Canada's election day conflicts with Jewish holiday

Two observant Jews take Canada’s government to court in effort to move date of federal vote which conflicts with Shemini Atzeret.

Elad Benari,

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Reuters

Two observant Jews are taking Canada’s top election official to court in an effort to move the date of the upcoming federal vote because it conflicts with the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the Canadian Jewish News reports.

Chani Aryeh-Bain, the Conservative candidate in the Toronto-area riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, and Ira Walfish, a community activist who lives in the York Centre riding, have filed an application in Federal Court to shift the voting day from October 21 to October 28.

The application says that Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault’s refusal to recommend moving the election date is unreasonable and discriminates against observant Jews, who are prevented from voting on October 21.

“To observant Jews, the holy day of Shemini Atzeret is a day of great religious significance,” the 10-page application states, noting that that holiday, religious Jews are prohibited from driving to polling stations or marking a ballot. As well, they may not campaign or encourage other Jews to vote, the court action states.

“This has significant impact on the applicants, as well as the other observant Jews in Canada,” the court document claims.

The advance polls, which are scheduled to take place October 11-14, are also presenting challenges. October 11, a Friday, “is the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, which means that similar restrictions for religiously observant Jewish people will apply” until the next evening.

Sukkot, which involves the same prohibitions, begins at sundown on October 13 and continues through the final advance polling day of October 14.

“Thus, of the four days provided as advanced polling dates, observant Jews will not be able to vote on two of them,” says the filing, according to the Canadian Jewish News.

Since the last date for observant Jews to vote is October 13, “these voters are forced to exercise their voting rights without the benefit of any information or developments that might become available from the evening of Sunday, October 13, up to and including … October 21.”

The filing also notes that, as an observant Jew, Aryeh-Bain “will suffer significant prejudice to her campaign. She will not be able to campaign on election day. She will not be able to instruct others to campaign on her behalf. She will also be prohibited from encouraging other Jews to vote for her on election day or on two of the four advance polling dates.”

The application says both Aryeh-Bain and Walfish wrote to Perrault asking that he press for the election to be moved. In his message, Walfish pointed out that the last week of an election campaign is “a critical time,” and it is “discriminatory to tell over 75,000 voters that they cannot vote on election day because of religious observance.”

In early May, Aryeh-Bain received a reply, in which Perrault did not agree to recommend that the election be moved to accommodate observant Jews. No reasons were given. The court action claims that Perrault exercised his discretion “unreasonably,” because he failed to balance the Canada Elections Act with the religious freedoms outlined in the Charter of Rights.

Elections Canada spokesperson Ghislain Desjardins told the Canadian Jewish News that it would be “inappropriate” to comment, given that the matter is before the courts.

However, The Canadian Press reported this week that the chief electoral officer was not ready to recommend changing the date “this close to the start of the election.” CP cited a statement calling the timing of election day and Shemini Atzeret “unfortunate.”

In an email to the Canadian Jewish News in late March, Desjardins outlined other options for observant voters, saying they can cast ballots at any Elections Canada office from the time the election is called, until October 15.

If voting by mail, special ballots can be applied for until October 15 and can be received until October 21, Desjardins added.

In a statement, B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said that the chief electoral officer has the discretion to shift the date of an election to avoid “a day of cultural or religious significance,” but “has inexplicably failed to take that entirely logical step.”

B’nai Brith said it raised the matter with Perrault in April and is considering intervening in the court challenge.

Both York Centre and Eglinton-Lawrence are represented by Liberals who defeated Jewish Conservative incumbents in the last election, noted the Canadian Jewish News.

Incumbent Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s main challenger in the next election is Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who is seen as pro-Israel and has said his party would follow the US lead and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The Conservative party last summer approved a resolution recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.

Trudeau has backed Israel as well, having denounced the BDS movement and condemned terrorist attacks against Israelis. At the same time, his foreign policy views both Israel and the Palestinian Authority as allies.

In addition to supporting Israel, Canada announced last year the transfer of an additional $50 million in aid to the PA, in addition to increasing aid to UNRWA, the UN agency for “Palestinian refugees”.




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