Mr. Speaker, I thank the minister for his presentation. Along with my colleague from Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, I acknowledge that this may not be the best day for the minister in terms of his health. Accordingly, in the spirit of what we heard from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, I may be a little more gentle than I was intending to be.
Some here might have had a chance to read the piece that came out today in the National Post, where I make it very clear that I do believe—this sounds like how I started the debate on Bill C-23, what we call “the unfair elections act”—that the effect, at minimum, of these changes in Bill C-50 would voter suppression of citizens living abroad, and something that I am not sure the minister is fully aware of, namely, that it could create chaos with voting in Canada, because of the changes to a section that would prohibit the Chief Electoral Officer from authorizing any use of ID that basically does not have its origin Canada. I will explain why that could cause those problems.
I will stick with this phraseology that “in the result”, this is the problem, although seeing what has been knowingly put in the bill, I honestly think that the minister has to realize what these impacts would be. I hope that with some of the presentations during this debate and some of the criticisms he is already beginning to receive, he will be open to some serious amendments, including a couple that, to follow his own line, would be quite simple and could actually get rid of some of the serious blocking effects that I see. It is also important to note, although the minister did not really make hay of this in his own speech today, that in the presentation back in December when the bill was tabled, there very much was an effort to spin this bill in a way that created two false impressions. This is important to know.
One is that the press release in the backgrounder made it seem like the government was implementing the Frank judgement, which basically said that citizens away for more than five years now have the right to vote from abroad. It was very unclear from the presentation whether or not the Frank judgment was being accepted. It is important that everyone knows that Bill C-50 would not remove any provision in the Canada Elections Act that was struck down by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in the Frank decision. It is still sitting in the statute. The reason for this is that the government has clearly decided it is going to continue to fight to prevent citizens who have been away for more than five years from voting. It is appealing the decision, and it even sought a stay of the trial judgment to try to prevent it from going into effect. The Court of Appeal for Ontario denied that stay.
The fact of the matter is that the government is still actively seeking to keep as disenfranchised Canadians who have been living abroad for more than five years. Yet the presentation of the bill made it look like this was somehow an effort to bring things into line. If this were really bringing things in line with the Frank judgment, all the government would have to do would be to adopt the suggestion by the member for Halifax in her Bill C-575 and simply repeal the same sections the judge found to be unconstitutional in the case. Instead, the Frank decision is being used as a supposed reason for a wholesale change of issues that never arose in the Frank case. It is important to ensure that the Frank judgment does not carry the government along in any sense where people think the government is actually respecting that judgment. It is still appealing it.
Second, the press release directly claims that all Bill C-50 would do is to apply the same voter identification rules enacted by the so-called Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23, and extend those rules to Canadians voting from abroad. There is some truth in that. There are some analogues that get brought forward. For instance, the vouching for an address gets brought forward. However, Bill C-50 inserts a new prohibition on the kinds of documents the Chief Electoral Officer could designate as identity documents. It would apply to documents used by all.
The new subsection 143(2.11) would apply to all electors and would basically create additional limitations on what the Chief Electoral Officer would be free to authorize by way of identity documents.
Because of the wording in that provision, this would have impacts in Canada. It would also make it extraordinarily difficult for some Canadians abroad to produce the right kinds of ID that now they have to produce. They would not be able because of this change. This is new. This was not in Bill C-23.
I just want to set the scene by making clear that this is the case.
It is also important to note, to set the scene, although the minister has downplayed it in his presentation today, and I acknowledge that. There was a sign it was not going to go this way. There is virtually no reality to the idea that there is a fraud problem from voters from abroad. The judge in the Superior Court, Mr. Justice Penny, basically said that those kinds of claims were so unreal as to not even constitute a pressing and substantial reason under section 1 of the charter to limit the right to vote.
“Riding shopping” is not something that Elections Canada has ever seen as being a problem. All that happens at the moment is that multiple points of contact are available to increase the chances, the ease with which somebody from abroad can vote. The idea that there is something illicit going on when people choose to vote where their parents live versus choosing to vote where they last lived seems to me to be a spin that is designed to make this look palatable or necessary when there is actually no problem. There is no such thing as “riding shopping”, except perhaps in the minister's imagination.
