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Protecting Religious Freedom in a Multicultural Canada

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Protecting Religious Freedom in a Multicultural Canada

Canada is considered a multicultural, secular society and therefore many believe that problems caused by religious intolerance no longer exist. It is therefore upsetting to see recent problems in the media, especially in Quebec, about individual religious rights. These rights are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom from religious discrimination. Where then are the problems found? New immigrants bring prejudices with them  not found in Canadian history. Certain groups can be at a disadvantage because Sunday is acknowledged as a day off work when their religious day is different; not all religions are treated the same way from a Government perspective where tax breaks are given to mainline Christian religious groups and the funding of public education, including Catholic schools in some provinces, but not schools with a specific religious base, which is seen as a form of discrimination. Moreover, there may be traditional procedures that do not conform to our legal system such as female circumcision and arranged marriage of young women. However, religion does provide a sense of belonging and lends to a sense of society that is not necessarily present in the wider society of Canada. Increased immigration from non Christian countries will only compound the problems and the planes flying into the World Trade Towers have done nothing to increase tolerance. Secular, liberal Canada has accepted certain norms when it comes to religion. Therefore, any new immigrant needs to adapt to those norms. Problems occur today when religious groups choose not to adapt (Seljak 1).

        Prejudices can be imported into the multicultural society by new immigrants arriving from countries where there is no tolerance about religion. “The religious and political differences between Sunni and Shiite branches of the faith (Muslim) has provided the fuel for many conflicts in the Middle East over the past twenty five years” (Johnson 108).These uprisings combined with September 11 Sept.2001 have provided a stereotype of Islam in the minds of North Americans and unfortunately this has increased suspicion of and hostility to, Muslims who are leading peaceful lives in Canadian communities. There are also differences between Jews and Muslims based on the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East; Sikhs and Hindus also bring with them a history that has no basis in Canada.   “Unfortunately, the political conflicts over independence for Khalistan have affected the Sikh community in Canada where squabbles between rival factions have sometimes led to violence. Although most Canadian Sikhs are not involved in the disputes…….they are easily identifiable minority and have sometimes been vilified because of the actions of a few” (Johnson 125). The worst terrorist act in Canadian history was committed because of religious and political differences in India. In 1985 bombs were placed by the Sikh community on an Air India flight and 329 people were killed; the RCMP alleges that this was an “act of revenge for the Indian Army’s attack on the Golden Temple in 1984”(Johnson 125). This was not the only terrorist act taken by the Sikhs. Two more followed in 1986 when there was a failed attempt to bomb a flight out of New York, by people who lived in Montreal and in 1987 on Vancouver Island, an assassination attempt was made on the life of the Indian Minister of the Punjab (Johnson 125). Many immigrants prefer to live in an existing community of their faith in order be able to continue with their culture and in some cases they have very little contact with established Canadians. Therefore, they do not adapt to the “liberal and secular norms of our society” (Johnson 125). Within these communities, women in particular, “can be imprisoned by their traditional paternalistic family culture because divorce is not acceptable”, or they are unable to work outside of the family because of lack of language skills (Johnson 125).

 Religious differences are not new in Canada. In fact, from the beginning of the European colonization, conflict between Protestant English and Catholic French was normal. This transformed into a Christian Canada but without a specific denominational church, which in turn became a secular country with a separation of church and state around 1960 (Setjak 1). Most Canadians believed that this secular phase had solved the problems. However, with the large immigration of non Christian individuals it is important that attitudes towards religion as a whole, are revisited in this multicultural mosaic.

        Objections have recently been expressed in the media regarding the wearing of religious attire. In the spring of 2007 “A young soccer player was ejected from a tournament because her hijab was declared dangerous attire by the referee (himself a Muslim). There was a young woman newly employed by a Quebec correctional facility who was told that if she wanted to keep coming to work she’d have to appear without her hijab” (Adams 88). However, this form of attire is not the only way people in Canada of various religious persuasions display their belief, Many Christians wear a cross, usually in the form of a necklace; Sikhs wear their turbans and have for many years been permitted to do so even in the uniform of the RCMP; Jewish people wear their skull caps, so why is the hijab particularly offensive?  Johnson writes “Women who choose to wear the hijab must still be prepared to face the fact that their decision is perceived by some Canadians as a highly symbolic gesture, either as an indicator of militancy or an unwillingness to accept the more secular nature of Canadian society.” (Johnson 114). For these women it could merely be conforming to the wishes of her family, or her idea of modesty. “Was all this fuss really about a handful of women wearing head scarves?  (Estimates put the number of Quebec Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa at less than one hundred)” (Adams 80). In many ways it comes down to visibility and perception. However, under Canadian law women have the right to choose, and this right should be upheld by law because one of the good things of living here is freedom of choice.

        Another controversy, which makes the one about wearing the hijab seem very small, is the practice of female circumcision. This practice has its roots in Africa and the people who continue to perpetuate it think it is part of being Muslim however; the Koran has no reference to the custom. This procedure is against the law in Canada and medical facilities will not perform it.  “In February of 2002 a couple in Ontario was charged with forcing their daughter to undergo the procedure at the hands of a non-medically recognized practitioner” (Johnson 119). Dr. Eike-Henner Kluge writing for the Canadian Medical Association Journal sees female circumcision as “an ethical dilemma that poses a challenge to aspects of Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism” (Johnson 119). Her rationale is based on the social wellbeing of the woman in question who may feel that her culture is being insulted. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Section 27 reads: This charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians. Therefore, is it ethical of our law makers to outlaw a cultural practice based on religious belief?  Johnson argues that “this legal/ethical dilemma …..illustrates the fact that even a country like Canada…….cannot reflexively accept all the cultural practices associated with other countries and traditions.” (Johnson 120).  In some of the countries that practice female circumcision this practice has been made illegal in an attempt to change the cultural tradition.



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