A Just Society?
When the Canadian Constitution Act was signed in 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms became law. It was the magnum opus in the career of then-Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
Before the Charter became a signature part of Canadian life and over the years after it became law, Canada had justifiably earned unprecedented levels of international respect. Domestically, we were known as a nation of inclusiveness, diversity and open-mindedness, while abroad, our peacekeeping efforts, fair-minded diplomacy and sense of justice was seen as the benchmark for other nations.
By and large, Canadians should be proud of the way in which they have built their country. Our cultural mosaic allows people to be Canadian while retaining a sense of identity whence they came. Becoming and being Canadian need not negate that other part of a person that wants to keep hold of something from another land — whether that thing is cultural, familial, or religious — as long as it does not infringe on the rights and freedoms of another person. That is the essence of the Charter. In Canada, our internationalism is our nationalism.
But there has always been something bubbling beneath the surface — our fear of ‘the other’. One could point toward the government’s detainment and forced relocation of Japanese Canadians, who also suffered job and property losses, during World War II. The government at that time went down this path despite evidence supplied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Department of National Defence that this decision was unwarranted. Canadians of Italian and German origin were also interned around this time.
Today, our leaders have allowed that fear to come to the fore of social, legal and political life once again. Indeed, our leaders are not merely standing by, allowing it to happen. No, they are the ones pouring fuel on a fire that they themselves started.
Something is seriously amiss when our Prime Minister feels the need label it “offensive” that an individual would choose to wear a niqab while taking a citizenship oath, to the extent that he would seek an appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn a decision. It is worth bearing in mind that the individual in question, Zunera Ishaq, had removed the garment when she took the citizenship test, and so her identity while taking the oath was not in question.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) stated that there’s no way to know what would have happened had she refused to remove her niqab. More worryingly, the department said that any violation of the Charter right would be “trivial” because the oath takes less than a minute to recite. Well, if the violation is merely “trivial”, then it follows that this government views the Charter itself as trivial.
To any impartial onlooker, the Prime Minister’s reaction to this affair is a clear political play, and it is not coincidental that he made his comments in Quebec and during an election year. With plenty of seats in play in the province, the Prime Minister has an eye on the voting demographic that supported the ill-fated ‘Quebec Charter of Values’ (Charte de la laïcité or Charte des valeurs québécoises) of the now-deposed previous Parti Québébois government. If he can win a few extra seats in Quebec by being divisive in this way without compromising his party’s existing support in the suburbs of Ontario and further west, he will do so. Whether or not he is genuinely offended by the niqab is by-the-by.
Following soon after this incident was something that on one level seemed inevitable, but also quite ridiculous. A woman in Quebec, Rania El-Alloul, went to court to try to retrieve a vehicle, but Judge Eliana Marengo, taking her cue from the Prime Minister, demanded that El-Alloul’s remove her hajib (a headscarf) if she wished to pursue justice, as it was adjudged to be inappropriate for the courtroom setting. This is significant religious discrimination.
How have we become so complacent? Why are we allowing the worldwide respect and admiration we earned to be thrown away so cheaply and needlessly? It’s time to fight for a return to a just society that includes all, no matter the clothing they choose to wear.