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History teaches us that difficult conversations about religion must start from respect and inclusion, not hate and division

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December 10, 2015

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Today is International Human Rights Day—the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The human rights movement was a direct response to widespread antisemitism which ultimately led to the Holocaust. By adopting the Universal Declaration in 1948, Canada and the international community rightly said, “Never again.”

The Universal Declaration includes strong protection of religious freedoms, which is echoed in provincial and federal human rights legislation, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is fair to say that discrimination based on creed, religion and race was at the root of the human rights movement—which makes today a good day to reflect on whether we have met our goal of protecting people’s religious rights.

Unfortunately, Canada has a long history of religious discrimination. In 1914, Canada turned away almost all the passengers who landed on the shores of British Columbia aboard the Komagata Maru—most of them Sikh (along with some Hindus and Muslims). In1939, Canada turned away another ship, this time carrying nearly 1,000 German Jews, refugees fleeting the Nazis.

And we are still only beginning to acknowledge the cultural genocide that took place through Canada’s Indian Residential School system. The raison- d’être of the schools, to strip Indigenous children of their culture and spirituality and indoctrinate them in the ways of Euro-Christian society, saw the persecution of spiritual leaders, forbidding of spiritual practices, and destruction of spiritual objects. The damage has and will continue to reverberate through generations of Indigenous peoples across Canada.

Despite this recent shameful history, most Canadians believe that religious discrimination is no longer a problem in contemporary society. We point to “multiculturalism”, recent efforts to promote reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, along with Canadians’ eagerness to resettle (Muslim) Syrian refugees, as proof that we have learned the lessons at the core of the Universal Declaration.

Yet, after the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, we have seen a marked spike in hate crimes against Muslims: women wearing hijab are being attacked, a mosque was burned, and Muslim-Canadians were told to “go home”. While these may be the acts of a hateful minority, Islamophobia continues to rear its ugly head—in fact, earlier this week, Donald Trump, the current Republican presidential frontrunner, called for an outright ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Less extreme, but likely more pervasive than overt attacks are new stereotypes that view all religious people as inherently backward, less tolerant, less informed, or closed-minded. This is a different form of prejudice that appears to be socially acceptable in our more secular society, and among many otherwise “progressive” or “liberal” individuals.

Of course, this is not to say that we cannot be critical of our own or other peoples’ religions, faiths or creeds, or of religion more generally; freedom of thought and expression are rightly protected under the Charter. But legitimate critique of creed cannot lead to discriminatory treatment in protected social areas (employment, housing, services, contracts, unions), become an excuse to dismiss legal obligations to accommodate genuinely held creed beliefs and practices, or rise to the level of hate speech or hateful acts prohibited by the Criminal Code.   

And, it is worth repeating that protection of religious rights and freedoms comes with the attendant responsibility to respect the rights of others. Creed rights are not absolute and can be limited if they deny the equal treatment and dignity of others. That is why in 2012 the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) developed a Policy on competing human rights to help organizations and individuals deal with everyday situations where rights come into conflict. The competing rights policy highlights the importance of engaging in respectful dialogue between both parties who claim their rights are affected. These are difficult conversations, but we must have them to meet the requirements under human rights legislation.

And, while we have these tough conversations, we must be careful not to create a false competition of rights and values. For example, a government policy that sought to prevent Zunera Ishaq from wearing a niqab during her citizenship ceremony played out, to some degree, as a clash between the rights of religious minorities, women’s rights and Canadian values. However, Canadian democratic values do not seek to extinguish religious differences; instead, they are reflected in the rights and protections provided under the Charter and in human rights codes. Respecting and accommodating diversity mean that people don’t have to park their religious beliefs at the door just because they are in a secular space.

With debates around religion at the forefront of many peoples’ minds, it is particularly significant that the OHRC is launching its revised Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed today. The policy is an important step towards a more open and inclusive Ontario where differences in our core beliefs, whether religious, atheist or otherwise, are valued, respected and accommodated—in short, the policy protects everyone. December 10th and the release of this Policy are important reminders that in 2015, no one should live in fear or hiding because of their creed beliefs or practices—that is the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.