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Fewer than half of ballots returned so far in B.C.’s electoral reform referendum


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VANCOUVER — An advocate for maintaining British Columbia’s electoral system as it is questions whether residents really care about reform, given voter turnout figures released on the final day of the referendum campaign.

Elections BC said it had received 41 per cent of eligible ballots by Friday morning in the referendum, which asks voters whether they would prefer to keep the existing first-past-the-post system or move to a form of proportional representation.

Ballots could be returned by mail or in person and those received before a 4:30 p.m. deadline on Friday will be counted.

“Forty-one per cent indicates to me that most British Columbians really don’t find proportional representation or our electoral system an extremely important topic,” said Bill Tieleman, Vote No spokesman, adding it’s likely that the turnout will remain lower than two previous referendums in 2005 and 2009.

“It kind of indicates what we’ve said all along, that this referendum wasn’t necessary.”

In 2005, voter turnout was 61 per cent. About 57 per cent of ballots were cast in favour of proportional representation, which did not meet the threshold of 60 per cent to make it binding on the government.

Four years later, voter turnout was 55 per cent and 61 per cent voted in favour of first past the post.

The latest referendum is binding and the winner will be declared by a simple majority of votes cast.

Tieleman said if the vote favours proportional representation, he’d question whether the electorate really supports the shift. If turnout remains in the range of 40 per cent and just over half of those votes are for change, that would mean only about 20 per of the electorate voted for proportional representation, while 80 per cent either voted against it or didn’t vote at all, he said.

But Green party Leader Andrew Weaver, who supports proportional representation, said the results should be accepted whatever they may be. If civic election results are accepted when turnout is lower than 41 per cent, then so should the referendum results, he said.

“The reality is, this is our democratic system. We are entitled to vote, we can vote if we wish and if we choose not to vote, we make that choice accordingly,” Weaver said.

“We have all along said that we will support whatever outcome there is. It’s an exciting opportunity for people to get engaged in discussions about our democratic institutions and the people are ultimately right. Whatever they choose is what we’ll move forward with.”

Maria Dobrinskaya, an advocate with the Vote PR BC campaign, said low voter turnout is a symptom of the public’s disengagement with the current political system and that’s one of the things the Yes side hopes electoral reform will change.

“I would like to see voter turnout be a lot higher and citizen participation in our democratic processes a lot more engaged. I’m hoping that bringing in a new way of voting will be one part of starting to address that,” she said.

Given that the vote could change the fundamentals of British Columbia’s democracy, B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said he’d prefer to see a strong majority vote one way or the other. But he said passing the 40 per cent turnout mark is impressive, because it is a complicated topic.

“This was such a confusing ballot that it’s actually comforting to see that many people took the time to sort it out and cast their vote, so we’re all going to be watching with interest to see what people decide,” Wilkinson said.

He expressed concern, however, that if proportional representation passes, an even smaller portion of the electorate will have voted in favour of the particular form it takes. A second question on the ballot asked voters to rank one of three forms of proportional representation, which has the support of the province’s NDP government.

“If less than a quarter of the public chooses to change to proportional representation, and then a fraction of them choose one of the NDP-selected systems, I think there’s going to be a real problem,” Wilkinson said.

Elections BC spokeswoman Rebecca Penz said final turnout numbers will continue to be reported into early next week. She said the elections authority is hoping to release results by Christmas.

Other provinces, including Prince Edward Island and Ontario, have also held referendums on their electoral systems but neither made any changes.

In Prince Edward Island in 2016, the Liberal government decided not to honour a provincial plebiscite on electoral reform, in which only 36 per cent of eligible voters took part. Premier Wade MacLauchlan said it was debatable whether the result reflected the will of Islanders, and announced another vote will be held during the 2019 provincial election.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

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‘Freedom Convoy’ organizers’ trial on scheduled break until after Thanksgiving

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Tamara Lich arrives for her trial at the courthouse in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Lich and fellow Freedom Convoy organizer Chris Barber are charged with mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

By Laura Osman in Ottawa

The trial of “Freedom Convoy” organizers Tamara Lich and Chris Barber has begun a scheduled break that will continue until after Thanksgiving.

The court finished hearing the testimony of Serge Arpin, the chief of staff to Ottawa’s former mayor, on Friday.

He spoke about how the city responded to the protest that overwhelmed the downtown core for three weeks in early 2022.

Arpin also testified about his interactions with convoy organizers while working out a deal with former mayor Jim Watson to move big-rig trucks out of residential neighbourhoods.

The evidence was originally due to be wrapping up by this point in the trial, which had been scheduled to last 16 days, but Arpin is just the fourth witness to finish his testimony.

The trial was expected to hear from 22 witnesses, leaving the court to ponder how much more time will be needed to reach the finish line.

