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Hamilton school trustees give Fair Elections Act an F

Bill blasted for undermining efforts to get students to vote

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is joining a chorus of critics who are giving the federal government’s proposed Fair Elections Act a failing grade.

Trustees voted unanimously last week to endorse concerns outlined by the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association in a three-page letter to a parliamentary committee that is reviewing Bill C-23.

OPSBA criticizes the lack of public consultation on the legislation and provisions it says reduce the power of Canada’s chief electoral officer, scrap programs encouraging people to vote and create barriers to voting.

The latter includes no longer allowing people to use their voter information cards as proof of their address, a provision OPSBA says amounts to “voter suppression” because it could disenfranchise up to 100,000 marginalized Canadians.

Judith Bishop, trustee for wards 1 and 2, pushed for the endorsement, arguing the board strives to teach students about “the election process and the importance of exercising democratic rights.”

She said the bill also runs contrary to initiatives like Student Vote, which tries to reverse a trend of dropping voter turnouts by encouraging students below the voting age to cast ballots in parallel elections.

“Our job as a board of education is to create new citizens, to educate people about civic rights, to demonstrate how democracy runs and within our schools to teach about the importance of being involved in our communities,” Bishop said.

While supporting the endorsement, central Mountain trustee Lillian Orban questioned if the board is getting mixed up in partisan politics. Bill C-23 is being pushed by the governing Conservatives.

“We do not side with various participants or parties,” she said. “We support children and community. Having said that, what I’m hoping for is what would happen when I was at school and we had political debates.

“We debated issues that would make this country stronger, like the democratic process.”

Board chair Jessica Brennan said endorsing the OPSBA letter is no more partisan than sending a letter to provincial ministers asking them to consider concerns about an issue.

“Although they as a government are of a certain political stripe, as government, they are seen as government for all people,” she said. “The same (is true) federally, so I strongly support this.”

Ward 3 trustee Tim Simmons said Ottawa should be looking for ways to make it easier to participate in elections, possibly through online voting.

“This is going to affect disaffected people, poor people, people of high mobility,” he said. “I think it’s important as municipal politicians that we take a stand on it as well.”

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