Canada's national election: A tale of two booths

Will results be skewed by lack of Jewish turnout on October 14, the first day of Succot?

By RHONDA SPIVAK
October 7, 2008 14:22
Canada's national election: A tale of two booths

Stephen Harper 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy )

For what appears to be the first time in Canadian history, elections are taking place this year on a Jewish holiday, the first day of Succot, on October 14. The election was called by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who hopes to be reelected with a majority government, rather than merely retain his current minority government. To obtain a majority, the Conservatives need to win 28 seats more than the 127 they currently have. In 2007, parliament passed a law calling for fixed elections - the next election was to have been on October 19, 2009. The opposition Liberal Party, which currently has 95 seats, has said that Harper broke that law to call this election. In Canada, unlike Israel, the act of voting requires making a mark on the ballot rather than placing a paper in an envelope. Prior to the October 14 election date being announced, the Canadian Jewish Congress wrote to the prime minister saying that holding an election on the first day of Succot "would have a very adverse impact on the Jewish electorate, as well as scrutineers, drivers, other campaign and Election Canada volunteers." Last year Liberal Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty moved the date of Ontario's election by six days to avoid a conflict with Shmini Atzeret. Many members of the Jewish community hoped that this would serve as a precedent that Harper would follow. Following the choice of the Succot election date, the CJC, B'nai Brith Canada, the Jewish federations and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee all undertook to make significant efforts to notify the community of alternative ways Jews could vote. These three ways were going to advance polls, voting by mail or going to a local Elections Canada office. While campaigning, Stephane Dion, the leader of the Liberal Party, said in Winnipeg, "I believe holding the election on [the first day of Succot] violates the right of Jewish Canadians to equal participation in the electoral process... It's not an acceptable answer to say that the Jewish community can vote in the advanced polls. The point is that many Jews will not be able to participate as fully as they would like to on election day itself [as volunteers, drivers, telephone contacts and the like]." He added that Jewish voters ought to be able "to take into account the last week of the campaign before they have to cast a vote." The Conservative Party has countered that October 14 was chosen because the Canadian Elections Act requires that an election must be on a Monday, unless Monday is a national holiday. Monday October 13 is Thanksgiving, so the next day was chosen. Harper also did not want to choose a date that conflicted with the Francophonie international conference in Quebec City from October 17-19. Harper has said he does not want to miss an opportunity to stand with Israel at that event as he did in 2006. At the 2006 Francophonie, he refused to sign a resolution that chastised Israel for the Second Lebanon War when it defended itself against Hizbullah, despite pressure from the international community . CJC co-president Rabbi Reuven Bulka released a statement saying, "We know Prime Minister Harper is a man of faith, and understand the challenges he must have faced in determining a date for the election." B'nai Brith Canada announced that the choice of date "was regrettable but understandable." But Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a former minister of justice and a former president of the CJC, has vocally protested the choice of election date. Cotler voted in advance and is widely expected to be reelected in Montreal's Mount-Royal riding, where Jews make up approximately 24 percent of the voters. But, he says "I will be in synagogue on that day [October 14] as will my campaign manager, and my volunteer organizers." Cotler says that there are a lot of elderly people in his riding. "We used to drive them to vote, but now we can't offer this, so some of them won't vote." Many wonder how the Jewish community would feel if Cotler were ever to lose his riding by a few votes because his campaign was constrained by the fact that it couldn't properly get out all of its supporters because of the choice of election day. Another issue that has emerged in the campaign is that Harper's Conservatives voted against a Cotler resolution that was adopted by Parliament's Foreign Affairs Human Rights Subcommittee. The resolution required that Canada refer Iran's incitement to genocide to the UN Security Council. The Conservatives responded that they opposed Cotler's resolution because there is no guarantee that a prosecution would be successful, and it could turn out to be counterproductive. IN A LETTER to the editor in the September 18 issue of the Canadian Jewish News, Corey Sharfman of Thornhill, Ontario, wrote that "the idea that the election could not be on any other day besides this Jewish holiday is insulting to all of us." He also expressed disappointment at Rabbi Bulka for "shamefully giving away our integrity as a religious national community" in accepting Harper's explanation. On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Friedman of Beth Israel (Orthodox) Synagogue in Edmonton, said since alternative ways to vote are available, he has no problem with the choice of date. "We're perfectly happy to vote for a candidate based on their track record, not based on how well they campaign in the final week," he said. Joseph Cohen, an Orthodox Jew in Winnipeg, said, "I live in a secular country. