Madam Chair, thank you for inviting me. Good afternoon. It's the afternoon in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where I am today.
Good afternoon, colleagues. I'm pleased to appear before your committee, before PROC. I was a member of PROC for a number of years, so I am familiar with the good work your committee does. It's a privilege for me to be here to discuss Bill C-19, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act with regard to the COVID-19 response.
Bill C‑19is our government's response to one of the priorities that the Prime Minister entrusted to me, namely to work with all Parliamentarians to ensure the passage of any amendments necessary to strengthen Elections Canada's ability to conduct an election during the pandemic and to allow Canadians to vote safely. Obviously, the time during which we work with you and hear your views on this issue is important to our government.
As the chair indicated, I am joined by two senior officials of the Privy Council Office, Al Sutherland and Manon Paquet. They will be available to answer technical questions or to offer a perspective that perhaps I'm not able to contribute.
We are fortunate to have a robust legislative regime in the Canada Elections Act and a world-class electoral management body in Elections Canada, which celebrated its 100th anniversary just last year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been among the most challenging issues in generations, leading to far too many deaths and severely affecting vulnerable people around the world. Governments have, in turn, been forced to take unprecedented steps to stem the virus's spread.
While Canadians have demonstrated incredible resolve, they need to know that in spite of the pandemic, an election can be administered in a way that is safe, secure and accessible to all. Indeed, this topic has seized the attention of all elected officials and election bodies, as evidenced by the Chief Electoral Officer's call for temporary changes to the act and by your timely study, which put forward several recommendations in support of a safe election in these challenging times. We followed them closely and reflected them in many ways in Bill C-19.
Bill C-19 proposes changes that protect the health and safety of Canadians while allowing them to exercise their democratic rights. A three-day polling period will spread electors out and support physical distancing and other public health measures at polling stations. The three-day polling period specifically recognizes Monday as a voting day. We believe this to be important. Maintaining the Monday voting day recognizes that in some circumstances people might not be able to vote because of a religious obligation over the weekend and that public transit, together with child care options, may be more limited over the weekend. Thus, we thought keeping Monday as a voting day was important. Simply put, we're providing electors with as many opportunities as possible to vote should there be an election during the pandemic.
Bill C-19 would also support a safe vote in long-term care facilities and in facilities for persons living with disabilities. Sadly, as one of the most at-risk populations, the residents of these facilities have been gravely impacted by the pandemic. I think all of us were touched by some of the very difficult stories of COVID-19 in the context of long-term care homes. Bill C-19 would provide enhanced flexibility to election workers through a 13-day period during which they can work with long-term care facility staff to determine the most opportune dates and times to deliver the vote in those facilities.
To be clear, this does not mean that voting in long-term care facilities would take place over 13 days; it merely means that facilities would be able to determine for themselves the appropriate window for their residents to safely cast their ballots. This will support a vote that is safe for the residents, the election workers and the staff in these homes.
Holding a general election at any time requires an organizational tour de force. Canada is a large and diverse country, with 338 electoral districts of varying sizes and composition. In times of pandemic, the task is all the more daunting.
Public health circumstances across the country continue to evolve, pointing to a clear need for increased legislative authority for Elections Canada to react to any specific circumstance that may arise across the country in a particular electoral district. Accordingly, Bill C-19 would provide the Chief Electoral Officer with enhanced adaptation powers to adapt provisions of the act in support of the health and safety of electors and those working or volunteering at the polls themselves.
We have seen that jurisdictions across the country and around the globe have had elections during the pandemic and have seen a steep increase in mail-in voting. Research conducted by Elections Canada indicates that potentially up to five million electors may choose to vote by mail if there were an election during a pandemic.
At the federal level, Elections Canada has delivered this system safely and securely for decades, and there are important safeguards designed to maintain the secrecy and the integrity of the vote. Nothing in Bill C-19 would change that. In fact, we're proposing targeted mail-in voting measures to strengthen a system that we expect will see a surge in usage. Among its proposals, Bill C-19 will allow electors to apply online for a mail-in ballot and will establish secure mail receipt boxes across all polling stations for voters to drop off their ballots. To maintain the integrity of the vote, Bill C-19 includes strict prohibitions on installing or tampering with secure mail reception boxes.
Lastly, I would like to stress that the mail-in ballots cast within electoral districts will continue to be counted locally. As honourable members know, there was a drafting discrepancy between the English and French versions of a provision in Bill C-19 that made its meaning unclear. As a result, we will bring forward an amendment correcting this unfortunate error during the committee's clause-by-clause study of this bill. As you are aware, the Speaker ruled that this error can be corrected by the committee in studying the legislation.
Madam Chair, in conclusion, I would light to highlight three points.
First, these measures would be temporary, only applying in the event of an election held during an ongoing pandemic. These measures would cease to be in effect six months, or at an earlier date determined by the Chief Electoral Officer, after a notice that the Chief Electoral Officer publishes in the Canada Gazette that indicates the measures are no longer necessary in the context of COVID-19. This notice would obviously only be issued following consultations with the chief public health officer.
Second, the long-term care measures and adaptation powers would come into force immediately upon royal assent. The remaining measures, including the three-day polling period, would come into force 90 days following royal assent, or earlier, should the Chief Electoral Officer be satisfied that all the necessary preparations are in place.
Finally, Madam Chair, I would like to reiterate that our government is committed to working with all of you on the committee and with all members of the House of Commons to ensure that this legislation can be amended if it can be improved, but to ensure its passage as quickly as possible.
Madam Chair, thank you. I hope I haven't run over the time. I'm really looking forward to seeing some old friends who serve on your committee and to answering questions.
Thank you very much.