Madam Speaker, I am here today to discuss the motion presented by my hon. friend from La Prairie on the possibility of a pandemic election.
Let me begin by saying our focus as a government, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been on delivering for Canadians. Canadians expect their Parliament to work to deliver for them through the pandemic and, indeed, over the past many months, the government has done just that.
The government has no interest in an election. We have repeatedly said that. The Prime Minister has said that. However, as the House is well aware, an election could happen at any time in a minority Parliament. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians to be prepared for such a scenario, which is why the government introduced, following a report from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Bill C-19, which would allow for temporary amendments to the Canada Elections Act in the context of a pandemic.
We agree with the opposition that holding an election during a pandemic would be unfortunate without first implementing these provisions that would ensure that Canadians are able to vote in a way that is safe and secure. The opposition has demonstrated a reckless disregard for the health and safety of Canadians in recent weeks. It has voted no confidence in the government 14 times, which is 14 times in favour of an immediate election. If the opposition feels strongly about not taking Canadians to the polls, perhaps it should stop voting for an immediate election.
The government wants the House of Commons to work constructively, as it has over the past number of months. Part of that includes a timely study of Bill C-19 to ensure that if an election were held, the obvious desire of many opposition members, it would be safe and secure, and accessible to as many electors as possible.
We are ready to work with all parliamentarians to ensure that these temporary changes to the Canada Elections Act address our collective goals, but that requires the opposition to also work constructively at parliamentary committees. The current tactics by the opposition to paralyze the work in the House and in committees can sometimes be nothing short of dysfunctional.
Allow me to quote the Right Hon. Stephen Harper, who said, “It's the nature of the opposition to oppose the government but at the same time I hope we can concentrate our efforts on real issues, issues of public policy.”
Every responsible prime minister has to make a decision on the effective functioning of Parliament. I would encourage our colleagues in opposition to focus, as the government has, on delivering real results for Canadians. From investing in PPE to increasing capacity for testing and tracing and delivering more than 20 million vaccine doses for Canada, we have spared no effort in fighting the pandemic and providing support to those most affected by it.
A team Canada approach is clearly the best way of beating COVID-19 and keeping Canadians safe and healthy. I would urge my colleagues in the House to continue to work productively in our shared work to protect and support Canadians.
I would like to touch briefly, as the motion compels us to, on the situation in Quebec over the last year. The COVID-19 pandemic has had widespread and unprecedented effects on Canadians, including, of course, Quebeckers. That is why our government has provided significant support to all the provinces and territories, including Quebec.
Under the safe restart agreement, Quebec will receive over $3 billion for necessary measures like rapid testing, contact tracing, help for municipalities and public transportation, as well as child care services for parents returning to work.
In addition, through the safe return to class fund, Quebec will receive over $432 million, and Quebec's funding allocation under the new COVID-19 resilience stream, which is part of the infrastructure program, is also over $432 million.
Finally, over two million Quebeckers applied for the CERB.
I believe our support for Canadians throughout this pandemic has been clear, and we are grateful to the opposition parties that have helped us put forward these programs that have benefited so many Canadians.
This motion also presents an opportunity to discuss the measures in Bill C-19, which would help ensure that if Canadians go to the polls while Canada is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they could do so with the full confidence in their safety and security and the integrity of the election. I am optimistic we can find similar support from the opposition for many of these common-sense measures. I note that all opposition parties voted in favour of the bill at second reading.
From the earliest days of the pandemic last year, electoral administrators across the country began to consider how to hold elections that would be safe for both electoral workers and volunteers and that would maintain the high stands of integrity that Canadians expect. Since March 2020, general elections have been held in four provinces and one territory. COVID-19 may have restricted many aspects of life in Canada, but elections carried on, albeit modified, and with the safety interests of everyone in mind. Additionally, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada oversaw the administration of two federal by-elections in Toronto in October, 2020.
Bill C-19 is based on the October 2020 recommendations of the Chief Electoral Officer regarding holding an election in the context of a pandemic and the essential work of our colleagues, who carried out a study on the same topic.
Bill C-19 contains four measures that I will explain in greater detail: a three-day polling period, the safe administration of the vote to residents of long-term care facilities, increased adaptation powers for the Chief Electoral Officer, and the strengthening of measures related to mail-in voting.
Before I move onto these measures, I would like to highlight the unique nature of the legislative changes outlined in Bill C-19. I will reiterate that none of these proposed amendments would be permanent amendments to the Canada Elections Act, and that the bill does include a sunset clause. These measures are written so that they will cease to be in effect six months after the Chief Electoral Officer, following consultation with the Chief Public Health Officer, determines these measures are no longer necessary.
As we have seen throughout the country, this pandemic has not stopped Canadians from expressing their democratic rights. It is our role as elected representatives to ensure that if the time came for Canadians to go back to the polls, they would be able to do so in a manner of their preference and be assured of their safety and the health of their communities.
In every modern general election and by-election, the Chief Electoral Officer has been provided with adaptation powers that can be applied to the Canada Elections Act to ensure that electors can exercise their right to vote. These adaptation powers can assist in running elections in the event of an emergency or other unforeseen circumstances.
