Home Opinions Religious symbols are an emblem of Canadian multiculturalism

Religious symbols are an emblem of Canadian multiculturalism

by Michael Bramadat-Wilcock March 1, 2011
Religious symbols are an emblem of Canadian multiculturalism

Graphic by Katie Brioux

In Canada we like to see ourselves as a multicultural society. At Concordia, synagogues, churches and mosques can all be found on campus, often in close proximity to one another.

Many see visible diversity as a defining part of what it is to be Canadian and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms outlines the right to express our individual religious beliefs.

Not everyone is a fan of this worldview and authors like Neil Bissoondath have criticized Canada’s “cult of multiculturalism.”

Bissoondath argues the 1971 Multiculturalism Act, which was enacted with stated intention of promoting tolerance, in fact backfired because it encouraged Canadians to focus on what keeps us apart rather than what we have in common.

Bissoondath has called for Canadians to follow the American model, and to assimilate into the melting pot for the good of society as a whole.

The author may get his way in Quebec as Louise Beaudoin, an advocate for secularism in the PQ stressed that multiculturalism is not a value in Quebec, even if it is seen as important in Canada.

Beaudoin spoke of interculturalism, and put forward a model similar to Bissoondath’s, noting that Quebec never signed the Canadian constitution and therefore is not bound by its multiculturalism act.

The debate over what is called “reasonable accommodation” flared up recently when several Sikhs carrying their kirpans, a traditional knife-shaped religious symbol, were denied entry to the National Assembly.

The PQ subsequently proposed adding the kirpan to a list of items you can’t wear at the Quebec legislature, in an effort to enforce a dress code that is more homogeneous.

It didn’t end there. Soon after the kirpan fiasco, a Montreal taxi driver named Arieh Perecowicz was ordered by a municipal court to pay a fine in the area of $1,400 for having various items with him in his taxi.

Among the offending items were a mezuzah (a Jewish prayer contained in a small casing) and a Canadian flag.

The Sikh men who instigated this new chapter in the multicultural versus intercultural debate were at the legislature in order to voice their opposition to the proposed Bill 94, which would ban Muslim women who wear the face-covering niqab from entering government buildings.

Put the three together and the big picture begins to unfold. The Quebec government is cracking down on open displays of religious belief in public.

This has led many to the conclusion that Quebec wants to follow the French model of complete separation between religious and public spheres.

If we look more closely at the proposed bill, it is easy to see potential for serious consequences.

These policies set a precedent for the eventual limitation of the right to wear any religious symbols in public institutions, including hospitals, schools, government buildings and (that’s right, kids) Concordia University.

This is how it works in France: schools and government buildings forbid the display of any kind of religious symbol.

The French model is difficult to impose in Canada because we are faced with a population growth that depends on immigration from countries with different religious demographics.

We are a nation of diverse origins and Canadians who are not members of First Nations tribes do not usually trace their heritage to the land we now occupy. We tend to identify, for better or worse, with our nation of origin.

By making it difficult for religious items like the kirpan, the mezuzah or the niqab to be shown in public spaces, Quebec is effectively barring certain religious minorities from functioning in the public sphere.

That is, unless they agree to compromise their traditions and participate in the intercultural model put forward by Bissoondath and Beaudoin.

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