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Prince Edward Island poised for battle over ’18th century’ voting system

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  • CHARLOTTETOWN — A referendum law that could see the cradle of Confederation become the birthplace of proportional representation passed Tuesday, more than a year after Justin Trudeau struck the option from potential national reforms.

    P.E.I. legislators approved the Electoral System Referendum Act on Tuesday evening, laying out what Attorney General Jordan Brown describes as a “fair choice” that will “determine the electoral future of the province.”

    The question in the bill — “Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system?” — may also boost the system’s national exposure, alongside British Columbia’s preparations for a mail-in referendum on the issue this fall.

    The Island vote poses a simple “Yes” or “No” option, with political scientists predicting a tight battle over the outcome.

    Proponents are arguing P.E.I. is fertile ground for an early win for the system, depending on when a provincial election is held.

    One key argument is small jurisdictions like P.E.I. — where one of two parties often holds a lop-sided majority — don’t have sufficient checks on the government.

    “I think our electoral system is an 18th century system and we need to bring it into the 21st century,” says Leo Cheverie, an advocate for a “Yes” vote.

    However, opposition groups are now starting to form with sharply differing views.

    Opponents like Dr. Gary Morgan, a veterinarian in Mill River, P.E.I., says he fears his province will become a “battlefield and bellwether for people who want this electoral reform for regions in Canada.”

    “It’s a threat to rural voice in Prince Edward Island … in western P.E.I., we have five members representing us in the legislature and that would be down to two.”

    A “No” vote would mean the continuation of 27 legislature seats chosen by the first-past-the-post method, while a “Yes” creates a system of voters choosing 18 legislators in redrawn electoral districts and also casting province-wide ballots for nine others from lists parties create.

    The “list” seats would be assigned proportionately based on the popular vote each party received on the second part of the ballots.

    Under the terms of the referendum bill voted on Tuesday, members of the legislature must still briefly reconvene to approve a referendum commissioner. The bill says a victory for the “Yes” side will require a majority of votes cast in the referendum ballot in at least 60 per cent of the electoral districts.

    Mixed member proportional representation won a majority of the votes in a 2016 plebiscite on the Island, but Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan set the results aside due to a low turnout, promising he’d offer another referendum in the next general election.

    Political scientist Don Desserud says it’s too early to predict an outcome in Round 2.

    “The polling numbers are pretty evenly split … so it’s going to be interesting to see in an actual election how that plays out,” said the University of Prince Edward Island professor.

    Cheverie is already working behind the scenes, and predicts much of the campaign will occur through one-on-one chats among Islanders.

    The P.E.I. Proportional Representation Network website is using grassroots organizing methods, inviting participants to “share ideas,” and “if other citizens think it’s a good idea, they will join you and make it happen,” through online chat groups.

    “We’re in a new phase where we’re trying to have more people from bottom up taking action,” he said.

    Marcia Carroll, director of the P.E.I. Council of People with Disabilities, says she’s returning to the campaign in hopes of bringing people with disabilities into politics.

    “This has stirred something political in me deeper than I realized I had,” said Carroll. “We’re ready to go again … that’s the way we work. We don’t give up.”

    However, Desserud says the “No” side has the quiet support of the majority Liberal and Conservative politicians on the Island, and the emergence of Morgan’s group is a sign the opposing forces are marshalling.

    Morgan, a former Progressive Conservative candidate in the 1990s in western P.E.I., says he expects to form alliances with urban voters who object to voting for a candidate not actually based in their riding.

    “I don’t see the connection between the at-large member of the legislature and democracy,” he said.

    Desserud also says that the campaign structure created by the Liberals in the referendum bill has helped level the playing field, by restricting off-Island donations, keeping individual donations to $1,000, and setting up public funding for both sides to draw on for advertising.

    “I’m watching this with fascination to see what they (the Liberals) are doing … Are they just very, very confident that when the ‘No’ supporters get organized by a regular election campaign that this will kill it?” says the professor.

    Brown says the referendum bill — and the governing Liberals — are unbiased.

    “I have looked at all the different systems. They all have their pros and cons. Whatever Islanders want I’m more than fine with,” he said.

    Restrictions on outside donations and the role of provincial politicians are quite reasonable, he adds.

    “A fulsome debate should be enabled through a system that both promotes the sharing of ideas and education … and regulates that same process so that no wealthy or outside individual can disproportionately sway the will of the voters,” he said.

    James Aylward, the leader of the Tory opposition, said in an interview he is also staying neutral in the vote.

    “I’m not going to state my preference one way or the other,” he said. “I don’t think it should be the responsibility of elected members of the legislature to push their will on the electorate.”

    Peter Bevan-Baker, leader of the Green Party, said he voted against the referendum bill based on its lack of public consultation, but added, “it’s been improved immensely from its original draft.”

    Bevan-Baker said he suspects the government’s willingness to sit through a long session to pass the bill is a sign they’re holding open the option of a fall election, with the referendum on the ballot.

    “Perhaps we will be making a little bit of history,” he says.

    Trudeau had promised to abolish the first-past-the-post federal voting system during the 2015 election, but later abandoned the plan. The prime minister argued that consultations across the country revealed that Canadians were not clamouring for change.

    In B.C., a campaign asking voters whether they want to switch to proportional representation or keep the first-past-the-post system will start on July 1, with voting by mail-in ballot running from Oct. 22 to Nov. 30.

    — By Michael Tutton in Halifax

    The Canadian Press




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    Canada should do more to help women refugees worldwide: Oxfam Canada

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  • OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau’s self-proclaimed feminist government could and should be doing more to address gender-specific challenges faced by female refugees affected by wars and displacement.

