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New Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, middle, holds a press conference alongside Green Party government house leader Elizabeth May, left, and Green member of Parliament Paul Manly in Ottawa on Oct. 5, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rejected calls to postpone two federal by-elections in the Toronto area, arguing that with surging case counts, now is likely the safest time to send voters to the polls.

On Friday, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who is running in the Toronto Centre by-election, called for that race and another in York Centre to be postponed. Both are scheduled for Oct. 26. The ridings are in Toronto, which is now part of a 28-day partial shutdown in an attempt to slow a surge in COVID-19 cases. On Friday, Ontario’s top doctor also said people across the province should try to limit their trips outside to essential purposes.

Citing the changes, Ms. Paul released a statement saying the “circumstances for free, fair and, above all safe, by-elections simply do not exist.”

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Mr. Trudeau disputed that at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday.

Despite the “massive disruption” prompted by the pandemic, Mr. Trudeau said Canada’s "democracy and our democratic institutions have continued to function.” And because he is mandated by federal election laws to call the by-elections by February, the Liberals decided that doing it sooner rather than later was "probably the safest thing to do” given the uncertainty of the pandemic’s trajectory in the winter.

“It is very likely that postponing the by-election until the last possible moment would actually mean that it would be held in more difficult circumstances," he said.

The NDP said waiting for the second wave to peter out would have been safer for voters, but that the Liberals “rushed it just as we anticipated a second wave.” They are "more worried about turning the page on the We Charity scandal than they were about a safe election,” Toronto Centre NDP candidate Brian Chang said in a statement.

The Conservatives echoed the NDP concerns, saying the Prime Minister “has a well-established history of running out the clock as late as possible before calling by-elections. It’s up to him to explain why he called these at this time in the pandemic.”

Elections Canada said in a statement on Friday that the Canada Elections Act grants certain contingencies in case it is “impossible in practice” to administer a vote. Spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier said the Chief Electoral Officer has the power to recommend that the government postpone an election or by-election for up to seven days. Cabinet would then make the final decision to “postpone or withdraw the writ.” However, Ms. Gauthier said that the by-elections still have to happen within the six-month time frame for calling them.

She said the threshold of impracticability is a “high standard to meet" and would be based on factors such as safety, the numbers of people affected and the availability of poll workers.

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“In the case of these two by-elections, we know it’s a fluid and evolving situation," Ms. Gauthier said. "The [Chief Electoral Officer] will base any decision on the most up-to-date information and advice from national, provincial and local authorities, including public health and returning officers in the affected ridings.”

Ms. Paul also said that two of the neighbourhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in the city are in Toronto Centre. She said they are also low-income and racialized communities.

Toronto Centre is a Liberal stronghold that was left vacant with the resignation of Bill Morneau. Ms. Paul, who does not have a seat in the House of Commons, is running against Mr. Chang, Liberal Marci Ien, and Conservative Benjamin Sharma.

York Centre was left open after the departure of Liberal MP Michael Levitt. Liberal candidate Ya’ara Saks is running against Conservative Julius Tiangson, New Democrat Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, the Green Party’s Sasha Zavarella and People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier.

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