Politics

Canadians appear to be heading into a pandemic election — and many are wondering why

The coming federal election will arrive with numerous safety concerns and threatens the loss of hard-fought legislation.

Election comes amid a worsening 4th wave and risks the loss of hard-fought legislation

Public health experts say the coming federal election will need to be conducted under strict satefy guidelines, possibly including an extended voting period and larger polling stations. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A variant-fuelled fourth wave of the pandemic is pushing COVID-19 case counts to their highest levels in months.

Extreme heat and wildfires are threatening the lives and homes of people in British Columbia.

All of which has Canadians wondering — why exactly are we having an election right now?

"I am surprised to hear that it's happening so early," said Emma Boyce, who was out with a friend in Ottawa when she heard the news on Thursday.

"It's not a good time … it's COVID," said Ankur Virani, also in Ottawa. "Not right now."

So, why now?

Government sources have told CBC News that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit the Governor General tomorrow to ask for a snap election that will see Canadians casting their votes on Sept. 20.

The decision means the minority Liberal government will have spent less than two years in power before asking voters for another chance at the majority government Trudeau's Liberals enjoyed during their first four years in office.

Elections in Canada are supposed to be held on fixed dates every four years, but that legislation doesn't prevent a prime minister from asking for an earlier vote.

"Clearly, this is an election of opportunity because the government wants to get a clear majority," said Fareed Khan, founder of the anti-racism advocacy group Canadians United Against Hate.

"Was there any compelling reason that an election was called?" he added. "I don't think so."

Since the election has not yet been announced officially by the government, we'll have to wait until Sunday to hear exactly why Trudeau thinks sending Canadians to the polls now is the best move for the country.

Earlier this year, Trudeau repeatedly pointed to what he described as a lack of cooperation and "obstructionism" from opposition parties, which hold considerable power in a minority Parliament.

Will it be safe?

Despite Canada's standing as one of the world leaders in vaccination, some experts warn that an election during a global pandemic is something to be avoided.

Those concerns have been amplified by the emergence of the delta variant — more virulent and more transmissible than previous versions — which now makes up the bulk of COVID-19 cases in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to ask Gov. Gen. Mary Simon to dissolve Parliament on Sunday, marking the start of a 36-day election campaign. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"I don't think having an election right now is a good idea," said Dr. Jeff Kwong, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Toronto, in an email. He said Canada appears to be on the cusp of a "brutal" wave driven by the delta variant.

"The campaign and election will likely amplify this wave and voter turnout will probably be dampened due to fear of infection," Kwong added.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said earlier this month that voting in a pandemic climate can be done safely, although she didn't comment on the risks involved in parties conducting cross-country campaigns (which presumably will forego much of the glad-handing and baby-kissing of non-pandemic campaigns).

What will voting look like?

According to Elections Canada, as many as five million Canadians are expected to vote by mail in the election, compared to fewer than 50,000 in the 2019 vote.

Dr. Fahad Razak, a member of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said precautionary measures like mail-in voting and a more spread-out voting period could keep the election safe.

He also pointed to recent provincial and territorial elections, which took place without any firm evidence that they were driving transmission rates.

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Six provinces and territories will have conducted general elections by the time Canadians vote on Sept. 20. 

"They did manage and I think we can learn from their example," Razak said.

Some polling stations used in previous elections may no longer be appropriate if they're too small to allow for adequate physical distancing, he added.

"Obviously, the pandemic has changed the calculation around what kind of space can be used," Razak said.

Is this a good use of time and resources?

To some, the answer to that question is an emphatic no.

Legislation that was working its way through Parliament and the Senate this year —  including proposals to regulate online hate speech and ban the practice of conversion therapy — will all die when the next government is formed, even if the Liberals retain power.

That means their eventual implementation could be delayed by years, depending on how quickly the next government moves.

Khan said those are unnecessary setbacks.

"This Parliament has managed to get work done in a minority situation," he said.

But non-parliamentary work, such as efforts to fight the wildfires in B.C., likely would not be affected by an election.

Fire crews tackle the Nk’Mip Creek fire near Osoyoos, B.C. on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"I don't expect the election itself would take resources away from fighting wildfires," said Cam Fenton of the environmental advocacy group 350.org from his office in Squamish, B.C.

He said the fires in his province are likely to still be burning come election day, which he hopes will inspire voters to push for stronger plans to tackle climate change.

"If you're going to call an election in the midst of a wildfire and heat-driven climate emergency, you better show up with a plan that meets the scale of that crisis," he said.

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