06/07/2013 06:52 EDT | Updated 08/07/2013 05:12 EDT

PQ accused of intolerance over fixed election date

The Quebec government is under fire for refusing to alter plans for a fixed election on the first Monday in October every four years, even though the Oct. 3, 2016 election would fall squarely on the important Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

With the backing of the Coalition Avenir Québec, the PQ government defeated an amendment from the Liberal opposition that would have made the election date flexible, in the event that it coincided with a religious holiday.

"You choose one of the most important holidays for a specific community, it excludes 85,000 people from voting on that particular day," said Liberal MP Lawrence Bergman. "For me, that's unacceptable."

However, the PQ minister responsible for democratic institutions, Bernard Drainville, says setting the date based on religion is an unreasonable accomodation.

"There's more than 100 religious holidays." Drainville countered. "You cannot start saying we're going to allow for the postponing of the vote according to one religion."

Drainville points out that anyone who can't vote on election day for religious reasons has several other opportunities to vote, either at the advance polls or at the election office in each constituency.

Drainville insists the fixed-election date legislation, Bill 3, is not aimed at any single religion.

"If practising Catholics say we do not want municipal elections to be held on a Sunday because Sunday is the day of the Lord, and for us it's a sacred day, will the Liberals say, 'Ok, we're going to move from a Sunday to another day?'" he asked.

However, the Liberals say past Quebec governments have always been careful to avoid a conflict with a major religious holiday.

"We look at the 40 elections we have since 1867, and I think that all prime ministers take care of that without saying that," said MP Robert Dutil. "There is no election on this religious holiday."

His caucus colleague Bergman points to Ontario, where there are already fixed-date elections.

"If there's a cultural or religious event that day, the Director-General of Elections can push the election day one week later," he said. "It's as simple as that."

The Liberals also question the PQ's hurry to pass the bill, given that the first fixed-date election is still more than three years away.

Some members of Montreal's Jewish community are worried about the impact of holding an election during a high holiday.

"Rosh Hashanah is observed by the overwhelming majority of Jews in Montreal and Quebec," said Reuben Poupko, the rabbi of the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation.

"It would certainly depress [voter] turnout," Poupko said. "But more troubling is not the turnout in any one election, but the signal it sends about acceptance of diversity and the acceptance of minorities."