Today Canada, in common with many countries around the world, is faced with many challenges in dealing with issues of reasonable accommodation and religiosity in the public sphere.
While multiculturalism is a government sponsored mandate in Canada, there are constant debates and discussions about what this should mean in practice.
Two recent news stories are testing our mettle. One, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ruled in a new decision that Atheism is a creed deserving of the same protections as Christianity, Islam, and other faiths. “Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity,” wrote David A. Wright, associate chair of the commission, in an August 13 decision.
This ruling was spurred by a complaint from a self-described secular humanist who was opposing the District School Board of Niagara’s policy regarding the distribution of Gideon bibles, which since 1964 have been offered free to Grade 5 students with parental consent.
This story in just a few hours garnered over 1250 comments – demonstrating a great interest in the issue. Those of us who are progressive-liberal-minded have broadly welcomed the decision but the certain religionists are disturbed that ‘atheists’ would be accorded the same rights as people of faith and find this a threat to their belief system. The government largely has not commented because this ruling fits in with Canada’s charter of rights and freedoms giving equal rights to all Canadians regardless of faith or belief.
The other news story making rounds is about the Parti Québécois (PQ) government intention to introduce legislation that would ban religious symbols from government offices, hospitals, schools and any other place that receives public funding. In my view, this shows the Province of Quebec taking the lead in addressing issues head on while rest of Canada hides behind political correctness.
The debate about reasonable accommodation for religious minorities is not a new one in Quebec. They have been having intense discussions since 2007. In 2008 a study called the “Bouchard-Taylor Report” was commissioned by QuebecPremier Jean Charest.
Titled “Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation,” the report runs 307 pages long. Among its 37 recommendations, judges and cops should not be allowed to wear religious symbols, the government should produce “a multidenominational calendar” of religious holidays, that it “step up measures” recognize foreign skills and diplomas in the workforce, and more funding be freed up for immigrant women. The Bouchard-Taylor report recommends removing the crucifix from the National Assembly, allowing students to keep wearing their hijab, kippas, turbans and even kirpans in class, and banning prayers at city council meetings.
And the report recommends new policy: Quebec should adopt “basic texts” that define “open secularism” and “typically Quebec-style interculturalism”. This is the proposed Quebec Charter of Secular Values.
But secularism defined in the new proposed ban of religious symbols has shocked many Canadians. Reactions were swift and furious, mostly from Sikhs, Jews and Muslims whom the ban affects directly. They accuse Quebec of following the stance of Belgium and France. However in Quebec it is specified only that anyone on Government payroll should not be allowed to wear religious symbols.
Surprisingly though while condemnation was swift among ethnic minorities, opinion polls came out showing strong public support, particularly among Quebec’s francophone majority.
Daniel Baril, head of the Quebec Secular Movement said in a press interview “A state that declares itself secular and then leaves it employees free to promote religious belief, is like a restaurant that declares itself non-smoking but leave those who work there free to smoke”.
Meanwhile Quebec Liberal leader Phillipe Couillard says his party will oppose the ban. This does not come as a surprise as the Liberal party has been the one touting multiculturalism and religious accommodation for a long time.
Religious accommodation can take a negative turn while the intention may be positive. Quebec’s decision has not come in vacuum. In 1988 the Lord’s Prayer was banned from Ontario Public Schools to make all students feel equal. However in July 2011, 400 Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School, Ontario, have—under the auspices of the Toronto District School Board’s Religious Accommodation policy—prostrated themselves on the cafeteria floor facing Mecca, and offered their afternoon congregational prayers with an Imam from a neighbouring Mosque giving the sermon and girls allowed only to pray at the back of the room or stand against the wall if they were menstruating.
Similarly there have been other accommodation issues, especially in Quebec where there was a backlash when the town of Herouxville adopted a “code of conduct” for new immigrants. Meanwhile, a Sikh student went to court and won the right to wear a kirpan at school; some Hasidic Jews asked the YWCA to install tinted glass so women in shorts could not be seen exercising from outside the building; a Muslim girl was forbidden to wear a hijab or head scarf on the soccer field; a worker was asked not to eat his lunch containing a pork sandwich in the kosher cafeteria of a hospital; some Muslims and Hasidic Jews objected to being interviewed by police personnel of the opposite gender or wanted driving instructors of the same gender and some Hindu, Muslim and Jewish women asked to be seen only by a female doctor at medical clinics.
However as columnist Barbara Kay writes in the National Post on August 4, 2013:
“The proposed Quebec Charter of Secular Values is not about kippas, pendant crosses or hijabs. It is, in my opinion, about the niqab. Two years ago, to my regret, Bill 94, a bill proposed by the provincial Liberals that would have banned face cover in the giving and getting of public service, died in gestation. The Quebec government then, and now, made it clear that while diversity and inclusiveness are fine ideals, there are limits to what any society based in democratic principles can tolerate. There are red lines that cannot be crossed in the name of diversity. Face cover is one of them, so I think all this talk of other accessories is just camouflage for the real target.”
I tend to agree with her. Multiculturalism can go off the rails and has in some cases in Canada but most politicians are too polite to address the fall out when it happens. Religious minorities will always push for more accommodation, and with a country hosting over 50 faiths as Canadians, how much accommodation is too much?
The (PQ) Parti Québécois suggestion, crude and unwelcome as it may be, will open doors to a debate about a secular Canada that has been waiting to happen for a long time.
Raheel Raza is President of The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow and an occasional guest on the IHEU delegation to the UN in Geneva. She has lived in Canada for 25 years.