When you witness a sudden change in the attitudes of a majority of people in your community it raises a number of questions. The first question you are bound to ask is how could so many people change their minds so fast. Perhaps what you should be asking yourself though is not why or how the change happened, but how much of a change was it really. What might have looked on the surface to be the truth about people’s beliefs had no real depth and was as easily dispersed as topsoil in a dust bowl.
Canada has developed a reputation as being a tolerant country over the years and seemingly has some of the most liberal attitudes on issues of race, sexual identity, and gender discrimination. Ever since the implementation of the Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1980 any legislation or activity that would allow for discrimination against anyone based on race, gender, religion, creed, or sexual preferences have been successfully challenged and overturned.
When this has been combined with Canada’s willingness to support progressive legislation in the health care field like supplying patients with medical marijuana and our former reputation as Nobel Prize for Peace winner because of peacekeeping efforts it certainly makes us appear to be a kind and compassionate country. But there’s a difference between what can be legislated and what are the genuine feelings of a people.
As long as people aren’t confronted with situations that stretch there tolerances, they usually are able to live up to the laws of the land. Unfortunately, it looks like Canada’s famous tolerance was only skin deep and at the first sign of trouble has up and vanished. Currently it’s the ugly smell of racism mixed with xenophobia that’s wafting around the halls of power and the streets of cities, towns, and villages.
It started innocently enough with Elections Canada, the government agency responsible for administering elections, declaring that Muslim women wouldn’t have to remove their veil in order to vote, in spite of their being a new law in place requiring picture identification in order to vote. Elections Canada was willing to make an exception to this law in order to respect the traditions of devout Muslims if they did not feel comfortable revealing their faces in public.
In response Prime Minister Steven Harper came out and said he “profoundly disagreed with this decision” and that he hoped Elections Canada would change their mind. It was Harper’s government that passed the new legislation, demanding visual identification of voters, so it’s not surprising he’d object to the decision.
While in of itself this seems more like an etiquette decision, how to accommodate someone’s religious beliefs in a situation where they come into conflict with the law, it should be asked why wasn’t this issue considered when the legislation was being created. Secondly, in the past when this type of conflict has arisen, governments have acted with a little more flexibility then Stephen Harper is it this situation.
When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) first started taking Sikhs on as officers, it was decided that they could wear their turbans instead of the regular headgear, as it would not interfere with their ability to do their job. On the other hand, Sikhs who took construction jobs would have to wear a hard hat. Instead of showing any sensitivity to the needs of another’s religious belief, and trying to find a compromise as was achieved in the case of Sikhs, it can only be all or nothing for Mr. Harper.
Of course as is the case with most politics, there is a subtext that might help explain his stance and the lack of anything being said by the opposition in answer to his statement. It has to do with the current political situation in Quebec, where they are experiencing a sharp increase in xenophobia. When the small town of Herouxville Quebec passed bylaws prohibiting the wearing of the burka, and stoning as forms of punishment, just in case they ever had to deal with hoards of Muslim immigrants, they were looked upon as a group of intolerant, redneck bigots.
But, in the last provincial election, the party which ran on a nationalistic/anti-immigrant platform ended up in opposition in a minority government situation. Although the Premier spoke out against xenophobia, he formed a commission of inquiry to go from community to community to let these bigots have their say in public. So now, all levels of government feel like they have to try and appease these folks and reassure them that if the Muslims invade Quebec disguised as immigrants looking for a better life, they won’t be given any special treatment.
Did I mention that there were three seats being contested in by-elections in Quebec right about now as well? Do you think that may have anything to do with any of these signals being sent out to the ultranationalists in Quebec?
While the whole issue of whether an Islamic woman can be asked to remove her veil for identification purposes before voting may seem trivial. We never had to produce any identification at all to vote in Canada except proof that you were on the voters list and that makes me wonder about the validity of the new law requesting ID anyway. However, against the new background of fear mongering and xenophobia that is beginning to fester in Quebec and elsewhere it takes on the appearance of being a symptom of a growing intolerance to anybody who is different.
What kind of message do we send when even the slightest accommodation for another’s religious practices is called wrong? Where has our tolerance gone for another person’s differences, or did they even exist in the first place? Fear of something because you don’t understand it is the behaviour of a coward, and intolerance is the coward’s defence against fear. Are we a country of cowards?