The controversy over whether a woman with a face-covering niqab should be allowed to vote was, from the beginning, a manufactured crisis.
Only the current climate of fear about immigration - an irrational fear unleashed by the over-exploitation of a few controversial "reasonable accommodations" with religious minorities - can explain why this so-called crisis reached such proportions that it now pits the Harper government, along with the federal opposition parties, against Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand.
The "crisis" began not with a real incident, but with a hypothetical question from a reporter. In March, a few days before the provincial election, a reporter telephoned Marcel Blanchet, Quebec's Chief Electoral Officer, to ask, out of the blue, whether a woman could vote without removing her niqab.
The question was rhetorical on more than one count. First, the law doesn't require visual identification (one can even cast a ballot by mail). Second, the number of Muslim women who wear the niqab is extremely small - perhaps a few dozen in all of Canada; in Quebec it must be infinitesimal. So where's the problem?
Mr. Blanchet said that yes, according to the law a woman with a niqab would be allowed to vote. This caused a flurry of protests. A few days later, the electoral officer reversed his decision, after political pressure heated up and a private radio station called for voters to come to the polls with hockey masks or disguised as clowns.
The same scenario was repeated recently with the approach of today's three federal by-elections in Quebec. Another reporter asked the same question of Mr. Mayrand, who gave the same answer as his Quebec counterpart. Once again, the media overexploited the matter and the outcry from the public was huge. But, unlike Mr. Blanchet, Mr. Mayrand didn't back down.
All the federal parties, with their eyes on today's vote, joined hands to condemn his decision, even though they had voted less than six months ago in favour of a bill that modified the Elections Act. The changes adopted by Parliament do not require visual identification of voters. The senatorial committee that reviewed the bill was twice told that, as it was written, the bill allowed ballots to be cast by women who covered their faces with either a niqab or a burka, but the senators didn't raise any objections.
Voters must produce either a piece of identification with a picture, two pieces of ID without a picture, or have another citizen vouch for them.
The politicians argued that Mr. Mayrand should use his discretionary power to force women to unveil themselves, since this was an emergency. Mr. Mayrand replied quite sensibly that there was no emergency.
On Thursday, Mr. Mayrand was summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee, even though the Chief Electoral Officer, like judges, should be entirely independent from political pressure. The independence of the head of Elections Canada is so important in our system that the holder of this post is appointed until retirement at age 65 and can be dismissed only by the Governor-General, after a joint request following a majority vote by the House of Commons and Senate, and only for cause.
Mr. Mayrand stood his ground, telling members of the committee he would not use his discretionary authority to override the law as it is written. Quite properly, he said that his extraordinary power should be exercised only in the most extreme circumstances.
The most vicious reaction was that of Prime Minister Harper. He rudely attacked the Chief Electoral Officer, unfairly accusing him of "defying the will of Parliament" - this, while the Conservative Party of Canada is under investigation by Elections Canada for an alleged violation of federal election spending laws.
This is a sad story, made worse because the "crisis" was mounted by the media, was fuelled by a wave of anti-Muslim feelings and was inflamed by politicians shamelessly attacking electoral officers who were simply doing their job.