The item states:
“We don't want to force anybody to change their religious inclination and beliefs”, he explained, pointing out that it is also important for women from religious minorities to vote. “At the same time, there is a certain level of integrity in the election process that we must maintain”.
Those are truisms. Those are things that we stand for.
Later in the Montreal Gazette article, there is a quote from Alia Hogben of the Canadian Council of Muslim Woman. If this is a targeted piece of legislation, and the target group are Muslim women, do we not take the high road in respecting those persons' rights? Do we not take the high road and stand up when it may not be politically expedient and say that this is bad, divisive, charter non-compliant and discriminatory legislation? Do we not take the high road in saying that?
The quote from Alia Hogben, which I will close with, is as follows:
For us, the sad thing is it's always focusing on Muslims and as far as I know it wasn't a request made by Muslims. It probably came up [from] Elections Canada--with good intentions, thinking they would try to accommodate people--but I don't think it's necessary.
Tempest, teapot: we can use the word we wish. We do not think this bill creates a solution, because there is no real problem.