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Marc Mayrand was pressured by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to interpret a law so as to prevent people from voting if they were wearing a veil, despite the fact that the law made no reference to such a prohibition and that the Chief Electoral Officer's power to modify the law is limited to extraordinary circumstances, which had no application in the case of veiled women.
Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Public Service Employment Act, received royal assent on June 22, 2007. It requires electors to prove their identity and residential address either by providing authorized pieces of identification or by being vouched for by another voter.
Controversy arose when some members of Parliament, a Parliamentary Committee and a Senate Committee sought to require Mayrand to adapt these provisions of the Canada Elections Act so that women would be prevented from wearing a veil when voting in federal elections. Members of Parliament demanded that Mayrand enforce what they maintained was the intent of the law, that voters ought to remove the veil before voting for identification purposes, while Mayrand asserted that the law did not specifically or implicitly authorize any such action.
It should be noted that Mayrand had given instructions to staff that any veiled individual will be required to uncover his or her face to establish his or her eligibility before being allowed to vote. The real issue was not, therefore, the practice of requiring a person to establish identity in practice; it was whether Members of Parliament could force an independent Officer of Parliament to amend legislation unilaterally and in a manner that arguably subverted the will of Parliament, directly affecting religious freedoms.
Before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in May 2007, Mayrand stated that the rules proposed in Bill C-31 would still allow an elector to vote without having to reveal her or his face, emphasizing individual choice and freedom.
Before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in September 2007, Member Tom Lukiwski (Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre, CPC) sought to require that Mayrand force veiled women electors to identify themselves by removing their veils when voting. He further indicated that Mayrand should treat the views of the Committee as the will of Parliament.
Mayrand answered to Lukiwski and to MPs from other parties that he must respond to the will of Parliament as expressed in legislation, and not to the wishes of the Committee. Mayrand held firm to the position that persons may be required to show their faces in a manner that is respectful of their religion but that this did not expend to a requirement that he amend the Act himself.
Mayrand emphasized that visual identification at the time of voting is not consistently required in Canada at the federal level. He noted that up to 80,000 electors voted by mail in the 2006 general election, a process where visual identification cannot be established. Mayrand emphasized that the choice of how a voter identifies himself or herself continues to be up to the voter.
In light of Mayrand’s refusal to succumb to pressure, Bill C-6 was proposed to force voters to remove their veil. Bill C-6 did not pass.
- October 24, 2006: First reading in Parliament of Bill C-31.
- May 16, 2007: Mayrand appears before the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs and states that Bill 31, as drafted, permitted an elector to vote without having to reveal his or her face.
- June 22, 2007: Bill C-31 receives royal assent.
- September 13, 2007: Mayrand again affirms before members of Parliament and the Senate Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that the law does not require veiled voters to remove their veil to vote, according to the Canada Elections Act. Mayrand declines to change election rules to force veiled voters to remove their veil them to do so in the upcoming election, given the absence of any statutory basis for such an action.
- October 26, 2007: Bill C-6 is introduced, but finally does not pass.
Role or Position
Marc Mayrand was appointed Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada on February 21, 2007 by a resolution in the House of Commons. The Conservative government and Elections Canada under Marc Mayrand have clashed on a number of issues in recent years. See the Elections Canada page for other confrontations between the Conservative government and Elections Canada.
Implications and Consequences
- Democracy: Laws are passed by the legislative branch and not by individual members, whether alone or sitting in Committee. This is at the heart of our democratic processes. The restricted powers granted to the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) to change certain aspects of the Canada Elections Act are limited to operational matters and/or extraordinary circumstances and cannot be used to infringe basic constitutional rights and freedoms. Mayrand was correct to resist pressure to subvert the legisative process. Individual members were entitled to disagree, but could not substitute their opinions for Mayrand's outside the Parliamentary process. In the event of a genuine and justified belief that the CEO was failing to respect the Act, the government was free to apply to the courts for relief, which it did not do.
- Democracy: The Chief Electoral Officer is an independent, nonpartisan Officer of Parliament. The pressure exerted by members of Parliament to have Mayrand interpret legislation in a manner that contradicted Mayrand's view of his role and the rights of Canadians was at least inappropriate and at worst an attempt to have the CEO do indirectly what Parliament was unwilling to do directly.
- Democracy: The law does not address the issue of the removing the veil: Further, practice and custom dictates that showing one's face for identification purposes is not necessary in Canadian federal elections. Parliament is entitled to change that law if it sees fit. It has not done so as yet.
- Equality: The issue was really whether the CEO could change the Act, and not the visual identification of electors. However, elected officials sought to reframe the issue as being about Muslim women voters and this has further contributed to stereotyping and partisanship surrounding the issue of Muslim identity in Canada.
Photo from The Hill Times