Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure today to speak to Bill C-18 recently introduced into the House of Commons in an effort to fix a hastily adopted bill, Bill C-31, from the last session of Parliament.
I say hastily because I know the committee heard from many witnesses. They heard from Elections Canada, first nations, students, homeless advocates and the members of the committee, including the NDP member for Ottawa Centre, who was the critic at the time.
I know a lot of issues were raised on Bill C-31. Unfortunately, some of the flaws that were pointed out were not addressed. They were overruled by the members of the committee.
Today we are trying to fix a problem created by the Conservative government. The problem is the new stringent regulations, as set out in Bill C-31, on the cards to prove one's identity ultimately will lead to the disenfranchisement of over a million voters, as we have heard. This was pointed out by Elections Canada after the fact. Basically that has forced the government to come up with this new bill to try to undo the damage.
Under the new regulations of Bill C-18 being considered today, voting will still be more difficult for many cross-sections of Canadians, including people with rural addresses.
That is why I am here today to speak to the bill. I represent a riding that is probably 50% rural. We have a lot of small towns and a couple of large centres that get home delivery, but most of our communities get rural mail delivery. It is for them that I am worried.
I also have to include myself in that group of people because I live in a small town. I have a box number. Fortunately for me, my residential address is also on my driver's licence, as well as my box number. If that were not the case, I might find myself on election day unable to vote, or having to prove who I am.
In areas of Courtenay, where there is rural mail delivery, many people living on small farms and on lots outside of the city limits. They do not have home delivery. These people get their mail at the side of the road in a box, and it is an RR number. It has been like that for many years and a lot of the people have lived there for many years. This includes the area of Royston, which is just south of Courtenay where my aunt lives.
She has been in that place for over 50 years. She just turned 80 years old. She has always lived in the same place. She may find herself at the polling station unable to vote because she does not drive. She does not have a driver's licence with a picture ID on it and probably could not prove who she was. All her neighbours and the people who she knows would be unable to vouch for her because they might find themselves in the same predicament without the ability to verify who they are.
Also areas of Comox and outer areas of that town do not get home delivery. Up in the Lazo area, many people living in the little communities of Merville, Black Creek and Oyster River may be disenfranchised from their vote. Again, these people do not get their mail delivered to a box in a central post office. Because of what happened with Canada Post over a number of years, we have found that our mail is delivered to small community grocery stores, gas stations or other places where people have to pick up their mail. The mail does not come to their residences, so they usually have a rural mail delivery address or a box number in those places. Many people are going to find they have a problem.
I spoke a little about box numbers. Most of the communities in my riding, for example, Cumberland, Gold River, Sayward, Tahsis, Port McNeil, Port Hardy and Port Alice, Zeballos, have very small post offices. They are a long way from Ottawa and the larger geographical centres of British Columbia. People in these small towns rely on the post offices as the place to get their mail. Pretty well everyone's mail is delivered to a post office box. Many people live on roads that may not even have a name or a sign and their residence address would not be listed.
The other interesting thing is that there are a lot of little islands, Hornby, Denman, Quadra, Cortes, Alert Bay and Sointula, all those little islands we travel to and from. The people who live on those islands also get their mail delivered to a box at the local post office which in many instances is in the local community grocery store. These people may also find themselves disenfranchised.
That is a lot of communities, in fact most of the communities in my riding. There are only two main communities where people would get their mail delivered to their home and their home address would be on their card. We are concerned about what might happen with the people in the small communities.
The other thing I have to highlight is all the first nations communities in my riding and there are a lot of them, including places like Owikeno, Kingcome Inlet and up in Simoom Sound. These places are very remote. People do not get their mail delivered to a post office box or to their home. Their addresses are bag number such and such in the closest town and the mail is flown in on small airplanes or taken in by boat whenever the weather is good. That is how they get their mail. If they were issued a card that said bag number such and such, or whatever, obviously they do not live in a bag, they live in a beautiful community up the coast, but they could find themselves disenfranchised.
It is already hard enough for some people in our smaller communities and especially first nations because until recently they did not even have polling places on reserve, so they were feeling disenfranchised that way as well.
We are trying to find more opportunities to increase the vote among first nations people in our communities. I know in the last election we worked very hard with Elections Canada to make sure that there were polls on reserves so that people would have an opportunity to vote where they live. That is so important.
Some people in our rural communities have to travel quite a distance to exercise their franchise. We take it for granted when we live in a larger centre, in that we can just take a few minutes to go to our polling station and vote. We need to make sure there are more opportunities to do that, not less.
Also, I talked about homeless people and transient populations. My colleague, the member for Vancouver East, spoke passionately about how we would be disenfranchising many of those people in the inner cities who live in shelters or who are homeless. There were some provisions made to identify them and to make sure that they were not left out.
