Federal byelections in the Toronto ridings of Toronto Centre and York Centrte, set for October 26, will be held as scheduled.
Recently elected Green Party leader Annamie Paul who is running in Toronto Centre had called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to suspend the byelections on the grounds that democracy and fairness to voters are in jeopardy as the city faces its highest-ever case totals of COVID-19.
“I’m sure that any candidate running in either one of those byelections feels the same way I do, that these are just not the conditions under which you can have a free, fair and, above all, safe election,” Paul said.
But Prime Minister Trudeau said he made the decision to call the byelelections now because he was worried that putting them off any longer could be even more dangerous.
“We made a determination that moving forward quickly on these byelections was probably the safest thing to do,” he said.
He pointed out that by law he had to set the dates for both byelections within six months of the seats being vacated, which for both seats means by the end of February.
Former finance minister Bill Morneau resigned as Toronto Centre’s MP on August 21, and Liberal Michael Levitt stepped down as the MP for York Centre on September 1.
The Ontario government recently imposed new restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and other public gatherings to try to get people to reduce their in-person activities and slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Paul says there are low-income and racialized neighbourhoods in Toronto Centre that are among the hardest hit and asking people to participate in a byelection now is unwise and undemocratic. She said people cannot properly engage with potential candidates and may have to put themselves at risk to vote.
She said Trudeau’s decision not to call the byelections off for now is putting people in danger and contradicts public health advice.
Under the Canada Elections Act, an election or byelection can be called off if holding it would be impractical due to “flood, fire or other disaster.” The chief electoral officer can make a recommendation that an election be cancelled but it is up to the prime minister and cabinet to make the call to do so.
The Governor General would formally be the one to call off an election, on the advice of cabinet.
Deciding whether an election is impractical would be based on safety of voters and poll workers, how many people in a riding are affected, whether it would be hard to get enough poll workers and polling places to run properly, and how long the disruption could last.
If the election were called off it would have to be rescheduled within three months, which would mean by late January for the October votes.
A spokeswoman for Elections Canada chief Stéphane Perrault said the agency is monitoring the situation and that she is in contact with public health and local returning officers in both ridings.
Paul, a human rights lawyer, is one of two candidates from Toronto’s Black community ruuning in the byelection in Toronto Centre.
The other Black candidate is television broadcaster Marci Ien of the Liberal party.
Political observers say that the Liberals are likely to hold on to both Toronto seats in the this month’s byelection.
They note that Toronto Centre has voted Liberal in every election since 1993.
And in the case of York Centre, the Liberals have won the seat in every election since 1962 with the exception of the 2011 elections.