Article of Faith

An elderly Sikh man had his beard cut off by a nurse in a care facility. The family states that he was so upset by having his beard shorn that he stopped eating and died. The Fraser Health Authority has apologized for the incident and promises that there will be cultural education.

In my opinion, the Fraser Health Authority is acting in a ‘Canadian’ way. Words about understanding different religious and cultural issues are in the forefront. Contrast this reaction with the proposed legislation in Quebec that I blogged about yesterday. I wonder what is at the root of this different reaction.

I think the fact that it is a woman in Quebec and men in BC is a salient point. It would seem that people accept the religious expression of men more readily than the same expression by women. If a man makes a decision to be a conservative Sikh and not cut any bodily hair his decision is respected at face value. Women wearing the niqab or the burka are not respected in the same manner. It is assumed that these women did not come to this decision on their own as there is a belief that no woman would want to cover themselves in that way. Many feminists believe that these women are being forced into these garments. While that may be the case for some reasons we still must respect the beliefs of women.

As It Happens had an update tonight on the story last night. They interviewed a niqab wearing woman who, in spite of her religious beliefs has an earned a degree. She had plans to go back to school but now she was not sure. She described what happens when someone needed to confirm her identity. If it was not possible to have a woman do it, she had no problem allowing a man to confirm her identity. She further indicated that other women would behave similarly. She mad an interesting point comparing the Quebec government to oppressive regimes that deny women access to education. Denial of education is what will happen, in the province of Quebec, if this legislation is passed.

“Mine is ok but yours is not”

The title seems to capture the attitude of the government of Quebec when it comes to religious symbols. I was listening to “As it Happens” on the radio today. They were covering a recent introduction of legislation regarding the display of religious symbols in government offices, hospitals and schools. The niqāb and burka, were the items mentioned. Referencing the secular nature of Quebec, the legislation singles out religious paraphernalia that covers the face. As the conversation with a female Quebec politician (I presume) went on to discuss other religious items like crucifixes for example which would be deemed acceptable. Clearly a double-standard exists.

This legislative change (if it passes) will only affect women as it is women who wear the niqāb and the burkqa. I have no desire to get into the debate about how a woman comes to wear either garment. Discussing whether it is religious or a woman’s choice is not a salient point to this issue. The bottom line is some women wear these garments because they believe they are required to do so. Yes, it may be more cultural than a religious requirement but it does not really matter because the women wearing these garments believe they must. It is similar to the belief held by Sikhs with regard to their hair – both on their heads and their faces.

The legislation will require women either services givers or those receiving services, in a government office, hospital or school cannot have her face covered. The government believes it has the right to force these women (which, as of last year, numbered 10) to uncover. Citing concerns around identification and service quality, the Quebec government believes it has grounds to force this change on women.

When the conversation moved to discuss other religious symbols like, say, a crucifix, it was deemed an acceptable symbol because it had history in Quebec. Clearly this is complete hypocrisy. If a crucifix is ok on a nun working in a hospital, she can keep it on while at the same time forcing her pregnant burqa-wearing patient to remove her head covering even though her god dictates that she must wear something to cover her face and hair because that is only for her husband to see.

As the discussion went on they discussed the roots of this legislation. It would seem that Quebec fancies itself to be in the same league as France, who as a republic, believes it has the right to impose similar legislation. However, Quebec is not a sovereign nation and while it may be a ‘nation inside a nation’ it does not give it the right to deviate so far from Canadian norms of cultural acceptance in a multicultural milieu. Quite frankly, this legislation defies all that is Canadian. A three or four hundred years of Catholic history does not give it precedence over other religions. Following Quebec’s logic the only religious items displayed should be First Nations.

Once all the arguments have been made and legislation passed, the only people who are going to suffer are the women. If devoutly religious women are forced to uncover their faces in a culturally insensitive government office they are just not going to go there. This means they may forego social assistance applications if they are poor or single parents. Medical care may be delayed until it is too late and forget pre-natal care. What happens with children? How are these women to get medical care for their children?

This legislation is oppressive. Canada welcomes immigrants under the assumption that we are an open and pluralistic society. We cannot open our doors to the world and then impose our values on them when they get here. Instead of legislating these women into silence, we must find a way to accommodate them within our system while respecting their religious beliefs. Creative ways can be found to make this happen. To do this we must have the collective courage of our convictions. As a Canadian, I am disgusted.

James Moore…

Today James Moore, the newly minted Conservative Heritage Minister was interviewed on As it Happens about the political brouhaha going on in Ottawa. In addition to trotting out the usual bogeymen and strawmen, James Moore said something a little interesting and something I can address. He stated that he has not talked to any Canadians who want the Coalition government to go ahead. So, I have decided that I will call and email Mr. Moore relentlessly so that he has heard from at least one Canadian who wants the progressive Coalition. I urge all my faithful readers (5 of you, as far as I know) to inundate Mr. Moore with telephone calls and emails so that he will have talked to one of us who supports the Coalition! Here is a link to his site and his contact information.

James Moore

Tri-Cities Office/Bureau
2603 St. John’s Street
Port Moody, BC, V3H 2B5

Ottawa Office/Bureau
House of Commons
Chambre des communes
Ottawa, ON, K1A 0A6