Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in this debate on voting with the face uncovered. The fact that this issue was brought up during the three byelections in Quebec is due in large part to the initiative of the Bloc Québécois. Decisions were then made by the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec, during the Quebec election last March.
There was a great uproar in Quebec when the Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada, Mr. Mayrand, announced that he did not plan on using his power to address a loophole in the Canada Elections Act with respect to voting with the face covered. But the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec used the power set out in section 19—if I am not mistaken—to fix a situation that went unnoticed by parliamentarians.
The people of Quebec were therefore especially upset by Mr. Mayrand's attitude and, throughout Quebec, people wanted him to reconsider his decision and take the necessary measures to ensure that voters vote with their faces uncovered. He would not do so, however, claiming that it was up to parliamentarians to correct the situation. His was a very weak argument, since the precedent had already been set, as I mentioned. Indeed, to ensure that the general election in Quebec ran smoothly, the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec had decided to use his power to correct the situation, since parliamentarians had failed to do so.
As soon as the Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Mayrand, revealed that he had no intention of making a decision, the Bloc Québécois, through my hon. colleague from Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, sent him a letter, calling on him to correct the situation and to ensure that, when voting, all voters confirm their identity by uncovering their entire face.
Furthermore, in the hours that followed, if memory serves, all the parties of this House made the same appeal to the Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada. The Prime Minister then intervened, saying that common sense dictated that voters must prove their identity when voting, which is also our position. Identification means more than just presenting documents or ID cards; it also means being able to guarantee that that individual is the same person as the one on the photo ID cards, and for that to be possible, the person's face must be fully visible.
As I recall, the Prime Minister wasted no time stating his position on the matter, and the leader of the Liberal Party took the same position. That is why it surprised me that yesterday, some of our Liberal colleagues did not seem to think there was a problem. It is strange that just after the byelection, they thought there was a problem and that now, for reasons I do not quite understand, they are flip-flopping on the position the Liberal Party leader took at the time.
I also remember that the NDP leader agreed with them initially, and that a few hours later, he started to adjust his stance on the issue. Unfortunately, I have not yet heard the NDP's opinion in this debate.
That being said, I do remember that all four party leaders spoke out in favour of voters showing their faces. At the time, it just so happened that I was giving a press conference to announce the Bloc Québécois' activities leading up to its convention in October 2008. Right then and there, as soon as Mr. Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, stated that he had decided not to intervene, we condemned the situation.
Within hours, the Bloc Québécois whip announced that he would introduce a bill on the subject. That is exactly what he did. We introduced a bill requiring voters to show their faces when voting, a bill that respects gender equality.
When he tabled the bill, the member for Beauport—Limoilou requested the unanimous consent of the House to fast-track it, to move it through all stages quickly, but that did not happen. The Conservative Party, for strictly partisan reasons, refused to give its consent so that it could table the bill now before us.
Obviously, we cannot oppose the bill in principle, because we prompted this decision by the government. We could have moved much faster if there had been unanimous consent with regard to the bill introduced by my colleague, but that was not the case. Now, we have this bill before us.
As I mentioned, we support the bill in principle. However, the government has not tackled the root of the problem with its bill. Yes, voters will have to uncover their faces in order to be identified and be able to vote. But it is up to the Chief Electoral Officer to decide how this obligation is to be met, even though the Muslim community never made any specific request about this. This is where the real problem lies. The bill is responding to a request that was never made by a specific community that has been identified as the community to which the Chief Electoral Officer's decision was meant to respond.
The problem with the bill that is before us is that it is still up to the Chief Electoral Officer to determine how voters are to meet the requirement to identify themselves. We would not want Muslim women to ask to uncover their faces only in front of other women, because gender equality with regard to election officials would not be respected. In our opinion, religious considerations have no place in public spaces. We are not saying that religions are marginal or unimportant, but government employees have a responsibility to enforce the law fairly and equitably for everyone. In our opinion, there is no basis for this. I repeat that there has never been a request, on religious grounds, that Muslim women, for example—I am using this example because it has been reported most often in the media—be able to ask election officials to be allowed to uncover their faces only in front of another woman.
