Conservative win in Toronto riding thrown out by judge

A Conservative 2011 federal election win in an Etobicoke riding has been declared null and void by an Ontario judge after the riding results were challenged by a former Liberal MP.

“This is a tremendous victory for Canadian democracy,” said former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj in an interview with Global News on Friday. “The most important of those rights, and it is the foundation of our democracy, is the concept of one person, one vote.”

Wrzesnewskyj lost the race in Etobicoke Centre to Conservative MP Ted Opitz by a mere 26 votes, a margin confirmed by a judicial recount.

But a judgment from Ontario Superior Court Justice Thomas Lederer overturned Opitz’s win after finding 79 votes were suspect due to clerical errors made by public officials. Errors included failure to properly register or vouch for voters.

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While Elections Canada is currently investigating a series of fraudulent phone calls made during the last election – Lederer made it clear in his decision that the errors were not due to fraud.

If the decision by Lederer is appealed, it will go to the Supreme Court of Canada, where it will be fast-tracked through the system. If the decision stands, a byelection would have to be called.

“This is not about me. It is about 52,000 people who followed the rules, cast their ballots and today had their democratic decision thrown into doubt,” the statement read.

While Opitz did not explicitly say whether he would appeal, he did express his desire to continue representing his riding.

“I am proud that the people of Etobicoke Centre elected me to represent them as their Member of Parliament. I will continue working hard on their behalf.”

Speaking from Ukraine, Wrzesnewskyj said he is ready to run again.

“I look forward to being about to talk with the electorate about democracy, the value of our democratic process.”

It’s a subject that is personal for Wrzenewskyj.

“Both of my parents and all four of my grandparents were political refugees. They never had a voice. They never had a vote until they arrived in Canada,” he said. “We have something incredibly special in Canada and that is worth protecting and worth fighting for.”

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Liberal leader Bob Rae praised the court’s decision as a step towards restoring Canadians’ faith in the electoral system.

“Reports and allegations of election fraud are widespread and there are many cases still under investigation. This has cast serious doubts on the integrity of our electoral system, but we are confident that a byelection in Etobicoke Centre would help greatly in reaffirming the strength of our electoral system and Canada’s democracy,” he said.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair said the decision was encouraging for democracy in Canada.

“The Conservatives have always played fast and loose with the rules,” he said during an interview with The West Block’s Tom Clark. “Finally the courts are starting to pay attention and I’m very glad to see the courts have made this decision. I hope it stands.”

Elections Canada spokeswoman Diane Benson said the agency would not comment on a matter before the courts.

Opitz has eight days to appeal the decision or he will have to immediately step down as MP. If he appeals, Opitz remains MP until the country’s top court issues their decision.

If the ruling stands, the Speaker of the House of Commons will be informed and he would have to issue a warrant to start the process of a byelection.

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Once Elections Canada receives the warrant, cabinet has six months to set the date.

Wrzesnewskyj used a contested election application to force the courts to re-examine the race. The use of such an application is extremely rare, but in the past it has lead to results being overturned and byelections being held.

In 1988, it was used to decide a dispute between Liberal candidate Maurizio Bevilacqua and Progressive Conservative candidate Michael O’Brien who ran in the riding of York North.

O’Brien took the seat as MP after a judicial recount confirmed his win by a margin of 99 votes. Bevilacqua appealed the recount and was subsequently declared the winner by 77 votes. O’Brien then filed an election petition based on errors made by Elections Canada. The petition found the election was void and a by-election was called. Bevilacqua was declared the winner.

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