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are identified on secular calendars as Jewish holy days, so no one would hold an election then. But most Jews themselves don't observe Succot." In Ontario, there are a number of ridings in which the results potentially could be affected by the numbers of Orthodox who exercised their right to vote in advance. In Thornhill, Toronto, where Jewish voters make up 35%-40% of the riding, Liberal MP Susan Kandis, is facing Conservative Peter Kent, a well-known broadcaster. Kandis said she's been getting feedback from Orthodox Jews that they are "disappointed" and "feeling left out." She says it's "unknown" whether this could be a factor in the election's results. Kent, on the other hand, has emphasized the Conservatives' voting record at the UN. On his Web site, he says in a speech: "Thank heavens we've emerged from the recent years... when Liberal prime ministers said one thing at the annual B'nai Brith dinner and then directed our UN mission to join in ritualized attacks on Israel..." Another riding in which the Jewish vote could be pivotal is Eglington-Lawrence in Toronto. Liberal MP Joseph Volpe says the riding is 23% Jewish, and while campaigning he's encountered Orthodox Jews "who told me that they would like to vote for me but they won't vote in advance because they don't want to condone the decision to hold an election on their holiday... I'm a Catholic and if someone wanted to have an election on Sunday, it wouldn't be okay to say it's not Christmas or Easter Sunday." Volpe's challenger Conservative Joe Oliver says voters understand Harper "didn't have a choice" in setting the date. "The Jewish community is extremely supportive of the principled actions of Stephen Harper. He's willing to stand with Israel in times of peril, and often alone," he said. In Toronto's York-Centre, which is 17% Jewish, Liberal MP Ken Dryden is being challenged by Conservative Rochelle Wilner, a past president of B'nai Brith Canada. Dryden said he has encountered Orthodox Jews "who won't vote because it is on Succot," as well as others who said "they will vote [or voted] in an alternate way." But, he said, "two out of the three advanced polling dates are problematic because they fall over Shabbat, so the options are fewer than they appear." When asked about the Succot election date, Wilner said, "The Jewish community remembers that with Mr. Harper's government, Canada was the first country in the world to cut off funds to Hamas after it was elected in Gaza. Mr Harper has also been the first to refuse to participate in Durban II." She said she was aware of lots of Jewish voters from abroad who voted by mail by special ballot. IN ADDITION to the controversy over the choice of election date, the prime minister also faced questions early in the campaign about religious profiling after he sent Jewish Canadians Rosh Hashana cards wishing them a "Happy and Sweet New Year." This was the second consecutive year that this was done and critics claimed that the cards raised serious concerns over voter privacy. Some Jews were upset that they got on Harper's card list. Others were upset they didn't. Some non-Jews who have "Jewish-sounding" last names received the cards and were either amused or offended. One voter, Hascal Greenfeld, said, "We were so pleased that we hung the card up." But, Eran Plotnik said he was very upset to receive the card. "How does Harper know that I am Jewish?" he asked. Last year when Plotnik got the card, he says he telephoned Georgianne Burke, the manager of community relations for the Conservative Party. "She told me that she was Jewish, from Ottawa, and she was in charge of the campaign to send out cards from publicly available lists. She said it was assumed that I was Jewish based on my last name... I said her party had singled me out in a non-scientific way and I wanted to be taken off the list." Plotnik adds that this year he again received a card and called her to protest. Janet Frohlich, in the Winnipeg-South riding, was surprised and upset when a message on her telephone call display during her family dinner on Erev Rosh Hashana said "Stephen Harper." Slater, who answered the telephone, said "Stephen Harper's Ottawa Campaign office was calling me on Rosh Hashana to ask for my support. Since Stephen Harper sent me a card for Rosh Hashana because he knew I was Jewish, how come his office didn't know not to call and bother me during my holiday? Another Jewish Canadian said that last year after getting a card she also protested to Burke. "But this year I got another card that was addressed to my mother, who has been long deceased and never even lived at my address," she said. Burke, when contacted, said, "I do not speak to the media." But Mike Storeshaw, from the prime minister's campaign press office, said, "The list is compiled through publicly available directories and registries," and noted that Harper also sends out Christmas and Chinese New Year cards. Another Conservative spokeswoman from that office, who identified herself as Lyn, said, "There are party members that are Jewish, who are members of other Jewish organizations, and they identify people who they believe would like a card from the prime minister." In parliament, the Liberals demanded unsuccessfully that the Conservatives reveal how they compile their list of Jewish voters. Whatever the results of the upcoming election, it's clear that the Jewish holidays have been at the forefront of the campaign far more than is usual for a Canadian election.


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