35 Representatives of The International Campaign Against Sharia Courts in Canada participated on 11 August in an Ontario Government Consultation on the Ontario 1991 Arbitration Act which applies to civil and business disputes.
This consultation with Ms. Marion Boyd – appointed by Ontario’s Attorney General – became necessary following widespread outcry at the proposal by the little known Canadian Institute of Civil Justice & Muslim Court of Arbitration to create Sharia Arbitration Courts for settlement of disputes in the Muslim community, invoking Ontario’s 1991 Arbitration Act.
The Sharia Arbitration courts are scheduled to be operational from the end of 2004, but there is yet no clarity as to which of the several versions of Sharia law would be the basis for them. Many Muslims in Canada have themselves expressed concern at this development, and rejecting the need for Sharia-based Courts, Ms. Alia Hogben, Executive Director of the 900-member Canadian Council of Muslim Women said “We think the laws of Canada apply very well to Muslims and we want to stay within Canadian law.” Homa Arjomand, a refugee and a victim of Iran’s Sharia law, and a leading secular activist in the campaign, has vowed to fight the proposed Sharia Courts tooth and nail.
While described as entirely voluntary and subject to Canadian law, and to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the proposal to have Sharia Arbitration Courts could mean deprivation of their rights for many Muslim women who are generally home bound, male dominated, and with little freedom as understood in modern times. President of the Humanist Association of Canada Dr. Robert Buckman wrote to the review committee of his concerns about Sharia law: “Within this particular system, the rights of women are substantially less than those we expect in Canada. There is considerable concern that a woman may not even be aware of her own rights under Canadian law and may participate in the Shari’a law arbitration process, apparently abrogating her own Canadian rights voluntarily … we would ask at the outset what mechanisms will be in place to monitor, supervise and if at all possible prevent coercion from occurring”.
Representing IHEU member organisation Humanist Association of Canada at the hearing, HAC’s Board Member Sheena Sharp was pleased at Ms. Boyd’s clarification that “statements being made by the Canadian Islamic Congress are not based on any action taken by the government”, but was astonished when Ms. Boyd claimed that Canada’s laws were essentially Christian law, and that Canada was not a Secular State.
Speaking on behalf of the Humanist Association of Canada, Ms. Sharp pointed out that in Ontario and in Canada, within the last two generations, they had struggled very hard to abolish draconian laws which did not recognize women as persons, which restricted their economic opportunities and their ability to make decisions for their children. There could not be a return to that situation by exposing so many Canadian Muslim women to the gender inequalities sanctified by the Sharia Law. The principle of the separation of church and state meant in its essence that while religions were free to exist, the government should not force anyone into (or away from) religious restrictions. Ms. Sharp also called upon the government to review the 1991 Arbitration Act in light of the Sharia Arbitration Court to ensure that proper safeguards are in place to prevent abuse.
Ms. Elka Enola who represented the Humanist Association of Toronto, pointed out that Mr. Mumtaz Sayed Ali the head of the Canadian Institute of Civil Justice & Muslim Court of Arbitration had no respect for the democratic system that he was using to further his goals. It was also noted that various bodies, including the Islamic Institute misrepresented the situation, and gave the impression that there was no possibility of appeal in the regular courts following an Arbitration Court decision, while in fact there is!
During the hearing Ms. Boyd stated that since all arbitration settlements were private, it was not possible to know what has been agreed to by the parties. This is cause for further alarm – for Human Rights groups will not be able to monitor the developments and satisfy themselves that justice is being done. Already, the Campaign which is concerned with the plight of women and children in Arbitration Courts has received many complaints from Orthodox Jews, Native Canadians etc.
The media was in attendance: CBC Radio, National French Network and CTS Television covered the event, and the BBC flew in a team to cover the developments with serious implications for the freedoms of one of Canada’s
biggest minorities. Over half of Canada’s 600,000 Muslims are resident of Ontario. Roy Brown, President of IHEU who was interviewed by CBC previously said “Given the inequalities inherent in the Sharia system, there can be no way in which a Court based on it will be compatible with the progressive laws of Canada”.
IHEU calls on The Premier of Ontario to take positive measures to protect the rights of all Canadian women by offering them the equal protection of modern law, rather than expose them to the injustices of a patriarchal and medieval system of justice, which is what the Sharia law implies.