Canada is seeing a change in its policies and attitudes towards religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Eren Cervantes-Altamirano discusses this development in a country long regarded to be liberal and tolerant.
Coming from a Latin American country, Canada, for me, was always depicted as a peacekeeping country that favoured human rights above anything else. After a few years living here, I find that Canadian society is undergoing a fundamental change in matters pertaining to religion, ethnic differences, immigration and the discussion of accommodation versus integration.
Last year a poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion confirmed that Canadians are displaying a growing level of mistrust towards Muslims.[i] While no information is provided on how the poll was conducted or the econometric criteria that led to this conclusion, numerous facts in Canadian policy-making point to a changing attitude towards religious minorities, particularly Muslims.
A couple of years ago the current Conservative government made a point of presenting a new citizenship guide, which would “properly” prepare potential Canadian citizens for the Canadian Citizenship Test. The preparation involved informing potential citizens of their rights and responsibilities, along with practices that are unacceptable in Canada. The guide was broadly critiqued (including my own critique after taking the test) because of the use of language that referred to particular practices as “barbaric”, and its categorisation of honour killings, female genital mutilation and gendered violence with “cultural practices”.[ii]
In 2012 an important legal decision was also made. After much discussion in the case of R v. NS, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that an alleged victim of sexual assault, who happened to wear niqab, would not be able to testify in the trial against the accused while wearing her niqab. What started as a case of sexual assault evolved into a case of religious accommodation that raised questions about whether the niqab is mandatory for Muslim women, whether it undermines demeanour evidence, and ultimately, whether religious observances have a place in a courtroom.
These issues, which started as isolated instances, were followed by the controversy of Quebec’s Charter of Values. The proposed Charter of Values is a piece of legislation that, if passed, will prevent people in the public sector from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols”. The Charter defines hijabs, niqabs, kippas, turbans and large objects, like large crosses, as items that have no place in the public sphere. The legislation would affect civil servants, teachers, police officers, medical staff, and many others. Quebec’s government argues that this initiative is a result of numerous religious accommodation cases that “have given rise to a profound discomfort” in the province.[iii]
As the Charter of Values controversy continues, so have religious accommodation cases. Last month York University made the headlines as a male student requested, on religious grounds, not to work with females in a team project. Although the student’s religious background was not disclosed, many assumed that he is a Muslim. While York’s administration said the student should be accommodated, professors in the department raised concerns about gender equality. Given that both gender equality and religious freedom are protected under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which one should be prioritised? The student later withdrew his request, but the case raised concerns across Canada about diverse ethnic and religious communities that interact with and within mainstream secular institutions all across the country.
These events, and many others, make me wonder where we Canadians are heading. To what degree is this really about religious accommodation? If Canadian institutions are the ones deciding what religion should look like, how it should be practised, and when and how it should be accommodated, is it really about the people who practise it? For Muslims, what will living in Canada be like in years to come if, on one hand, hijabs become sources of bullying, but on the other, we have failed to engage in productive dialogue with governments, institutions and our own communities about what religious accommodation really means?
[i] Angus Reid Global poll, 2 Oct 2013, available here
[ii] Eren Cervantes-Altamirano, ‘Not Allowed to Cover your Face and Lower your Gaze: Reflections of a Convert to Islam about the Canadian Citizenship Test’, New Muslim(ah) Walking Around
[iii] Details of the proposed charter available here