Montreal

Quebec politicians, Muslims slam new election rules on veils

Quebec Premier Jean Charest opposes new federal election rules that will allow Muslim women with concealed faces to vote in coming byelections, calling the policy a bad one.

Federal law now allows women wearing niqabs or burkas to vote with their faces concealed

Quebec Premier Jean Charest is slamming new federal election rules that will allow Muslim women with concealed faces to vote in coming byelections, calling the policy a bad one.

Charest said on Friday the matter was settled in Quebec during the recent provincial election, and those rules should extend across the board.

At the time, Quebec's chief election officer said Muslim women wearing niqabs or burkas had to show their faces in order to vote.

"We had that debate in Quebec during the general election campaign of the 26th of March, and I think they should apply the same policy that we have here in Quebec," he said in his home riding of Sherbrooke on Friday.

Muslim women wearing niqabs or burkas over their faces won't have to remove them to vote in the three byelections, according to Bill C-31, a new federal law.

Elections Canada spokesman John Enright says new electoral rules enacted in June provide guidelines to identify registered voters whose faces are hidden for medical or religious reasons.

The new rules give electors wearing niqabs or burkas an option for providing identification: 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, Enright said.

The Bloc Québécois has also urged Elections Canada to reverse its new rules.

The Bloc said on Friday it sent a letter to the federal elections office asking for the change for the Sept. 17 byelections.

Bloc MP Mario Laframboise, who signed the letter, said the new rules are "troubling," especially in light of the debate about head coverings during the Quebec provincial election.

At that time, the province's chief election officer said Muslim women wearing niqabs or burkas had to show their faces to vote.

Elections Canada says it won't comment on the Bloc letter.

The Council on American Islamic Relations Canada is concerned about possible backlash brought on by the new rules.

"The chaos that preceded the Quebec election stigmatized a lot of people, and so a lot of people were actually scared to vote," said Sarah Elgazzar, a spokeswoman with the council.

Only a small number of Muslim women wear the niqab or burka, and they have never asked for special treatment, Elgazzar said.

Afifa Naz, an engineer in Montreal, wears a niqab but understands there are situations in which she must unveil. "This is not something we demand," she told CBC News. "We can accommodate the needs of society while practising our religion."

Naz said she's always taken off her niqab to identify herself before voting, and also removes it when passing through airport security or border crossings.

The Sept. 17 byelections are in the Montreal riding of Outremont, the rural riding of St-Hyacinthe-Bagot and the Roberval-Lac-St-Jean riding north of Quebec City. Advance polling started on Friday.

With files from the Canadian Press