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Monday, November 05, 2007

Raising the veil on Harper's bill

Canadians could be forgiven for thinking veiled Muslim women pose an urgent threat to the integrity of our electoral system after Prime Minister Stephen Harper made one of his first priorities in the fall sitting of Parliament a bill to force voters to show their faces at the polls.

But there is not one shred of evidence that such a problem existed in the first place. Even Harper's Conservative government has admited "there was no apparent case of fraud" in three federal by-elections that were held in September in Quebec, when unjustified hysteria over veiled Muslim women first boiled over.

Yet that has not stopped Harper from trying to fix this imaginary problem by proposing changes to the country's election law that would require voters to show their faces before they cast their ballots. The opposition parties are just as guilty of stirring up this issue, even though the Liberals and NDP now appear less enthusiastic about the measure than they did only a month ago.

Harper has tried to dress up the bill as a means to "enhance public confidence in the democratic process." But it has nothing to do with electoral integrity and everything to do with pandering to narrow-minded fears about minorities, particularly in Quebec where a troubling debate over "reasonable accommodation" is now raging.

Glaring inconsistencies in the proposed legislation only highlight that Harper and other federal politicians are shamefully playing cheap politics at the expense of Canadian Muslims.

For one thing, the bill does little to achieve Harper's stated goal of improving the visual identification of voters. Voters are still not required to show photo identification in order to vote. They can present two pieces of non-photo ID approved by Elections Canada instead.

One acceptable combination is a debit card and a bank statement, neither of which contains a photo, age or physical description. In that case, showing your face might prevent you from voting twice, but does nothing to establish who you are in the first place.

Nor does it prove anything to show your face while being vouched for by another voter, another method of getting a ballot.

At the same time, Canadians temporarily living overseas who vote by mail do not have to show their faces to election officials. Approximately 80,000 people mailed in their ballots in the 2006 election. Why isn't Harper worried about them?

By singling out veiled Muslim women, Harper and others have seized on one of the most visible signs of difference in our multicultural society in order to make a point: If minorities want to exercise all their rights as Canadians citizens, they need to act more like "us."

Absent real security concerns, Harper is sacrificing the openness and inclusiveness on which this country was built in order to appeal to the ethnic prejudices of a few. That is not the Canadian way.

When it comes up for debate in the House of Commons, opposition parties should take a stand against fearmongering and intolerance by voting against this odious bill. [Link]

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