OTTAWA — Elections Canada is sticking with Oct. 21 as the date for the federal election even though it falls on a Jewish holiday, a decision that could leave tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews unable to vote or campaign that day.
“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,” Stéphane Perrault, the chief electoral officer of Canada, said in an statement Monday.
Perrault said it’s not in the “public interest” to change the date of the general election.
“This is 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,” he said.
“I am 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.”
Federal legislation had set the date of the next federal election for Oct. 21. This year, that coincides with the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, a day when Orthodox Jews are not permitted to work or vote.
The conflict prompted a legal challenge from Chani Aryeh-Bain, the Conservative candidate in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, and York Centre resident Ira Walfish, who filed suit in Federal Court in June arguing that Perrault acted unreasonably in failing to schedule the election in a way that avoids “conflict with a day of cultural or religious significance.”
The application says that the some 75,000 Orthodox Jews in Canada would be “significantly restricted in their ability to participate in the electoral process.” It sought to have voting day pushed back a week to Oct. 28.
It noted that not only would Orthodox Jews be unable to vote but Jewish candidates and volunteers would be unable to work on the most important day of the campaign.
The application argued that denying their participation on election day is a “fundamental breach” of their Charter rights.
“The effect of the decision is to put observant Jews to the choice of abandoning their faith or their right to vote. This is not a fair or meaningful choice,” the application stated.
The application says that numerous appeals to move voting day were made to Elections Canada dating back to last year. While Elections Canada has the authority to recommend that the government shift voting day to accommodate religious dates, the applicants say that the agency has refused to act, opting only to highlight alternate voting methods.
B’nai Brith Canada, which was granted intervener status in the case, said that the “intersection of the Jewish calendar and the federal election schedule pose significant obstacles for observant Jews in 2019.”
In addition to election day, four advance polling days also fall on Jewish holidays or the Sabbath, the organization noted.
Last week, Justice Ann Marie McDonald sided with their complaint and ordered Elections Canada to reconsider, setting a deadline of Aug. 1 for the organization to respond.
In his response released Monday, Perrault said “there is no such thing as a perfect election day, especially in a country as diverse as Canada.
“It is my opinion that Elections Canada can fulfil its mandate of ensuring a genuine opportunity for observant Jewish electors to participate in the electoral process by providing them with, and informing them about, the opportunities to vote ahead of election day.”
Perrault did concede that, for observant Jewish candidates, the impact of not moving the election date is “very significant.”
“Other than moving the date of the election, no arrangement can be made that would truly allow her to meet her religious obligations and compete on equal terms with nonobservant candidates,” he said.
“This is a difficult situation that directly touches upon the very core values of our democracy.”
Any recommendation to shift the election date would have had to be approved by cabinet.
With files from Mitch Potter
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Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier