Elections Canada jumped the gun

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

September 11, 2007 Ed Cartoon

Elections Canada is on the defensive about its decision Thursday to allow an elector, for religious reasons, to vote with her face covered as long as she swears an oath and presents two valid pieces of identification.

These rules are to be used in three upcoming byelections in Quebec.

Prime Minister Harper and Opposition Leader Stephane Dion have taken a strong stance against the decision; both argue the decision goes against Bill C-31, which requires visual identification of voters.

Dion suggested a compromise: female Elections Canada staff identify women at polling stations behind their veils, which seems to be an acceptable compromise.

With the act of voting being so integral to Canadian democracy, Harper and Dion are right to point out voters must be able to identify themselves.

At the same time Canada is a multicultural society that is respectful of religious rights as enshrined in the Charter of Rights of Freedoms.

The Canadian government is caught between religious rights and electoral rules.

Muslim groups, however, also disagree with the decision. They feel instead of creating a welcoming atmosphere for Muslim women, it will do more harm than good.

A spokeswoman for the Canada Council on American Islamic Relations said the accommodation was not something they wanted.

She added it concerns a small minority of women, who, if asked, would have removed the veil to show their faces, as they do at the bank, border crossings or at the airport.

If women do not need accommodation, questions arise about whether the issue has been blown out of proportion. And worse, if the attention around this issue reflects ignorance about Islam, could it encourage Islamophobia.

Elections Canada’s decision appears to be pre-emptive tolerance " action based on fear of potential problems steeped in ignorance.

Fear and ignorance about the veil drive this decision rather than precedent or requests from the concerned individuals " Muslim women.

Ignorance about Islam, its teachings and practices, and inflation of this issue can only breed stereotypes and intolerance.

Muslim women, whom this issue concerns, should have been asked by Elections Canada, who instead tiptoed around the issue.

If Elections Canada had consulted Muslim women, they might have discovered it is a non-issue and avoided inadvertently offending the Muslim community.

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