Harper slams Elections Canada ruling on veils

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he 'profoundly disagrees' with a recent decision by Elections Canada to allow Muslim women to vote with their faces covered by burkas or niqabs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he "profoundly disagrees" with a recent decision by Elections Canada to allow Muslim women to vote with their faces covered by burkas or niqabs.

Speaking at a news conference at the end of the APEC summit in Sydney, Australia, on Sunday, Harper said Elections Canada is subverting the will of Parliament by permitting women to cover their faces at polling stations.

"I profoundly disagree with the decision," Harper said, adding that it was at odds with federal legislation passed in late June.

"We just adopted this past sitting in the spring, Bill C-31, a law designed to have the visual identification of voters. It's the purpose of the law … and I think this decision goes in an entirely different direction," Harper said.

The prime minister also hinted that Parliament would take action if Elections Canada doesn't change course.

"I have to say that it concerns me greatly, because the role of Elections Canada is not to make its own laws. It's to put into place the laws that Parliament has passed, so I hope they will reconsider this decision," Harper said. "But in the meantime, if that doesn't happen, Parliament will have to consider what actions it's going to take to make sure its intentions are put into place."

Debate over the new voting provisions, announced on Thursday, comes amid preparations for three federal byelections in Quebec, to be held on Sept. 17.

The Bloc Québécois said on Friday it sent a letter to the federal elections office asking for the change for the byelections.

Bloc MP Pierre Paquette said the changes contravene "the spirit of the law."

"If you have to show some identification, you have to be able to see if the face in the ID is the same as the people in front of you," he said.

Elections Canada spokesman John Enright said Muslim women wearing the burkas or niqabs will have a couple of options at polling stations.

"They will be asked if they're willing to show their face. That's the first option that's presented to them," he said.

If women wish to keep their faces covered for religious reasons, they can present two pieces of ID, of which at least one must state their address, or they can have another voter registered in the same district vouch for them.

Veiled voters who only present one piece of government identification will have to show their face to confirm their identity.

Sarah Elgazzar,a spokeswomanfor theCanada Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Election Canada's accommodation for Muslims was not somethingthey wanted.Of the roughly 200,000 Muslims in Quebec,no more than50 wear the full head covering, she said.

"If anybody had actually bothered to ask the women that are actually concerned, and we are talking about a very small minority of women, they would have told them that they always take it off to identify their faces," she said."And they do it at the bank, they do it at border crossings, they do it at the airport."

Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer, has scheduled a news conference in Ottawa on Monday to talk more about the identification provisions of the Canada Elections Act.