    That’s according to a new report from Oxfam Canada, which takes a close look at how Canada provides international humanitarian aid and the gaps that exist when it comes to outcomes for women and girls in refugee situations.

    Canada has made great strides when it comes to making gender equality and feminism a key priority of its domestic and foreign policy agenda, but more can be done to help women being disproportionately affected by global crisis, the report says.

    “Currently, Canada’s international assistance funding is out of step with its ambition to be a world leader on gender equality and feminist aid and foreign policy,” the report states.

    “The fact that Canada’s international assistance spending is at a near historical low, merely reaching 0.26 per cent of gross national income, as compared to the UN aid target of 0.7 per cent, undermines its credibility and leadership on the international stage.”

    The study zeros in on areas where women in conflict zones are not getting the help they need or where efforts to improve gender equality in these areas are not being fully realized.

    Some of the findings are unsettling, including a statistic showing 25 to 50 per cent of maternal deaths in refugee camps are caused by unsafe abortions and related complications.

    This is due, in part, to a lack of adequate access to sexual and reproductive health services, which are often seen as a “second-tier” priority when people are forced to flee their homes due to conflict.

    “Our argument is that services are totally life-saving when you consider, for example, that last year 500 women and girls died during emergencies every single day from pregnancy and childbirth complications simply because sexual and reproductive health and rights weren’t a priority,” said Brittany Lambert, a women’s rights policy and advocacy specialist with Oxfam Canada.

    “These things should be prioritized from the very inception of these humanitarian responses and could save many lives.”

    Oxfam Canada also published findings last month following a series of interviews, focus groups and surveys of hundreds of women and men from the host and refugee communities in Bangladesh, suggesting Rohingya women and girls who survived genocide in Myanmar are facing new risks in refugee camps, notably when it comes to access to water and sanitation facilities.

    Some women are choosing to go hungry and thirsty and are restricting their children’s diets in order to limit their trips to these facilities to reduce risks of physical and sexual abuse and harassment, according to this research. 

    The organization is calling on Canada to develop a 10-year plan to achieve the United Nations aid target of 0.7 per cent of national income.

    It also wants Canada to establish a dedicated pool of 15 per cent of all its humanitarian aid to be specifically earmarked to address the needs of women and girls.

    “Right now the way Canada’s funding system works is that humanitarian assistance is aligned with the global humanitarian system priorities, which are things like shelter, water, food — but gender is not one of those categories,” Lambert said.

    “Women’s needs can be inserted into these categories but there are really limited funding opportunities to actually undertake programming that address gender inequality as a main goal so that’s why we’re calling for a stand alone pool of funding where Canada could actually fund this kind of feminist programming.”

    In addition, Oxfam Canada says the Trudeau government should take firmer action to ensure weapons do not end up in the hands of those who commit gender-based violence.

    Several international aid agencies, including Amnesty International, have said loopholes exist in Canada’s arms export policy that would allow arms sales to the United States — weapons which could end up being transferred to countries that abuse human rights.

    The government has announced several measures aimed at championing women’s issues both at home and abroad, including launching a feminist international assistance policy and a national action plan on women and government. Canada also disbursed more than $68 million in humanitarian assistance to support sexual and reproductive health needs in 2017-18.

    In addition, Canada has committed to increase its foreign aid effort by $2 billion over five years, which will bring total assistance to nearly $6 billion by 2021, says Global Affairs Canada.

    “We agree with the report that we need to ensure that the voices of civil society partners and affected communities, particularly women and girls, are included throughout the humanitarian response,” said the statement from Global Affairs Canada.

    “That is why Canada expects its partners to directly consult affected communities, and ensure that women and girls, in particular, are involved in the design of initiatives and decision-making processes that affect their lives.”

     

    —Follow @ReporterTeresa on Twitter.

     

    Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


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    MP pays tribute to baby daughter on pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day

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  • OTTAWA — Conservative MP Tom Kmiec choked back tears as he recalled his infant daughter in a heartfelt speech in the House of Commons to mark national pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day.

    Kmiec’s daughter Lucy-Rose died in August when she was only 39 days old.

    MPs from all parties struggled to maintain their own composure as an emotional Kmiec used a member’s statement as an opportunity to thank the medical staff who cared for Lucy-Rose, the neighbours who brought his family food and support, and the parliamentarians who sent their condolences.

    Lucy-Rose died of Trisomy 13, a genetic condition that leaves babies with severe intellectual and physical disabilities. Also called Patau syndrome, only five to 10 per cent of babies diagnosed with it will live past their first year.

    “On this day, let us grieve with the parents who have lost a child, as well as the siblings who lost a lifelong best friend,” Kmiec said.

    Speaker Geoff Regan said he hoped Kmiec could see that love and support from the parliamentary family was around him.

    About one in five pregnancies in Canada ends in miscarriage.

    Congenital malformations and chromosomal abnormalities are the leading cause of death for babies under the age of one year. In 2016, 404 infants died of a congenital abnormality, according to Statistics Canada.

    In all, more than 1,700 babies died before their first birthday in 2016, 75 per cent of them before they were one month old.

    On Tuesday, the House of Commons human resources committee is starting to study the impact on parents of the death of an infant, including possible updates to parental leave programs and benefits.

    The study comes after a motion from Conservative MP Blake Richards, who identified shortcomings in the parental leave program when it comes to being compassionate to parents who are grieving.

    Kmiec urged MPs to hug their kids the next time they go home.

    “If they are old and have their own (kids), hug them anyway, even if they protest,” he said. “Life is too short and none of us knows when our time will come.”

    The Canadian Press


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