It is important to clarify that when the minister talks about 40,000 non-citizens being on the register, this was brought to his attention—and I am glad that two years later he is acting upon it—by the Chief Electoral Officer. The new mechanism that would allow the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to allow Elections Canada access to the non-citizen database that CIC has would be great. However, it is important to note that we are talking about a fear, by error, that approximately that number of people are on the national register, not on what is, until this point in time, the international register. To get on the international register, one has to actually show one's citizenship.
It is a separate issue that would be dealt with in the bill, but it should not be confused with anything to do with a concern that non-citizens are voting from abroad. I fear that, unintentionally, the minister's emphasis on that could allow people to think this is what is going on. No, the issue is cleaning up the national register for people who are in Canada. That is fine. That one particular piece is a good thing in the bill.
I do feel duty-bound to note that Elections Canada was not consulted on this, except for the discussion a couple of years ago on the issue of trying to ensure non-citizens were removed from the national register where they appeared in error. That will probably prove to be a problem at the time of committee because we will probably hear some very detailed testimony from Elections Canada about many problems the bill would create.
As long as the minister is open, seriously open, to changing them, because these have not been foreseen because there has been no consultation, we might well end up with a productive committee process. If the minister thinks it has all been thought through and that whatever he hears from Elections Canada will not change his mind, then we will have a serious problem. What we will have, in effect, is the minister confirming that the intention here is to make it much more difficult to vote from abroad and that it is not just the unfortunate result of how the act was written.
Let me go to this issue that is the sleeper issue. It is the question of subsection 143(2.11). It is a new provision that would basically create a new prohibition on the Chief Electoral Officer. It says:
—the Chief Electoral Officer is not permitted to authorize...a type of identification that has been issued by an entity other than...a Canadian government, whether federal, provincial or local, or an agency of that government; and...an entity that is incorporated or formed by or under an Act of Parliament or of the legislature of a province or that is otherwise formed in Canada.
It is fairly complex wording.
The bottom line, as the minister made clear, is to ensure that ID only originates in Canada, essentially. That seems to be the general idea. The problem, however, is that it has been done in a way that might actually end up creating some serious administrative, and even more serious problems, in Canada.
This new prohibition, which is intended to deal with voters from abroad so they have to somehow produce Canadian-originated ID, is going to have an impact on everybody who shows up on election day in Canada.
What is the reason for that concern? First, “formed in Canada” is not a legally known concept and is not defined in the bill. The question of what an “entity formed in Canada” means is going to produce some serious problems in Elections Canada trying to scope it out, and then having that interpreted on election day by pressed election officials. We really need to ensure that this will be clear. Obviously the intention is probably that organizations like the CNIB are covered, and it is not just documents issued by corporations, for example, utilities bills, et cetera. However, the language is used in a way that is very unclear.
Here is an issue. Now a voter can use a Visa, Amex or MasteCard bill as one piece of ID to show an address. However, people could show up with it, and the deputy returning officer or the chief poll officer could look at it and ask if Visa is a company incorporated or formed in Canada, is there a Visa Canada and who has issued the document. The chance of that kind of minute questioning will be a problem, even if it seems farfetched. It will create serious workability problems. I know for a fact that Elections Canada is concerned about this extra burden and the mistakes that could be made.
The second thing is that it is not at all clear to me that private leases will be caught by this wording, as I asked in my question to the minister. The language is all about corporations, entities or government agencies. There is no scope there for a document that has effectively been issued by an individual, which is what private rental leases are. They are often a form of identification to prove address that students in university tend to use.
The bottom line is that this will create workability issues that I do not think the minister intended to create, but that we will hear about in committee from Elections Canada. The unworkability issue is major.
I am also concerned that some party scrutineers who now would be allowed to ask to inspect identification documents as a result of Bill C-23 would see these new rules as an opportunity to ask, more often than they should, for proof that this new provision has been met by whatever document has been presented by somebody showing up.
If somebody shows up with a Visa bill, somebody might ask the deputy returning officer if that is a document issued by an entity formed in Canada. Maybe it is a document issued by an entity doing business in Canada. We can imagine the opportunity for mischief that could occur.
I am being a bit like the minister in that I am looking down the line at what kind of abuse is possible. The minister looks in one place and I look in another. We have to talk about that.
In my remaining minutes, I want to talk about what everybody knows is a big concern. The big concern here is that the new requirements for citizens voting from abroad can be extremely onerous. They can produce delays that can result in ballots not arriving in time to be counted.
