Revisiting the Role of Religion In Canadian Society

The recent discussion about the Quebec government’s proposal to force religious minorities working in the Quebec civil service to remove their religious symbols has generated an avalanche of anti-religious comments to the news articles.  Religion clearly is a sensitive subject – one ought to walk carefully, it seems, about expressing one’s views – and yet we must work hard at creating an atmosphere where respectful dialogue can occur.  I suggest that it is a must for our mutual success as a multicultural society.

I am reminded of the Shafia trial that ended in January 2012 and the public reaction to the story.  Yet again, troubling questions about the role of religion in Canadian society are being asked.  You may remember that four women in the Shafia family were murdered because the father felt his religious beliefs were dishonoured by his three daughters and his first wife.  Video of Mohammad Shafia, his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son Hamed  being led away in handcuffs after the guilty verdict raised public ire.

Nicholas Bala, a family law expert at Queen’s University in Kingston, said that when immigrants come to Canada, “They have, on the one side, freedom of religion and we want them to preserve their culture, but also to recognize the importance of Canadian values and culture as well.”[1]

The Shafia tragedy is nothing new.  From the beginning of European settlement, we have struggled with integrating each wave of immigration.  Unfortunately, immigrants bring with them personal religious baggage that struggles to adapt to the new environment.  Consider D’Arcy McGee, one of our celebrated “Fathers of Confederation,” who, as an Irish immigrant, brought his religious and political prejudices to Canada.  A talented man, who became a member of Parliament, McGee was assassinated in 1869 on the streets of Ottawa for his outspoken views on the “Irish troubles.”

It is easy for religious communities to feel victimized by the media onslaught in the wake of sensational trials involving religion.  If such religious controversies are combined with violence, then societal finger wagging becomes intense as media express the sentiments of a Christopher Hitchens or a Richard Dawkins who sarcastically refer to religion as “the great evil of the modern age.” Collectively we cringe.

In our experience at CCCC, religion is not evil but a great good.  Every day we witness charity motivated by religion: people are fed, clothed, and ministered to in beds of affliction, homes are built by volunteers, families are reconciled, women and children in developing countries are taught to read and write.  We do not understand the animus against religion in light of such realities.

Yet, as a society, we are oft reminded of the dark side of abuse perpetrated by religious adherents.  The Shafia trial is a proxy for the stories of clergy abuse, and the residential school fiasco on First Nation reserves.  One commentator wrote in the wake of the Shafia trial, “Time to shut down all those child rape halls, aka churches!  No political correctness will censor or deviate my crusade to protect children from revolting Christian molesters.”[2]  Even though the Shafia trial involved Muslim adherents not Christians, such facts only get in the way of an opportunity taken by such prejudice.

In many ways the two sides of the debate simply dig in to their respective positions.  On the one side, the secular anti-religionist sees the Shafia trial as proof of what is wrong with religion and advocates the need to enforce with vigour the “Canadian values” of tolerance on the “backward” religious culture at issue.  On the other side, the religionist sees the Shafia trial as an aberration, an anomaly of cruel-hearted individuals that were rightly punished for their grievous crimes.

Why should any of this matter to you, who are working for a Christian charity, or for those of you who have nothing to do with religion?  What difference does all of the discussion on the religious practices of immigrants matter to your work?  The answer: plenty.

First, consider that as Canada becomes an increasingly plural society, new concepts of religious freedom are beginning to take hold.  Religious freedom is viewed very differently by the various people groups around the world.  At a religious freedom conference in Cape Town, South Africa in 2007, I met an Iranian delegate who stated that there was religious freedom in his country.  Everyone in his country, he said, were free to join the Islamic faith.  When asked about the freedom of Muslims who wanted to change their religion, he said it was not necessary since no one wanted to join any other faith.  A member of the Canadian Indian Hindu community told me recently that something had to be done about Christian groups in India converting the Hindu community to Christianity.  He saw Christian schools and hospitals as a means of enticing, if not forcing, Hindus to become Christians, thus violating religious freedom in his country.

Second, the increased plural view of religious freedom has created pressure for government human rights agencies to take another look at the concept.  Currently the Ontario Human Rights Commission is undergoing a two year project to review its definition of the term “creed” in the Ontario Human Rights Code.[3]   The Commission is consulting with academics and religious community leaders about its “Policy on creed and the accommodation of religious observances.” The Code does not define “creed,” but the Commission has used the following definition:

Creed is interpreted to mean “religious creed” or “religion.” It is defined as a professed system and confession of faith, including both beliefs and observances or worship. A belief in a God or gods, or a single supreme being or deity is not a requisite.

Religion is broadly accepted by the OHRC to include, for example, non-deistic bodies of faith, such as the spiritual faiths/practices of aboriginal cultures, as well as bona fide newer religions (assessed on a case by case basis).

