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kirpan

So Louise Beaudoin says out loud what most of the PQ has been saying – openly or not-so-openly – for years: We only care about one culture, and that’s pure laine quebecois, and everyone else can shape up or get out.

Okay, not in so many words, but that was the gist of the Pequiste leader’s remarks to the press after a group of Sikhs were denied entrance to the National Assembly. They were there to speak out against Bill 94, a racist piece of claptrap that would deny services to Muslim women wearing face coverings, for instance, and is supported by an overwhelming 95% of Quebecers. This law as written won’t impact the Sikh community specifically, but the people who came out to speak up were there to represent the 5% of people who disapprove of the Quebec government’s attempt to further infringe on religious freedom for xenophobic reasons.

Now, there is a very legitimate question about the kirpan, and whether any kind of weapon – ceremonial or otherwise – should be permitted past security screening at the National Assembly. Beaudoin could have taken the high road, saying “we would like to hear from all Quebecers, and we invite the views of the Sikh community on this issue, and we regret that security concerns did not allow us to admit them” or something to that effect. It wouldn’t have solved the tricky kirpan debate, but it would have signalled an openness to at least discuss it.

But Beaudoin chose the low road. Specifically, she said that:

“Religious freedom exists, but there are other values,” she added. “Multiculturalism may be a Canadian value. But it is not a Quebec one.

“And we haven’t signed the constitution of Canada because it contains this notion of multiculturalism.

“I think we can be different.”

If by “different”, she means “more xenophobic”, then she’s hit the nail on the head. At least there’s no hypocricy in Beaudoin’s position. It’s getting harder to call racism one of Quebec’s “dirty little secrets” when it’s being promoted so openly. Quebec has never wanted to be pluralistic, accepting or tolerant. If the disastrous reasonable accommodation debates showed us anything, it’s that most people in Quebec would prefer us to turn into France and do away with religious freedom altogether.

Meanwhile, the Liberals missed an opportunity to take a strong position against Beaudoin and company. Charest’s team waffled on the issue, staying quiet and basically stumbling through an attempt to walk the fine line between not pissing anyone off and not pissing anyone off. All of that to cover the dirty little secret that, if it weren’t for the fact that the Liberals rely on the “ethnic vote” to get elected, most of them would be as opposed to multicultural values as their Pequiste compatriots. That’s some strong leadership we’ve got in Quebec City, folks.

My logical follow-up question to Louise Beaudoin is therefore this: If multiculturalism isn’t a Quebec value, how can we change that and turn it into one?

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France is maybe the most prominent example in the media these days on total idiocy about the concept of freedom of religion… but there are other, smaller-scale examples closer to home.

Today’s Gazette had two stories. One was about a zoning dispute for a mosque in DDO:

Many prayers have been said at 241 Anselme-Lavigne Blvd. in the 15 years the building has had a religious function, but for the current Muslim occupants, the D.D.O. address is proving to be more of a curse than a blessing.

The Canadian Islamic Centre Al-Jamieh bought the property in December 2001 and has been fighting the borough for the right to stay ever since.

The dispute became public in fall 2002 when the borough changed the site’s zoning from residential to institutional, with the aim of moving out the mosque and putting in a day care.

Meanwhile, a group of Orthodox Jews is battling their condo association for the right to build succahs on their balconies:

Several religious organizations will side with five families as they argue that a condo rule barring them from putting huts on their balconies for about a week each year to celebrate a fall religious festival contravenes the Charter of Rights.

The case is considered one of the most significant in the court’s winter session because the outcome could determine whether private contracts can override the charter and human-rights legislation.

These two cases are quite different, of course. The first is yet another example of cities using every iota of red tape and zoning regulation at their disposal to prevent religious centres or houses of worship. I haven’t heard too many large-scale protests against churches, but a synagogue in Outremont is in an ongoing battle to expand, and the mosque in question in DDO used to be a conservative synagogue, which also went through its share of problems with the city. It seems people can only tolerate freedom of religion as long as religions other than their own are being practiced privately in a home, not publicly.

In the second case, I suppose a condo association should be allowed to have by-laws for certain things. But personal politics and petty squabbles usually play more of a role in those condo meeting votes than common sense. On the one hand, a communal succah for the building seems reasonable. But on the other hand, I’m willing to bet that the opposition to the balcony succahs has more to do with childish power jockeying than with any real concerns. Again back to Outremont, the worst case of this that I can recollect recently was a group of citizens lobbying to prevent the large Orthodox Jewish community in the area from putting up an eruv – a small, basically invisible wire that would encircle the area, allowing the religious inside it to “carry” things like baby strollers on the Sabbath. It wouldn’t have harmed anyone. In fact, there’s an eruv in Dollard but I only know about it by having been told. Nobody would notice. And yet, petty squabbles.

The concept of freedom of religion is an interesting one. It guarantees people the right to practice their religious beliefs without harassment. And it also guarantees freedom from religion to those who don’t wish to participate. That means no school prayers in public schools, no forced public worship of any kind, and basically that the government butts out. But it also means that if people want to wear symbols of faith or observe rituals, they should be free to do so, as long as they don’t compel anyone else to. If a Jewish child wants to bring Passover lunches to school for eight days every year, nobody should force him to eat bread. If a Muslim girl wants to wear a hijab to school, nobody should force her not to… assuming that nobody forced her to wear it in the first place, of course.

But how far does the public responsibility extend to ensure that people can practice their religion? Is a city obliged to rezone land to allow houses of worship to be built? Is a condo association obliged to allow succahs? What if I claimed that my own religion required me to play loud music at 2am every night and dance around in tap shoes. Would a landlord be denied the right to evict me for disturbing the neighbours?

The tricky thing about religion is that there’s no clear-cut line between legitimate, recognized religions and fringe ones. Who’s to say that a small group with 20 followers is any less entitled to the protection of the Charter of Rights than a religion with millions of adherents? What about different ideas on how a religion ought to be observed? If a Reform rabbi testified that a succah wasn’t really needed, but an Orthodox rabbi disagreed, who does the judge have to listen to? And how far is the public required to go to be accommodating? Rezoning land to build a mosque is one thing, but is a public place required to actually build and provide the prayer facilities, as student groups in some universities are claiming?

Obviously, there are no clear answers. But in these cases, we should ask ourselves about the intent of the people seking to block something. Are they doing it out of xenophobia or out of a legitimate concern? When a Sikh boy was denied the right to bring a kirpan to school, perhaps the parents who lobbied so hard against him were denying this boy’s freedom of religion and perhaps they were overreacting, but the bottom line was that their concern stemmed from the legitimate desire to protect their children against a perceived threat of a large knife being present in a classroom in the hands of a fellow student. But I suspect that the motives of the few DDO residents complaining about the mosque are not as honest. At the end of the day, I think it’s about making an honest effort to accommodate one another, to a reasonable degree. Unfortunately, the people involved in such squabbles are rarely reasonable or accommodating… and then you end up with news items like these.

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