Standing Up for Veiled Voters

September 26th, 2007

Canadians went to the polls earlier this month in a series of Federal by-elections marked by controversy. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand announced that in light of the Canada Elections Act he would not require women wearing burka or veils to show their faces in order verify their identity. Until recently this was not an issue as there was no requirement to present photo identification when voting. However, that changed when Parliament recently passed Bill C-31, which amended the Canada Elections Act to include a new requirement; that voters present photo identification. As a result, the question of how to identify women who wear veils was raised.

Within the Canada Elections Act, there is no reference to veils or face coverings, but there is an alternative to photo identification for people to prove their identity. They must sign an affidavit and have another eligible voter from the same polling district vouch for them. There is no clause in the Elections Act explicitly stating that voters must show their face. As a result, the Chief Electoral Officer told members of Parliament that he had no plans to require women to lift their veil when voting. Moreover, Mr. Mayrand also noted that by allowing 80,000 people to vote by mail-in-ballot, a procedure where no photo identification is required, it is the legislature’s intention to allow, under specific circumstances, exemption from the photo identification rule.

Many members of Parliament, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were outraged at Mr. Mayrand’s decision. Yet, despite their position that women should be required to lift their veils when voting, these same Parliamentarians chose not to include that requirement in the recent amendment to the Elections Act. According to the Canadian Constitution, the only branch of government vested with the power to legislate is the legislature. This power is not given to highly-placed administrators and bureaucrats. If the members of Parliament feel strongly about this issue, they should pass legislation requiring women to unveil themselves before voting, regardless of the political price they may pay.

The Canada Elections Act outlines the responsibilities of the Chief Electoral Officer. He has a general duty to oversee the direction and supervision of elections and to ensure their impartiality and the powers to enforce the Act. It is not the place of the Chief Electoral Officer to interpret the law; he is there simply to implement it. The decision whether a person can wear a veil while voting is outside his jurisdiction; he must follow the law. Only the government has the power to make changes to Canadians’ constitutional rights.

Politicians are well aware of the how important the vote of new Canadians is today and they don’t want to offend this growing demographic. But they can’t have it both ways. Essentially, Parliament tried to have Mr. Maynard enforce the above-mentioned position and, at the same time, avoid responsibility for any fallout from their decision. In their reluctance to offend new voters, they are pressuring others to do the dirty work for them. They should have the courage of their convictions… but then, I guess, they wouldn’t be politicians.

Canadians should applaud Mr. Mayrand as he is safeguarding their democratic right to hold the government accountable for its laws and policies.

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