In our view, this is exactly the same as if a police officer wanted to arrest a man and the man invoked his religion and said that he could not get into a car with a female police officer. It is the same kind of thing. And that is the direction in which we will be going.
In committee, we will be proposing that a number of provisions in the act be tightened to ensure that such cases do not arise and that it will not once again be the responsibility of the Chief Electoral Officer to decide the procedures relating to the obligation for people to identify themselves when they vote. We have been sent a signal: it is up to parliamentarians to provide a complete response to the problem raised in the three byelections in Quebec.
We therefore support the bill in principle, but in terms of the manner in which it will be applied, we will want to be sure that religious considerations will not conflict with the fundamental principle, the obligation that electors have to identify themselves properly when they vote. We will therefore also be wanting to raise the question of postal ballots.
We will quite properly be raising the fact that while an elector has to identify himself or herself by showing his or her face in an election, there will be no such obligation for postal ballots. We will therefore want to amend the Elections Act accordingly in this regard. We will see whether this is acceptable during debate, but logically, it seems to me that we will have to move in that direction.
For example, it is mandatory to uncover one’s face and have one’s face uncovered when passport photographs are taken. In the area of airport security, the authorities are entitled to ensure that people are properly identified, by way of the passports or ID cards that are requested. Logically, for a right as important in a democracy as the right to vote, out of fairness to all electors, we have to ensure that the same methods are applied, including that everyone have an obligation, for the process of identification, to vote with his or her face uncovered.
That is the position that the Bloc Québécois will be taking. Once again, I would repeat, on the substantive issues, we support the bill. In our view, it is crucial that we ensure that all electors are equal before the law. As I said earlier, it is those principles that we will be arguing for in committee.
To conclude, I reiterate that the Bloc Québécois supports the bill in principle. All electors must be equal before the law. The Bloc Québécois and the other political parties believe that the Elections Act, as amended in 2007, was sufficiently clear. However, because the Chief Electoral Officer has refused to use his exceptional power to require that everyone who votes do so with their face uncovered, the Bloc Québécois believes that it is necessary to amend the act as quickly as possible.
As well, the Bloc Québécois notes that the bill presented by the government is not a complete response in terms of the principles of the equality of all persons before the law. As I said, the bill in fact opens the door to violations of the principle of the equality of men and women.
The first five clauses of Bill C-6 were introduced in order to allow deputy returning officers and poll clerks to delegate their power to another individual. This is what I was talking about earlier, and felt was the weak point in this bill. Using that mechanism, a male deputy returning officer could accommodate a female elector by designating a women before whom the elector could uncover her face to confirm her identity. In our view, that violates the principle of equality between men and women and of equality among all electors.
The Bloc Québécois will support Bill C-6 at second reading but will require that the first five amendments be changed, as I stated, to ensure that everyone has the same obligations with respect to the law.
I mentioned that the Bloc Québécois acted quickly in this matter. We wish to closely monitor this issue particularly since we are aware that it is at the heart of a debate that is extremely important to Quebec—the place of religion in public space.
That is not all. As I mentioned, we believe that by virtue of the principles of equity and equality, and out of respect for the values of Quebeckers, which are shared by Canadians, Bill C-6 must be amended to ensure that it fulfills its purpose. The government wanted to address the issue raised by the Chief Electoral Officer; however, its solution is inadequate and is not in keeping with the expectations of the Bloc Québécois and of Quebec society as a whole.
In the hours following the decision by the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, the parties in the National Assembly were united. Premier Jean Charest, the leader of the ADQ, Mario Dumont, and the new leader of the Parti Québécois believed that common sense dictated that individuals should vote with their face uncovered to ensure proper identification and also, as I mentioned, for security reasons, as is the norm. Therefore I find it difficult to see how, in the case of such an important right as the right to vote, these rights would be violated.
As I was saying, the Bloc Québécois will support Bill C-6 at second reading.