Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-31, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Public Service Employment Act.
On June 22 the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs tabled a report in the House entitled, “Improving the Integrity of the Electoral Process: Recommendations for Legislative Change”. The report was based in part on the recommendations that we had received from the Chief Electoral Officer. While there have been discussions about fundamental changes to our entire electoral system, these should not detract from the efforts that have been made to improve our existing system.
The government tabled a response to the committee's report on October 20 and agreed with a vast majority of the recommendations that were made by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. Bill C-31 was subsequently introduced on October 24 of last year.
The proposed bill would amend the Canada Elections Act to improve the integrity of the electoral process by reducing the opportunity for electoral fraud or for error. It would require electors before voting to provide one piece of government issued photo identification that shows their names and addresses or two pieces of identification authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer that show their names and addresses, or they can also take an oath or they might be vouched for by an elector who does have photo identification.
The proposed bill would amend the Canada Elections Act to, among other things, make operational changes to improve the accuracy of the national register of electors. It will facilitate voting and enhance communications with the electorate. It amends the Public Service Employment Act to permit the Public Service Commission to make regulations that will now extend to the maximum term of employment of casual workers. We see this as an improvement.
While the government did not incorporate the committee's recommendations in Bill C-31, it stated that when it did not accept these recommendations, it had a fundamental disagreement in principle, or the items required further study, or we had received inadequate testimony and had been unable to reach a definitive decision during the committee proceedings.
A key concern of the Liberal committee members was to ensure that the bill allowed aboriginal status identification to be deemed acceptable proof for voting purposes. Government officials have clarified that the text of the bill requires government issued photo ID with an address or government issued photo ID without an address. This would include band status cards, but they would have to be accompanied by a letter from the band council or something like a phone bill that would have the person's number, name and address to corroborate the claim that he or she was indeed an eligible voter in that specific riding.
A second concern that the Liberal committee members have is ensuring that the enumeration process is strengthened on the reserve communities. The government has suggested, rather than send the bill to committee, that the committee simply pass a motion calling on the Chief Electoral Officer to strengthen enumeration in reserve communities.
My riding of Sydney—Victoria is in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It has the highest population of aboriginals in Atlantic Canada. There are three communities: Wagmatcook, Membertou and Eskasoni. Eskasoni is the largest aboriginal community east of Montreal. These communities are overcoming some major challenges and it is very important that as they are taking charge of their destiny, they get involved in our electoral process.
These communities contain 4,000 status aboriginals. Voter turnout in these areas has been historically lower than in the rest of the communities in my riding. I would hope this measure could help increase the voter turnout.
According to the 2001 census, 4.5% of the riding is aboriginal and I think this measure will go a long way to bring voter turnout up to match the portion of the population. Indeed, Eskasoni is probably the fastest growing community in my riding. It deserves representation so that its infrastructure and social needs can be addressed.
As the bill has emerged from the work of the all-party committee, sending it back to the committee would somehow be redundant, given that the government has assured the opposition that the aboriginal ID concerns are addressed in the text of the current bill.
On this side of the House we support changes to the Canada Elections Act that protect against the likelihood of voter fraud and misrepresentation. We need to be assured that the aboriginal photo identification is acceptable. We also support strengthening the enumeration process, particularly on the reserve communities and in other areas where there is low voter turnout.
Before I became a member of Parliament I did work in underdeveloped countries. As a member of the trade committee and the foreign affairs committee we visited many countries with my colleagues. Many of these countries were just embarking on a democratic process.They use us as an example.
It is not only important for Canadian citizens to be encouraged to vote, but it is also important that we encourage other citizens of the world to fully participate in democracy. I encourage all my colleagues in both the House and the Senate to support this legislation.
Voter turnout continues to be low. I never thought I would see a 60% turnout from an area that used to have some of the highest participation rates in the country. Even in my riding where people are generally more engaged politically there continues to be a lower turnout. There is nothing more frustrating for voters when their name does not appear on the list.
The ID provision in this bill actually will make it easier for voters to engage in the political process. I am sure all my colleagues have seen that problem and will agree with that.
My riding is on the north shore of Cape Breton Island. It stretches from Bras d'Or Lake in the southwest to Cabot Strait in the northwest all the way to St. Paul Island in the northeast. Sydney is our largest centre, along with North Sydney, Sydney Mines and New Waterford. They are all communities in my riding.
As I stated before, there are also three Mi'kmaq reserves: Membertou, Eskasoni and Wagmatcook. They want their voices heard. I believe this bill will bring greater confidence to the system.
A government issued ID photo is a small requirement to protect our precious right to vote. Indeed, even without an ID a voter still may be sworn in. That makes Canada by far one of the easiest jurisdictions in which one can exercise one's franchise.
There are other components to our system that make Canada a model for the world, including our system of professional returning officers. In my riding of Sydney—Victoria we have always been blessed with competent returning officers and our electoral staff. They undergo more training than ever before and this adds to the credibility of our system.
I believe the bill in a small way helps keep faith in the integrity of our system and that is why I am support the bill.