I have just returned from Parliament Hill, where I was asked to appear as a witness. Parliamentary committee members reviewing proposed changes to Canada’s federal election rules asked me to speak about the Council of Canadians’ legal challenge underway now to repeal the Harper government’s so-called Fair Elections Act.
The committee also asked for my opinion on the recently-introduced election reforms in Bill C-76. While that Bill would address the issues now before the Court, the proposed changes therein are not guaranteed to be implemented in time for the next federal election in 2019.
And that’s why it’s so critical that our legal challenge proceeds swiftly.
As a refresher, in 2014 the Harper Conservative government rammed through Parliament its so-called Fair Elections Act without proper debate or consultation.
The Act ushered in radical changes to Canada’s federal election laws, including anti-democratic and U.S.-style voter suppression tactics that make it harder for seniors, students, Indigenous people, and others who have difficulty proving their identity and residence, to vote.
In response, the Council of Canadians partnered with the Canadian Federation of Students to file a Charter challenge to repeal these problematic elements of the Act.
Unfortunately, our case wasn’t heard in time for the 2015 federal election. As a direct result of the Act, Elections Canada estimates 172,000 eligible voters were denied their constitutional right to vote in 2015.
Now our case will finally be heard this October, almost one year to the day of the 2019 federal election.
If we are successful, there would be just enough time for Elections Canada to implement the necessary changes to prevent a possible repeat of 172,000 Canadians – or more – being denied their right to vote in next year’s federal election.
Our legal team has assembled evidence from election experts and about affected voters in preparation for hearings this fall – and is right now defending this evidence in the face of ongoing government opposition. Even with heavily discounted fees, the legal costs of this potentially landmark court case are mounting quickly.
This might come as a surprise to you, but the biggest reason for the mounting court costs and delays has been the Trudeau government.
Lawyers for the federal government recently served us with six volumes (more than 2,000 pages) of evidence. Astonishingly, it’s become clear that the government and its legal team are now defending the Act and Harper’s voter suppression measures – and opposing our challenge!
This is in stark contrast to what the Liberals promised Canadians during the last election campaign. Thanks to pressure applied by our legal challenge, the Liberals committed to stand up for the right of every Canadian to cast their ballot and take measures to maintain the openness, transparency and accountability of our democracy.
After years of inaction, the Trudeau government is now scrambling to pass new electoral reforms with Bill C-76. But the acting head of Elections Canada is warning of serious problems with the Bill – and there is no guarantee the proposed changes can be implemented in time for the 2019 federal election.
That is precisely why our Charter challenge is so urgent and important.
We just filed our reply evidence, including a report from a leading American election expert explaining the origins of the voter suppression measures enacted by Republican-controlled U.S. states, which served as the prototype for Harper’s anti-democratic Fair Elections Act.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the federal government are now preparing to cross-examine our witnesses, who describe the corrosive impacts of the Act. And their lawyers continue to defend the same voter suppression measures that Trudeau’s proposed new reforms would remove.
The clock is ticking and the stakes are high. Next year’s federal election is rapidly approaching and is shaping up to be hotly contested. It’s critical that every Canadian voter is unobstructed from exercising their democratic right at the ballot box.
Together, we will not allow this attack on the foundation of our democracy to go unchallenged.
With hope and resolve.
Read more about the charter challenge.