The Chief Electoral Officer exercised this power in the last election, for one to allow workers temporarily residing outside their electoral districts to vote. However, the ongoing uncertainty generated by the current pandemic justifies broadening the grounds for adapting the act. This bill would strengthen the Chief Electoral Officer's power to adapt provisions of the Canada Elections Act to ensure the health and safety of electors and election officials, including volunteers.
This would enable them to put in place protective measures in polling places to minimize the spread of COVID-19. These measures are particularly important when considering that Canada's election workforce largely skews toward an older cohort that we know are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
These adaptation measures will help support another key measure outlined in Bill C-19, which is the extension of the polling period from a single Monday to three days.
To facilitate physical distancing at polling stations, this bill provides for two additional polling days consisting of the Saturday and Sunday before the traditional voting day on Monday. This measure would reduce the number of people in a polling station at any given time. It will be particularly useful in ridings where public health authorities have established strict limits on the number of people allowed in public places.
We have heard from some colleagues that the three-day voting period is too much time or that the election should be held either only on the Monday or only on the weekend. From work and family obligations to religious observance to the need to access adequate child care or public transportation, there are a number of reasons somebody may have difficulty reaching the polls. The three-day polling period would provide the Chief Electoral Officer and local election officials greater freedom in identifying adequate and accessible polling places.
During an election period, Elections Canada becomes Canada's single-largest employer. Over 250,000 workers were hired for the 2019 election. While Bill C-19 does not address the challenge of electoral worker recruitment, I would like to emphasize a change that was made through the Elections Modernization Act in 2018 that would allow Elections Canada to hire 16 and 17 year olds as election workers.
I would now like to turn to another key part of the bill, which I know interests all colleagues, and it is the way to protect some of Canada's most vulnerable people to exercise their democratic right to vote. Across Canada, long-term care facilities have been hit hard by COVID-19. Even with rising vaccination rates, these facilities must still be protected against the threat of the virus.
Bill C-19 would make it easier for residents of long-term care homes, who are particularly vulnerable and have borne the brunt of the pandemic, to exercise their right to vote safely. Bill C-19 provides for a 13-day period prior to polling day that would facilitate the administration of votes in these facilities. This period would enable Elections Canada to coordinate with long-term care home staff to ensure residents could vote safely.
As it currently stands, election workers travel from one facility to the next administering the vote only on election day. The safety implications of this practice are obvious in the context of COVID-19, and were highlighted also by the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada as a challenge in his special report last October.
The flexibility of this 13-day period would allow Elections Canada to work closely with individual facilities to find dates and times that would be most convenient and safe for residents to vote. These facilities are essential to the safety of Canadians and these flexibilities will also assist vulnerable persons.
If there were to be a general election during the pandemic, the Chief Electoral Officer expects we would see an increase in the number of mail-in ballots, possibly as high as five million ballots. Indeed, we saw a significant rise in mail-in ballots in British Columbia's October 2020 general election and in the United States presidential election last November.
Mail-in voting is safe and secure for Canadians to exercise their democratic rights. The electors in Canada have long had the ability to vote by mail, but in recognition of its clear importance during a pandemic, Bill C-19 introduces measures to ensure that the mail-in ballot system in Canada is as simple and as accessible as possible.
Currently, registration to vote by mail can only be done through the mail or in person. Bill C-19 would allow electors to register online for the first time. I should note that providing this option would not inhibit those without access to the Internet to register to vote by mail or in person. By allowing online registration, we would simply be giving Canadians one more option to register to vote.
The bill proposes the installation of secure reception boxes at all polling stations and returning officers' offices. This way, people who are not able to mail in their ballots will have a way to submit them securely. These measures will ensure that, should an election be required during a pandemic, it will be more safe and secure and will give electors as many options as possible to exercise their democratic right.
My final comment on mail-in ballots is for colleagues who have expressed a concern whether the expected influx of special ballots could lead to delays in the counting or the announcing of the election results. I can assure the House that we have heard from the Chief Electoral Officer and he does not expect any delays in the results of a general election based on the increase of mail-in ballots.
The pandemic has affected every aspect of the lives of Canadians. No one has been spared the incredible difficulties of the past year, yet we have also seen the remarkable resilience of Canadians. We have seen that Canadians have not been stopped from exercising their democratic rights in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon, and even in my home province of New Brunswick. Our role in the House should be to ensure that, if required, Canadians are able to carry out their democratic rights in a way that ensures their personal safety and the public health of their communities as well.
If the opposition members are going to continue to vote non-confidence in the government, it is irresponsible for them not to work with the government to ensure these measures are in place to protect Canadians. The current hyper-partisanship of the opposition risks paralyzing the agenda of the government and the supports we urgently need to put in place to help Canadians. While we have no desire to go to the polls, the Prime Minister, as any responsible Prime Minister in a minority Parliament, needs to understand when he has and when he does not have the confidence of the House and be able to act accordingly.