Justice Heather Perkins-McVey, who is overseeing the trial, has identified several dates in October and November. 

Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer representing Lich, said he does not want to set new court dates until the Crown has established a new, more accurate time estimate for its case.

As of Friday, the trial is expected to resume Oct. 11.

Lich and Barber are charged with mischief and counselling others commit offences such as mischief and intimidation for their role in organizing and prolonging the demonstration.

The defence questioned Arpin Friday about how city council and staff attempted to put an end the protest. As the mayor’s chief of staff, Arpin told the court he sat in on every council meeting.

He was grilled about a bylaw change on Feb. 9 last year that banned idling in a vehicle unless the temperature fell at or below -15 C. The bylaw originally allowed idling if the temperature was below 5 C.

“City council … was attempting to freeze out the truckers and their families,” Greenspon told the court.

Arpin said he believed the intention was to bring the demonstration to an end.

Arpin was also involved in the deal between Watson, Lich and other organizers to move trucks out of residential neighbourhoods and onto Wellington Street, in front of Parliament Hill.

He texted back and forth with the convoy organizers’ lawyer Keith Wilson on Feb. 14 and 15 in an exchange that was filed as evidence in the trial.

The texts suggest city staff did not give protest organizers or their lawyers a heads-up about plans to file a court injunction against demonstrators who violated city bylaws.

“Just so you know, it is highly irregular for the city’s lawyers to have done this without providing us lawyers here with notice,” Wilson wrote to Arpin on Feb. 15.

“This could change everything.”

Arpin told Wilson he was under the impression they knew about the court filing, but said in court that he never informed them himself until after the injunction was granted by a judge.

Lawyers representing the convoy organizers were not given an opportunity to oppose the application in court at the time.

The deal between Lich and the mayor fell apart later that day when police would no longer allow trucks to move closer to Parliament.

Arpin confirmed the police service underwent a change in command that day as a result of the police chief’s resignation.

He apologized to Wilson at the time, the text messages show.

“Our goal has always been de-escalation and I know you share this goal,” he texted to Wilson on the 16th.

The Crown hopes to pick up its case in October with eight local witnesses from Ottawa who lived or worked downtown during the Freedom Convoy protest.

Lich and Barber have already admitted that there was mischief taking place in the protest zone.

Greenspon has argued that the testimony of those witnesses would be akin to victim impact statements, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to be heard during the trial.


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B.C. premier suspects Ottawa holding back information about foreign interference

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A flock of birds flies past as Moninder Singh, front right, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC), waits to speak to reporters outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, September 18, 2023, where temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck


British Columbia Premier David Eby said he “strongly” suspects that the federal government is holding back information that could help the province protect its residents who have connections to India from foreign interference.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc has reached out, saying Ottawa wants to make sure the provincial government has the details it needs to keep B.C. residents safe, “but there has not been good information sharing,” the premier said Friday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed in Parliament on  Monday that Canadian intelligence services were investigating “a potential link” between the Indian government and the fatal shooting of Sikh advocate Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June.

In response to the killing, Eby said on Friday that the priority should be protecting the criminal prosecution process so people can be held accountable for the killing.

But on the broader issue of ensuring community safety, he said there’s “a long way to go to share that information.”

Eby said people in B.C. have been “feeling pressure from India,” and he believes Ottawa has information through agencies including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that could help respond to foreign interference.

The premier’s initial statement in response to Trudeau’s announcement called on Ottawa to “share all relevant information” related not only to foreign interference, but also to “transnational organized crime threats” in the province.

He said Friday that the prime minister had reached out before telling Parliament about the probe based on “credible” information about the potential link between India and Nijjar’s killing.

Eby accepted Trudeau’s offer for a briefing by CSIS, but everything the premier knows about the situation is “in the public realm,” he said.

“I expressed my frustration in the meeting with the CSIS director about our inability to get more concrete information,” Eby said.

He made the remarks during a media question-and-answer session after addressing local politicians at the Union of BC Municipalities conference.

Eby said he understands there may need to be reform around the law governing CSIS in order for the agency to share the kind of information he’s looking for.

“If that’s what’s required, let’s make it happen, because the only way that we’re going to make traction on this is by the federal government trusting the provincial government with information and being able to act on it in our local communities,” he said.

Nijjar was a prominent supporter of the Khalistan separatism movement that advocates for a Sikh homeland in India’s Punjab province. He had been working to organize an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora on independence from India at the time of his killing.

India designated Nijjar as a terrorist in 2020, an accusation he had denied.

Canada and India expelled each other’s diplomats in the fallout of Trudeau’s announcement, and India has halted visa services in Canada.

India’s government has denied the accusation as “absurd and motivated.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2023.

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