We Canadians like to think that we are nice people, and a lot of us are, but not all of us.
We like to think that we are welcoming to strangers from foreign lands, that we are nice to immigrants, that we are respectful of others… But our actions speak otherwise.
I’m old enough to remember the debate over whether Canada should permit people from the Caribbean countries to emigrate here. Much of the talk that I remember revolved around how cold it gets here and that dark skinned people wouldn’t be able to adapt to such a cold environment. I couldn’t understand it then either, but I was just a kid growing up in a town that was basically all descendents of Europeans, primarily British.
I can also recall the influx of new Canadians that came from South Asia, mainly from India and Pakistan. I recall the jokes, everyone told them and everyone laughed at them. I also remember the slurs, the barbs, and in some cases the hate towards these new Canadians. Not everyone shared in these thank goodness.
But there was an awful lot of “Why do they want to come here?” and “Why can’t they just stay there?” being said. The answer is quite simple. They wanted to come here for the same reason your people wanted to come here, this is a land of opportunity free from many of the problems that people faced back there.
We are almost all either immigrants to Canada or descended from immigrants. Unless your family was here over a thousand years ago, you’re immigrant stock just like me. I’m first generation Canadian.
Now the proposed “Charter of Quebec Values” that was tabled this week has reminded me about our prejudices and biases that we Canadians try to paint over. The paint is very thin, and it doesn’t take much scratching to expose our not so nice side.
The region I live in was part of the northern terminus of the Underground Railway. There are a number of communities here that can trace their roots to this time. There are other communities here that had laws barring coloured people from being within the town limits from sundown until sunrise.
Thankfully those laws have gone from the books.
You’re thinking “But BC that was a long time ago” and yes it was a long time ago, but the feelings behind laws like that are still around, for some people at least.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Canada encouraged South Asian people to relocate to the British Honduras, saying that the climate would be better for the “Hindus”. When this did not work out, Canada stopped allowing South Asians from debarking from ships in British Columbia period. We were OK with them when we needed cheap labour for the railways, but when it was done, we didn’t really need them anymore.
Our treatment of the Chinese was quite similar as well.
I know, I know, still ancient history…
In 1939, the Canadian government refused a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Germany permission to land.
In 1948, there was a landmark court case in Ontario over restrictive covenants. When Bernard Wolf tried to buy a cottage in the Grand Bend region of Ontario, there was a snag… it had a 1933 provision that the property could not be sold to, rented to or used "by any person of the Jewish, Hebrew, Semitic, Negro or coloured race or blood."
Mr. Wolf was Jewish. Although the property owner had no issue with Wolf buying the property, the local community fought it. The case ended up before the Ontario Supreme Court which ruled restrictive covenants such as this to be unconstitutional.
We’ve come a long way. Most of the legal impediments, but not all have been either amended or removed from the books.
In 1960, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and his PC government enacted the Canadian Bill of Rights (pictured at the top of this page). Diefenbaker was denied his dream of having this Bill of Rights included into the British North America Act (BNA) but it did put our rights into a law. Much of Diefenbaker’s Bill eventually ended up being included in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 (pictured below).
You would think by now there would be no issues left, but in 1993, just 20 years ago, an invited guest was denied entry to a Royal Canadian Legion based on his religion.
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Pritam Singh Jauhal and four other Indo-Canadian veterans were not allowed into the lounge because they are Sikhs and their religion does not permit them to remove their turbans. The case gained National notoriety and the issue was raised in the House of Commons in Ottawa.
I quote here from an article written by Lt. Col. Jauhal:
Discussion of case in Canadian Parliament:
Late Ms Shoughnessy Cohen, M.P for Windsor-St Clair introduced the following motion in the House of Commons:
“Mr Speaker, this House, recognizing the fundamental Canadian Right of religious freedom and the courageous contributions of our Veterans of all faiths, urge the Royal Canadian Legion and its Constituent Branches to reconsider their recent decision, so that all our members will have access to their facilitities without having to remove religious head-coverings including Sikh turban and the Jewish Kipa”
Eight M. Ps from all the parties including the only turbaned Sikh M.P Gurbax Singh Malhi spoke on the motion. All M .Ps except two […] supported the motion.
[Edit mine, BC]
It is worth noting that all 75 Quebec MPs voted in favour of the motion, including all 54 from the Bloc Quebecois.
The Legion did change their by-laws to allow for religious headwear thanks to Lt. Col. Jauhal.
And this finally brings us to the events of the past week and the “Charter of Quebec Values” introduced by the PQ government in Quebec.
Pauline Marois and her Minister of Democratic Institutions, Bernard Drainville are proposing that Public Employees should be barred from wearing “overt” religious items. These would include large religious symbols on a necklace, such as a crucifix or a Star of David, and would also include items of clothing like a kippah, or a turban, or a hijab.
The reasoning behind this is that the PQ believes that Quebec is a secular state and that people who are employed by the State cannot be allowed to show their religious beliefs at work. At least not by wearing “religious clothing”.
At least that’s the party line.
Wouldn’t you think that after so many years of trying to rid the system of prejudice and bias we’d be past this by now?
My guess is that some people or groups with influence leaned on Marois and her followers because they don’t like people showing that they belong to *ahem* certain religions.
Look, your biggest concern when dealing with a civil servant, or a medical professional, or a teacher should be whether or not that person is qualified to do their job… Not what they wear to work.
The other option is that Marois is trying to create a wedge issue to launch a separatist campaign, that the people affected by this “Values” Charter are just pawns being tossed under the bus for political gain. Not an appealing thought either.
The saddest part is that polls are showing that this “Values” Charter has quite a bit of support in Quebec, and across Canada for that matter.
It has taken a long time for us as a nation to get as far as we have in trying to stop racial and religious discrimination, but you can’t legislate personal opinions or personal biases.
I think we’re looking at the beginning of the slippery slope here, if the government of Quebec can deny you employment because of your religious wear, can they stop business in the private sector from doing the same?
People complain about the treatment of minority religions in other countries. We even have an Office of Religious Freedom to put pressure on countries whose treatment of minority religions is less than what we expect them to be. But how can we tell another country that it is wrong to force people to dress in a certain manner or force them to hide symbols of their religion when we are doing the same damn thing here?
Aren’t we Canadians just wonderful?
Links that I used to read up on this: