Prime Minister Stephen Harper blasted Elections Canada Sunday for going against a parliamentary ruling by allowing Muslim women to wear veils and burkas while voting.

The move goes directly against a unanimous vote in the House of Commons this past spring to make visual identification mandatory when casting a ballot.

"I profoundly disagree with the decision," Harper told reporters in Sydney, Australia where he is attending the APEC conference. "We just adopted this past sitting, in the spring, Bill C-31, a law designed to have the visual identification of voters. That's the purpose of the law.

"That was the law voted virtually unanimously by Parliament and I think that this decision goes in an entirely different direction," he continued.

The Elections Canada ruling was prompted by three upcoming byelections in Quebec on Sept. 17 in ridings that are significantly multi-cultural. The arms-length elections agency has scheduled a news conference on Monday to discuss their decision.

On their website, Elections Canada reiterated their policies on wearing religious face coverings while voting.

It states that if an elector produces an original government-issued photo identification that contains her name and home address then she has the following options:

  • She may choose to unveil to identify herself
  • She may produce a second original piece of identification from Chief Electoral Officer of Canada's authorized list of identification
  • She may come with another elector who is registered in the same polling division and who can provide adequate proof of their own identification to vouch for her identity. They would both need to make a sworn statement under oath.

Harper said Parliament will have to find a way to make sure the House's ruling takes effect.

"The role of Elections Canada is not to make its own laws, it's to put into place the laws that Parliament has passed," he said.

Liberal Opposition Leader Stephane Dion agreed with Harper when speaking with reporters in Vancouver on Sunday.

"We disagree with the Elections Canada decision and we ask them to revisit their decision," he said.

He said female officials with Elections Canada could be on hand at polling stations, to identify women behind their veils.

"It's important to identify the person," he said. "It may be done in a very respectful way, but it must be done."

Speaking on CTV's Question Period Sunday morning, a panel of political strategists agreed a compromise has to be made on the issue.

However, NDP President Anne McGrath said Elections Canada is an agency that "knows what it is doing."

"Elections Canada goes around the world helping other countries with their elections," she said. "I think the officials at Elections Canada know how to make sure that the voting is accurate."

Ruling would 'stigmatize' Muslim women

A spokesperson with the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations in Montreal said Muslim women were never consulted on whether they even wanted the exception.

"My jaw dropped. I was very surprised. Muslim women wearing the Niqab, which is the face veil, never made the request to have to keep it on while they vote," said spokeswoman Sarah Elgazzar, speaking to CTV Montreal.

Elgazzar said Elections Canada might have had good intentions but the ruling was "unnecessary."

"It's absolutely unnecessary. Those women wearing a niqab always identify themselves when they need to identify themselves. The photo I.D. they show to people at the ballot box is a photo without a face veil. So people will clearly be seeing their faces," she said.

"This will only stigmatize the women and embroil this debate," she continued. "I think perhaps at Elections Canada there were good intentions but it will certainly not have good consequences."

Even Pierre Cote, who was Quebec's chief electoral officer for 19 years before retiring, told CTV Montreal the ruling is a dangerous one.

"When one is in a polling station, they must be clearly identified or else you run the risk of fraud," he said.

With a report from CTV Montreal