In my community we do not have big shelters. We have a couple of small ones, but we also have many homeless people in my riding. Many of these people are couch surfing. They are living in cars. There are families who are living at campsites. There are people who are double bunking, a couple of different families living together trying to make ends meet, trying to find suitable housing.
I do not know what will happen to those people if they have no address at all and they cannot prove where they are living. It is going to be really difficult for them at voting time. It is something that we should have addressed before.
At committee we also heard from students who were living away from home. Aboriginal representatives who came to committee brought up some of the flaws that were ignored at the time. As I said, here we are debating a bill that fixes another bill that was rushed through the House.
The NDP critic at the time who worked on the committee made presentations to our caucus. We understood the problems. We were the only party to vote against Bill C-31 at the time.
It is very unfair that all the groups that I just mentioned, aboriginals, students, rural residents, people who live in small towns, will have to jump through hoops in order to carry out their democratic right and civic duty to cast a ballot.
Constituents have called me to ask what is going on with respect to paragraph 3, proof of identity, in Bill C-18. They will have to provide proof of identity and residence. If a person cannot prove his or her residence, then the person may lose his or her franchise to vote. That is a problem. That is basically what brings us here today.
The provisions were introduced in order to combat voter fraud that allegedly was taking place in Canada. However, no meaningful evidence has been put forth to prove that fraud was occurring in any systematic or widespread way.
My colleague from Ottawa Centre mentioned that candidate fraud is a bigger problem than voter fraud, with the floor crossing that goes on. A candidate representing a certain party will get elected. People commit to a certain candidate. They work hard for that candidate to make sure that the candidate is elected and when that person gets to the House of Commons, that person might cross the floor to another party. That act in itself is what turns off a lot of voters. It is a shame that these things are allowed to happen in this House.
I also believe that the objective of stamping out voter fraud is an honourable one, but unfortunately, it is being pursued at too high a price under these bills. It basically alienates many honest Canadians and disenfranchises them from their opportunity to vote. It is too high a price to pay for something that really is not a huge problem in the first place. The most important thing is for Canadians to have easy and open access to the ballot.
I put forward a motion on electoral reform because I wanted to hear from more Canadians. More Canadians deserve an opportunity to vote and their vote should count. I wanted to hear from Canadians to find out how we could change and enhance our electoral system with proportional representation, but unfortunately that motion was hijacked by the procedure and House affairs committee. It basically turned into a process where the government could hear about Senate reform. I heard from people who attended the focus groups that came out of that procedure. The whole agenda was pretty much taken up with talk about Senate reform. There was very little talk about electoral reform.
That is sad because I know that in the province of British Columbia where I come from, electoral reform is something that a lot of people wanted. When we had our referendum in 2005, it did not pass, but it did not lose by much either. We had over 50%. Unfortunately, the way it was set out it had to have 60%, but 57% is more than 50% plus one. That is what we need to have a majority in this House. I think a majority of British Columbians did want some sort of change in our electoral process.
Back to the bill at hand, the NDP critic for democratic reform, the member for Timmins—James Bay, is taking an active role at the committee. Other NDP MPs are rising in this House to ensure that the rights of all Canadians are protected at the ballot box.
My colleague from Timmins—James Bay also is in jeopardy of losing his vote. There was an article a number of weeks ago in the paper about that. His driver's licence has a very strange address. That is how things are done in his riding. It does not list his residence, but only lists the number of a road. He is willing, as I and others are, to jump through the procedural hoops that the government has placed before us to make sure that we get to vote on election day.
I do not have to ask how many of my constituents would be willing to find someone to go to the polling station with them to declare that they are who they say they are. Seniors, people with disabilities, young people who are voting for the first time, are they going to show up at the ballot box with the people necessary to prove who they are, or will they walk away? I think most people would say, “Forget it. This is too much trouble. Why bother”. Such a procedure is going to turn people away from the voting process. This is something that we ought not to do. We should be encouraging people to get out and vote, not making it more difficult for them. We should not be setting up roadblocks.
Already voter turnout is too low. I think that voter turnout hovers at around 65%. That is quite shameful. It means that members were elected to the House with the support of 65% of the population, and the percentage of the vote that we received makes it even smaller. That is something we need to address in this country. Again, that could be addressed through changing our electoral system.
I am proud to say that only the NDP caucus stood up in opposition to the original bill when it was being expedited through the House last spring. The Conservative Party introduced this troubling legislation and both the Bloc and the Liberals got on board on the condition that all voters' birthdates would be included in the voters list that is provided to the political parties. My colleague from Ottawa Centre fought hard against these provisions, but he was ultimately outnumbered at the committee where these amendments were made.
It is unfortunate that we are here speaking to Bill C-18. Both it and Bill C-31 threaten the very foundation of democracy and the rights of citizens that Canadians hold so dear.
I know that the NDP democratic reform critic will do all he can to ensure that fair amendments to this bill are adopted so that the right of all Canadians on election day will be protected.
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-18 and to put my party's point of view forward.