The primary problem is the requirement that voters have to register for each election, apply to receive their ballot or register, the same kind of thing collapsed into one, only once the writ has been dropped. People have to be aware that it has happened. They have to register quickly enough in order to ensure that all the mail can occur. As the minister has said, sending in their application, even if that is virtually, and receiving the special ballot and mailing it in and doing that from Dar es Salaam, New Delhi or Sydney, requires time.
There are all kinds of reasons to think that the way the mail service works or the way citizens abroad may be not be immediately on top of when a writ has been dropped could result in timelines that could be almost impossible to make. Currently, people can register in the international register at any time. However, I believe we will hear testimony from Elections Canada saying that currently when people wait to register until the election has been called, there is an increased incidence of the ballot not arriving in time.
A system has been created in this new bill whereby that problematic situation that we already know exists, for some who wait too long to register, get their ballots and mail them in, is now scripted as the only way. Therefore, the delay issue is huge.
We should also not underestimate the problem of ID. The longer people have been away, the chances that they have retained Canadian-issued IDs, apart from their passports, may go down dramatically. In some jurisdictions when people get local drivers' licences, they actually have to hand in their old drivers' licences. People who are hoarders, and have kept every ID they have ever had, may have no problem. However, with no notice, many of the two million Canadians already abroad may already have sort of jettisoned or lost the IDs that they now have to use.
They cannot rely on the Chief Electoral Officer to issue a list of acceptable foreign IDs that go along with proving people's addresses. Let us say people still have to prove their last known addresses in the way the bills wants, but they can use their passports and some foreign piece of ID as corroborating ID. The Chief Electoral Officer is not permitted to allow that, even though a foreign driver's licence is at least as good in proving who one is as a Canadian licence. It has nothing to do with the address, but it does with identity. Therefore, there are serious problems with actually producing two pieces of ID for some abroad that we have to take into account.
Let me now talk about vouching. The bill would get rid of the possibility that people could vote where they would have a strong connection to relatives and would focus only on people's last known addresses. The problem is they have to prove it affirmatively. If people do not have pieces of documentation saved, such as a driver's licence, which in New York state they have given up to the Americans, then they basically will have to rely on this new vouching provision.
The new vouching provision says that people have to provide proof of their last place of residence, so they would have to contact their neighbours and ask them if they remembered them when they were neighbours seven years ago. They would have to ask them to do this attestation. They would need a statutory declaration, see their IDs to prove they are voters, have them fill out a form, get the form back to them and then include it in their package in applying to vote. We can obviously see that the one big problem is the delay this will create. The need to have someone vouch for them within a 35-day election campaign period will already make it virtually impossible to meet that deadline.
The other issue is that all the same rules in Bill C-23 apply. A person cannot vouch for more than one individual. If a family of four living abroad can only find one neighbour who still lives where the family used to live and the neighbour lives alone, that neighbour can only vouch for one of them. The other three are out of luck.
Therefore, it is very clear that the issue of how the vouching system would work will not be as relatively easy as it is in Canada when somebody on election days goes with the person to vouch for him or her. The idea of saying that the rules are the same for those voting in Canada and those voting abroad is a very formalistic understanding of equality, because when the same rules are applied to very different circumstances, there is a serious disadvantage in complying with the rules. The committee will find example after example like this and the minister will really have to get his mind around them.
Let me give another example. Students going abroad to get their masters degrees or Ph.D.s quite often are heading off from a previous university. Now, sitting in London, Paris, or New York, they will have to prove that their last residences were in university towns and pretty much the only people who know that was the case are former students, who themselves have moved on. How will a proper vouching system be created for that particular case? It may sound like an imaginary issue, but it is not. When we think about students moving around internationally, they usually move from a university town or an address that they lived at to obtain their education.
What I would say is that in its result, Bill C-50 is a clear exercise in suppressing the votes of citizens abroad in a way that is diametrically opposite to the spirit of the Frank judgement, which the minister started out by invoking as the reason for these changes.
In sympathy for the minister and his illness today, as he seems to have the flu, I will not hit too hard any more, but I very much hope that he is not doing this intentionally in the bill. I also hope that, for once, we will be able to make serious changes at committee based on the evidence that there are problems with this bill.