Mr. Speaker, since this morning, I have felt a light breeze of hysteria blowing on this side of the House. Accordingly, I have decided that I should speak on this bill.
As politicians who have to face the electorate, we always state that the right to vote is not only a right, but should also be an obligation. So it works both ways. From that statement it follows that we must be able to establish the identity of the people who come to vote and to express their democratic choice.
I have heard many comments. They all came back to the fact that one could—at least, that is how it appeared to me—attack some segment of the population. In other words, the comments were discriminatory in some respect, which should not be the case. To exercise the right to vote, one must at least be capable of satisfactorily proving one's identity.
It would, perhaps, be interesting to look at the chronology of the events concerning voting with the face covered. We have gone through a similar situation in Quebec. Let us start at the beginning.
On March 22, 2007 the chief electoral officer of Quebec confirmed that women wearing veils could vote in the provincial election on March 26, even if they refused to uncover their face. Radio program hosts launched a campaign to persuade voters to go and vote with their face covered as a protest against the decision of the chief electoral officer.
On March 23, confronted with a public outcry and the possibility of seeing the election turn into a masked ball, the chief electoral officer of Quebec changed the electoral act: all voters would have to have their face uncovered.
On June 19, the members of the House of Commons adopted Bill C-31 to amend the Canada Elections Act. The bill provides for a photo identification procedure.
On September 6, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada announced that women wearing veils could vote in the next federal election and in the September 17 byelections in Quebec without being required to uncover their face.
On September 7, the Liberal party, the Conservative party and the Bloc Québécois called on the Chief Electoral Officer to reverse his decision. The Muslim community of Montreal also expressed its disagreement with the new policy. The following day, of course, the New Democratic party reconsidered and demanded that the position of the Chief Electoral Officer be reviewed.
On September 10, at a news conference, Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, stated that he had no intention of using his exceptional power to reverse the situation before the September 17 byelections. On that date, at least four women voted in the byelection in Outremont wearing a burka, to show their disagreement with the Chief Electoral Officer. One man, in a wheelchair, voted wearing a balaclava.
On October 17, in his Speech from the Throne, the Conservative government gave notice of its intention to introduce a bill prohibiting electors from voting with their face covered. On October 23, as we had already announced, the Bloc Québécois introduced a bill to prohibit people from voting with their face veiled. On October 26, the Conservative government came up with a bill to prohibit anyone from voting in an election with his or her face covered.
Of course, the Bloc Québécois supports this bill in principle. However, we feel that there are certain provisions which, while not absurd, will have to be reviewed and probably amended. We are finding that the bill introduced by the government does not fully reflect the principle that all are equal before the law.
Indeed, the bill opens the door to violations of the principle of equality between men and women. The first five clauses of Bill C-6 were included to allow deputy returning officers and poll clerks to delegate their powers to another individual. This means that a male deputy returning officer could accommodate a female voter by designating a woman in front of whom she could uncover her face to confirm her identity.
The Bloc Québécois feels that this is unacceptable. We will, of course, support the bill at second reading, but we will demand that the first five clauses be repealed.
The bill also includes some exceptions. For example, a person who must keep his or her face covered for medical reasons could still vote by providing two authorized pieces of identification and by taking an oath. Bill C-6 also adds new provisions to the act that allow returning officers to appoint additional persons in polling stations, and to also delegate some of their responsibilities.
As I mentioned earlier, I heard some very strange comments, primarily from Liberal members, who said that this is a witch hunt, that we do not have the right to prohibit people from voting with their face covered, and that we were directly targeting a community. In fact, our position is based on the very principle of democracy, on the right to vote, and on the need to make it practically impossible to use someone else's identity.
Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for any voter to show up with their face veiled or otherwise covered, preventing their identification. Now, in a specific context where there is much discussion everywhere about reasonable accommodations, a common knee jerk reaction in some people is to often use certain pretexts to find fault with those who wear a veil or cover their faces otherwise. In Roberval, a veiled woman showed up and voted. We are not necessarily talking about a burka here.
This goes to show how the door can be opened for individuals who are probably looking to make a mockery of the whole situation and to demonstrate that it is possible to vote without proper identification.
I was quite surprised by the Liberals' reaction, especially given what the leader of the Liberal Party had said. The Canadian Press quoted him on September 9 as saying, “We disagree with Elections Canada decision and we ask them to revisit their decision. At the end of the day, you must be able to identify yourself when you vote”.
It was the Liberal leader who said that. Later, he stated that, on the one hand, he disagreed with Elections Canada's decision not to reconsider the issue of uncovered faces but that, on the other hand, he might be able to live with the provisions of the existing legislation. This means that, at one time, all political leaders in this House were singing the same tune, saying that identification was necessary to vote.
Several principles guide the Bloc Québécois' position on this issue. As I said earlier, the Bloc Québécois supports the bill. All voters should be equal before the law. I also indicated that, in 2007, the lawmaker amended the Elections Act to tighten the requirements with respect to voter identification. Among other things, Bill C-31, which was passed by the House of Commons in February 2007, no longer allowed people to vouch for more than one elector and required photo ID to be able to vote.
The Bloc Québécois and the other political parties believed that the Elections Act was clear enough and that by requiring voters to prove their identity, it was implicitly requiring them to uncover their faces.
However, because the Chief Electoral Officer refused to use his exceptional power to require that all voters uncover their faces, the Bloc Québécois believes that the act needs to be amended as soon as possible, as we are doing. That is why we introduced our own bill.
We must not forget that groups representing Muslim women assert that they have never asked to be accommodated in this regard. In an interview with Radio-Canada, Asmaa Ibnouzahir of Présence musulmane Montréal said:
These women have been voting for years, and they have never asked for special treatment, even though they know they could. They themselves took the initiative to show their faces, just as they do at customs or the passport office, because they believed it made sense for security reasons. So for them, it is perfectly natural to uncover their faces.
I believe that this quote is enough to put an end to the debate about the requirement to uncover one's face when voting. I therefore ask the Liberal Party to reconsider its position and face facts: in the interests of democracy, people must vote with their faces uncovered.