The existence of religious beliefs and practices are both necessary and sufficient to the meaning of creed, if the beliefs and practices are sincerely held and/or observed.[4]

And, of course, as I wrote about recently, the Human Rights Tribunal has also said that “‘creed’ in the Code includes a prohibition on discrimination because a person is atheist…. The purpose of prohibiting discrimination in employment, services and the other social areas in the Code because one rejects one, many or all religions’ beliefs and practices or believes there is no deity.”[5]

“It is a very fine document,” notes David Seljak, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo. “However, we need to go beyond that.  We need to develop, especially, a sensitivity to lingering Christian privilege.” Seljak sees this privilege both in its overt forms, such as the civic Christmas holiday, and also in hidden structural forms, such as the seven day work week. These traditional forms that are tightly knit into Canadian society do not serve the needs of all religious groups equally. Buddhists, for example, whose feast days might fall on a Wednesday or Thursday are not well served by our seven day work week.  Seljak explains that “Definitions of religion limits what we see and therefore what we can protect.”[6]

Seljak also calls for a commitment to a “deeper multiculturalism,”  “a multiculturalism that not only is one in which the majority dictates to the minority what is reasonable, what can be accommodated but rather one in which there is a real dialogue between the two groups.”  While “the de-Christianization of the Canadian state was in fact a real moral advance,” he says, “we haven’t gone far enough.  We need to embrace a deeper equality.  We need to move past that old model of multiculturalism to one in which the dominant group in society, the majority, allows itself to be changed in dialogue with the minority.”  It will be difficult “because many groups in the society that we want to accommodate. . . will be illiberal and a liberal democracy has a hard time dealing with groups that reject liberalism.”

Third, we need to be aware that  religion’s role in Canadian society is being challenged.  Seljak noted that despite all of the movement to secularize Canada, there remains the fact that “liberal Protestant Christianity” “is still the measure of what religion should be protected and promoted.”  A multitude of groups, religious and non-religious, are making their voice heard.  The Ontario Humanist Society, for example, advocates that “a more inclusive definition of creed encompassing communities of choice constituted on the basis of philosophical, moral or ethical beliefs would broaden the scope of the term to afford such communities the same protections as religious groups.”[7]

Fourth, we should not be surprised, therefore, to find that the religious structural privileges that have been allowed in Canada will be under increased scrutiny and will need to be defended in a robust, articulate, and convincing manner.

Conclusion

Our society needs to relearn why religion is a positive reality.  The press loves a sensational story, especially if it involves religion and violence.  These stories stimulate discussion about the role of religion in society and whether religion ought to be favoured in the first place.  We would do well to recognize that religion has always been a matter of controversy in our country and it will continue.  We may take such opportunities to tell our story as Christians.  Canadians need to know what we are doing to make Canada (indeed the world) a better place.  We should do what we can to ensure that within our own spheres of influence we are assisting the new immigrants with as much love and Christian charity as our Lord treated those who were not of His own faith community.  By doing so, we will go a long way to fight the stereotypical myths of Christians – and of religion in general.

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[1] “Canadian values in spotlight after ‘honour killings’”, Published: 12:11PM Tuesday January 31, 2012 Source: Reuters, accessed at http://tvnz.co.nz/world-news/canadian-values-in-spotlight-after-honour-killings-4708111

[3] Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, CHAPTER H.19.

[4] Ontario Human Rights Commission, “Policy on creed and the accommodation of religious observances,” (Toronto: OHRC, 1996), p. 4.  See also at:  http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/Policies/PolicyCreedAccomodEN?page=religious-Creed_.html

[5] R.C. v. District School Board of Niagara 2013 HRTO 1382 at para. 30.

[6] David Seljak was one of the key-note speakers at the “Human rights, religion and the law” program at the Multifaith Centre, University of Toronto, January 12, 2012.

[7] http://ontariohumanists.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/TOWARDS-AN-INCLUSIVE-DEFINITION-OF-CREED.web_.pdf

Thoughts on Revisiting the Role of Religion In Canadian Society

  1. Kati Saarinen

    There is one other angle you might look at which applies in particular to immigrants. The relationship of the immigrant and the new country and prejudices other than religion.

    This was very well described by Ian Buruma in “Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerence” regarding the Muslim immigrants who go from many countries to Europe, a Europe which is in many ways not welcoming. It could however describe the experience of people from nearly any religious background as they almost all share a certain sense of masculine hegemony.

    There is often a prejudice in any receiving country against the new-comers that is in fact, more often based on colour of skin, language or class.

    This is of course felt by the newcomers and can be very difficult to bear. One reactive pattern is that some sense of power and control is maintained at home by the men who try to put their women and children into an even greater submissive roles, and the religion becomes only a device to prop up faltering defenses against a sense of anomie. Violence in the home increases.

    The repressive atmosphere of the home in this case is exaggerated by the difficulties some immigrants have in finding a footing in the new culture as they face many other obstacles besides religion. In other words, even if the culture “back home” may have been repressive, it is comparatively more so in the immigrant’s home in the new country.

    When reading Ian Buruma’s book, I, a first generation immigrant myself who came as a child to Canada and had white, Christian parents, found many things resonated with my own experiences. And I am sure my experiences were relatively benign compared to those of immigrants who are additionally burdened being a visible minority through colour or dress.

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  2. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

    Thanks so much Kati for your very thoughtful response. The struggle immigrants face is real – as a society we do need to be more understanding of their plight to adjust. I am interested by your comment that religion is used as a means to maintain power and order. There are multiple examples of that throughout the world. I wonder if that is not what is behind the concerns in Quebec – religious expression is somehow akin to societal influence and power – by reducing the visibility of religion we are thereby controlling the changing dynamics of our cultural and society at large.

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