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Byelections called now because future risks from COVID-19 could be worse: Trudeau

OTTAWA — The two federal byelections underway in Toronto will continue even as cases of COVID-19 soar in the city, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.

Byelections for Toronto Centre and York Centre are set to take place Oct. 26. Green party Leader Annamie Paul, who is running for her party in Toronto Centre, called on Trudeau Friday 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.

Trudeau said he made the decision to call the votes now because he worried 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 said by law he had to set the dates for both byelections within six months of the seats being vacated, which for both seats means they have to be held by the end of February.

Former finance minister Bill Morneau resigned as Toronto Centre’s MP Aug. 21, and Liberal Michael Levitt stepped down as the MP for York Centre on Sept. 1. 

Toronto reported more than 300 new cases of COVID-19 Friday and the province imposed new restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and other public gatherings to try to force people to reduce their in-person activities and slow the spread of the 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.

Under the Canada Elections Act, the chief electoral officer can recommend that it is unsafe to continue an election, but it is up to the prime minister to make the actual call.

That power has never been used in Canada, though at the provincial level similar powers have been. That includes most recently in Prince Edward Island when the vote in one riding during the last provincial election was delayed several weeks after one of the candidates died in the middle of the campaign.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2020.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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