Elections Canada will not recommend that the date of the next federal election be changed, despite pressure to do so because it clashes with the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret.
Moving the date “is not in the public interest,” Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault said in an eagerly awaited statement on July 29.
Only a few days earlier, the Federal Court of Canada ordered Perrault to reconsider his earlier refusal to move the date of the election – Oct. 21 – after it heard from observant Jews who pointed out that they cannot drive, campaign or vote on a holy day.
Lawyers for Chani Aryeh-Bain, the Conservative candidate in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, and Ira Walfish, an activist and voter who lives in the York Centre riding, had argued before the court that Perrault’s refusal to move the date to Oct. 28 was unreasonable and that they, along with 75,000 other Orthodox Jews in Canada, faced discrimination under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The court gave Perrault a deadline of Aug. 1 to strike a balance between election laws and the rights of Orthodox Jews to vote and campaign. He was not empowered to move the date himself, but could recommend that cabinet do so.
But “after having carefully considered the impact of holding the election on Oct. 21 on the ability of observant Jews to participate in the electoral process, and having balanced that with my mandate to ensure accessible voting opportunities for all Canadians, I conclude that it would not be advisable to change the date of the election at this late stage,” Perrault stated.
It was “not a decision that I make lightly, but with a view to providing the broadest possible range of accessible voting services to the population at large.”
In a written statement to The CJN, Aryeh-Bain, who had argued that as an observant candidate she was prevented from getting out the vote on election day, said she was “extremely disappointed” with Perrault’s decision.
“We do not believe he balanced the democratic and religious rights of Jewish voters and candidates,” she noted. “He has 85 days to prepare for this election – almost triple the amount of time than he has to prepare for a snap election. Why Perrault has dug his heels in is mystifying to me.”
Perrault said that in the case of Aryeh-Bain, the effect of not moving the election date “is very significant.” He conceded that “no arrangement can be made that would truly allow her to meet her religious obligations and compete on equal terms with non-observant candidates.”
At a press conference at B’nai Brith Canada’s offices on the day of the decision, Walfish said that, “We are obviously very disappointed. We do not agree that the (chief electoral officer) balanced the relevant interests in his further decision to not move the election.”
He said that Orthodox Jewish-Canadians “will not participate in this election on an equal footing with other Canadians, not by design or choice, but because their conscience prevents them from doing so.”
Aryeh-Bain and David Tordjman, an observant Conservative candidate in Montreal, “are both seriously disadvantaged with an election on Oct. 21,” said Walfish.
In an 11-page statement, Perraul referenced a detailed “Action Plan for Observant Jewish Community Voting,” which was launched in April. The statement noted that the Orthodox Jewish population is primarily located in urban areas in 36 of the 338 federal ridings. It said that those ridings range from one to 13.4 per cent Jewish, according to the 2016 census, “which makes it possible to design local solutions … to ensure that Elections Canada’s services are targeted and responsive to local needs.”
Perraul took note of the argument presented in court that the four days of advance polls, from Oct. 12-15, reduce the ability of religiously observant Jews to cast ballots because they coincide with Shabbat and Sukkot.
However, Perrault pointed out that there are many days during the election period in which the Orthodox can vote, starting from the day the writ is dropped, including by mail-in ballot, at a returning office or Elections Canada kiosk, or at one of roughly 115 post-secondary campuses from Oct. 5-9.
Moving the election date “will not remove all of the barriers that Jewish electors face in voting this election cycle,” Perrault stated. And if the date were moved, “the new dates for the advanced polls will also overlap with Jewish holidays,” he said.
“There is no such thing as a perfect election day, especially in a country as diverse as Canada.”
Michael Mostyn, B’nai Brith’s chief executive, said Perrault’s decision was “just as wrong” as his initial refusal to move the date.
He said Perrault’s admission that observant candidates cannot compete equally with non-observant ones is “a red line” for B’nai Brith. But Elections Canada has “run out the clock” because of the Aug. 1 deadline for setting an election date, he noted.
Mostyn called on “every Canadian Jew who is capable of doing so (to) cast a ballot via advanced polls or special ballots,” and on Jewish voters to ask candidates whether they support changes to elections laws, to ensure that voting does not fall on a Jewish holiday again.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), on the other hand, said it “respects” Perrault’s decision.
“While mindful of the inconvenience that some will experience and the clear disadvantages faced by a religiously observant candidate, we trust that those challenges can and will be mitigated by the measures put into place by Elections Canada,” CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel said in a statement.
CIJA said it too will focus on changing election dates, which have been fixed since 2007, so they no longer clash with Jewish holidays.
Perrault said he is “committed to continuing to work with the Jewish community to maximize voting options within the existing calendar in ways that are convenient and consistent with their religious beliefs.”