While Shemini Atzeret’s origins are ancient, the story of why it coincides with our next federal election begins much more recently. In 2006, Stephen Harper’s government passed legislation to fix election dates to “stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar simply for partisan political advantage.” Ever since, our federal elections have been on the third Monday of October, four years following the previous general election.
Except they haven’t. Harper’s legislation also lets the prime minister change the date at will. He himself did this twice, and when he finally did call an election on the prescribed cycle, he lost.
That was almost four years ago, and the current Parliament is approaching its expiry date. The Liberals are following the fixed date approach, which means we will all be voting this Oct. 21.
Well, not all of us. Oct. 21 is also Shemini Atzeret, during which observant Jews refrain from writing and using electricity, making it impossible to mark a ballot, get out the vote or scrutinize the process.
And so, on Oct. 21, our Jewish and Canadian lives will collide. For observant Jews in particular (and, to a lesser extent, for those who just say Yizkor), this means some disenfranchisement.
That matters. Participating in elections is the most important civic activity a Canadian can undertake. The act of voting is a profound affirmation of the fundamental underpinnings of our citizenship and a public articulation of our shared democratic values. Elections are the closest thing our secular state has to sacred ritual. Voting is not just a right, but also a rite.
That’s why the conflict between Shemini Atzeret and the next federal election is not a Jewish issue, but a Canadian one. Particularly in these times of democracy’s alarming retreat in other countries, and just as the final veterans who bravely fought freedom’s most appalling enemies pass on, we must do all we can to make our elections as fair, accessible and robust as possible.
Moving the date would therefore have been ideal, since it would have enabled maximum participation in the electoral process. But it also would have wreaked havoc on that process. An election is a logistical tour de force, with 300,000 temporary employees staffing more than 16,000 locations across nearly 10 million square kilometres. Jewish community leaders had already advised Elections Canada not to bother changing the date, and at this late stage, it would have damaged the election’s integrity much more than leaving it be, despite the impact on observant voters.
And those voters are by no means completely disenfranchised. Though they cannot participate on election day, they have ample options to vote in advance.
So while this outcome is disappointing, everyone can still vote.
How the key players handled this process is equally important. No one impugned the integrity of Elections Canada, which is now launching a special advance voting information campaign aimed at our community. Party leaders stayed neutral on the issue of the date, as they should. And when Chani Aryeh-Bain, the Orthodox Conservative party candidate running in the heavily Jewish Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, petitioned for a different date, her Liberal opponent, Marco Mendicino, publicly supported her (full disclosure: Mendicino is a friend for whom I have volunteered). This is the mark of a mature, robust democracy.
Of course, this outcome is not perfect, but the perfect should never be the enemy of the good. And those who believe that there should never be any electoral conflict with Jewish holidays whatsoever have an additional alternative: they can make aliyah, since Israel exists, in part, to address these very concerns.
The truth is that few, if any, other countries even would have entertained this issue in the first place, much less done so as thoughtfully, respectfully and accommodatingly. In its own strange way, this unfortunate fluke shows how blessed we are to be Canadian Jews.