Living together

  • December 21, 2007

{mosimage}The Bouchard-Taylor Commission, now finishing up its work on reasonable accommodation in Quebec, is only the most significant example of the struggle we have in Canada of finding ways to live together with growing ethnic, religious and cultural differences. There have been many others. And this will only intensify as the country continues to evolve thanks to growing immigration.

Quebec intellectuals Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard have listened to hundreds of voices from across the province over the last few months. Some have underlined the very purpose of the commission with their reasonable views on how to accommodate religious and cultural differences. Others have displayed angry antagonism toward anyone with the slightest desire to stand out from the crowd, whether by wearing the Muslim hijab or, in some cases, even a crucifix. Those who are serious about their religion were told they should hide their beliefs or go home.

Elsewhere in Canada in 2007, religion has clashed with non-religion. Ontario witnessed a divisive debate in its fall provincial election over Conservative Leader John Tory’s reasonable proposition to use public funds to help faith-based schools. For this he was castigated and soundly defeated. More recently, Maclean’s magazine has been dragged before the Ontario Human Rights Commission for allegedly publishing “Islamophobic” hate literature by printing columnist Mark Steyn’s demographic analysis of Europe, which warned readers of the birth of Eurabia. While exaggerated, Steyn’s forcefully argued prose is in a long tradition of challenging journalism; it hardly constitutes Nazi propaganda. Yet today almost any criticism of a group is met with demands for legal redress and veiled threats instead of civil public debate.

As 2008 dawns, Canadians must realize that, rather than hide or oppress differences, we must relearn how to see the common humanity in each other. It would help if we could understand human rights as what they are meant to be: legal protections to ensure that individuals have the freedom to live truly dignified lives, being able to express their humanity through their religion, their speech, their association with others, their family life and upbringing of their children, their ability to work and obtain the necessities of life. “Rights” were never meant to protect us from exposure to different ideas, on one hand, or sanction identity politics on the other. In fact, the notion of “group rights” would more often be better understood as interests, matters subject to political negotiation and compromise rather than the often unsatisfactory, winner-take-all result afforded by the courts.

Canada stands out among nations as a country in which multiculturalism has, by and large, worked. We are not free, nor have we ever been free, of ethnic and religious differences. We have been blessed, however, with the ability to work through theses issues peacefully. Carrying on this tradition would be a fine resolution for 2008.

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