Canada Day 2016, celebrate but let’s not be complacent

Canada has a healthy democracy but there is no room for complanency
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters at a June 22 news conference in Ottawa. Photo by Art Babych.

As MPs headed back to their constituencies for the summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a news conference in late June. Before submitting to questions from journalists, Trudeau talked about three promises kept since the Liberals won power in October 2015. They had, he said, delivered on a tax cut for middle-class Canadians and modified the Canada Child Benefit to support families. They also promised to strengthen the Canada Pension Plan for future retirees. Continue reading Canada Day 2016, celebrate but let’s not be complacent

Charles Taylor on Muslims in Canada

Philosopher Charles Taylor in media scrum
Philosopher Charles Taylor in media scrum

The celebrated Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor made headlines recently when he said that the prime minister’s critical comments about Muslim women wearing the niqab (a partial face covering) were both “dumb” and a boon for terrorist recruiters such as the Islamic State. Taylor’s point was that the prime minister is fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment and that in turn makes alienated Muslims in Canada more likely targets for terrorist recruiters. Taylor called the comments “a ridiculously disproportionate reaction” to the tiny number of women who wear the niqab in Canada. He speculated that some politicians are cynically trolling for votes by trying to sew division.

The news stories quoting Taylor arose largely from a scrum that he had with reporters following a keynote speech that he made to a gathering organized by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, a think tank named after the former NDP leader.

A public intellectual

Taylor, a professor emeritus of political philosophy at McGill University, is perhaps Canada’s most prominent public intellectual. He was, for example, one of the main speakers early in March at an international conference in Rome convened by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Culture. Taylor was also co-chair of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec, which arose from a controversy stoked by some in Quebec against Muslims and other minority groups. The commission’s report Building the Future was released in 2008 after months of testimony at public hearings.

Taylor’s speech to the Broadbent Institute did target recent comments by some federal politicians, but at an earlier time he was also a blunt critic of plans by the Parti Quebecois to introduce a charter of values that would have forbade people working in public institutions from wearing clothing or accessories of a religious nature.

Historical sweep

Taylor’s speech was rich in its historical sweep, providing examples of how social exclusion has been practiced but also how it has been overcome. “We are in a race,” he said, “between measures that create solidarity and those that create division. We must create bonds of solidarity and avoid stigmatization.”

Taylor said that all societies at one time or another attempt to exclude certain people and groups. There was once a strong opposition to Irish immigration into the United States, but Taylor said that the Americans overcame it. The symbolic end to that discrimination occurred when John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the country’s president in 1960. “But today in the U.S. Hispanics are unwanted by a lot of Anglo-Saxon types,” Taylor said, but he predicted that Americans will get beyond that exclusion as well.

He used France as an example of a country that once had a positive attitude toward accepting immigrants, but that changed after World War II and especially after the war in the former French colony of Algeria. “There is now a deep alienation among immigrants in France and the country is aggravating it with anti-Muslim measures.”

Bonds of solidarity

Taylor asked his audience to think about how certain countries succeed in confronting the obstacles to welcoming newcomers while other nations do not. “If we allow people to get to know each other and if we create enough connections, we can get beyond this just as the Americans did with the Irish and the Polish,” Taylor said. “We have to build connections of solidarity and to include those who are excluded.”

All political leaders, Taylor said, have a responsibility to refrain from stigmatization. “It is really dangerous for the prime minister to say that Islam is anti-feminine because some women choose to wear the niqab. This creates confrontation and stigmatizes all Muslims and ultimately the bonds of solidarity may not be able to keep up with the amount of division. You can be desperate to win an election and think you can do that by creating tension, but if you succeed you may actually lose the country you want. We have to think in the long term.”

Despite the controversies, Taylor said that he remains optimistic about the likelihood of having solidarity triumph over division in Canada. “We can meet this challenge. We have done so in the past in Canada and in Quebec and we can do so again.”         




Religious freedom and gender equality at York University

When a male student at York University recently requested — for religious reasons — that he be excused from interacting with female classmates, it led to an intense debate over competing rights and religious accommodation.

The school’s sociology professor, Paul Grayson, denied the request because he says it infringed upon the rights of his female students “to be treated with respect and as equals.” Grayson was overruled by the dean of arts, who felt that a religious right trumped gender equality. But by then, the student had already accepted Grayson’s decision and completed his assignment along with others, including females. Crisis averted.

Nevertheless, similar requests will have real and negative consequences for women and girls, not only in schools and universities, but also in business and elsewhere. Hard-fought gains for gender equality will be undermined. The event at York University also exposes the need for greater clarity in our thinking about the nature and limits of religious freedom.

For the most part, Canada’s Charter of Rights guarantees a list of “fundamental freedoms” and assures protection against discrimination on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, as well as a mental or physical disability. But protection of someone’s religious rights, for example, ends where that protection would infringe upon the rights of another. In other words, religious freedom is not unique, but rather one among a wider set of freedoms.

Of course, many Canadians profess to be religious believers. Yet despite this freedom to practice religion, we also recognize that our public institutions are largely secular in nature. It’s one thing to enforce the separation of males and females in a mosque or a traditional Jewish synagogue. It’s quite another to attempt to impose such a separation in a public school or university. Some religions will not allow women to be priests or ministers, and that is for them to decide, but they cannot expect to apply similar gender-based limitations elsewhere in society. Some churches refuse to marry same sex couples and are within their right to do so, but they cannot expect to prevent those marriages from taking place in other churches or in courthouses.

This is not to say that religious organizations should be prevented from participating in public debates about legislation of all sorts: taxation, climate change, poverty, childcare or foreign policy. After all, it’s their right to. But their influence will be only as good as their arguments.

This piece appeared as a blog entry on the United Church Observer website on January 23, 2014.

Quebec’s right wing Charter of Values

Bernard Landry, Quebec Charter of Values
Bernard Landry, Charter of Values
Photo courtesy Creative Commons

The Parti Quebecois government has created controversy by proposing the Charter of Quebec Values aimed at restricting public sector employees from wearing religious symbols — turbans, head scarves, skullcaps and presumably crosses — in their workplaces.

The PQ claims that this would unify Quebecers behind the idea of a secular state, but Charles Taylor, the well-known academic who co-chaired a provincial commission into reasonable accommodation in 2007, describes the proposal as an “absolutely terrible act of exclusion.” 

So the debate is on. Former Quebec Premier Bernard Landry has lashed out at English Canadian media for “Quebec bashing” while covering the matter. Landry told CBC Radio’s As It Happens that Quebec welcomes immigrants but wants them to join society. “When you change country, you change country,” he said. “And you have to get first the language, then the culture and integrate.”

In the same interview, Landry even goes on to ridicule the idea of police wearing turbans, which harks back to the Reform Party’s 1989 convention resolution stating that Sikhs should be barred from wearing turbans in the RCMP.

Landry’s comments on religious accommodation obviously shift quickly to immigration policy although individuals barred from wearing religious symbols would likely include native-born Quebecers.

Still, recent opinion polling shows that 58 percent of Quebecers support the Charter of Quebec Values, compared to 42 percent in the rest of Canada. The Montreal Gazette reports that support for the charter was highest among people who vote Conservative —  at 49 percent.

It’s interesting that right-leaning commentators, including The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, use what they see as the failed immigration policies of Europe as a basis for claiming that Canada’s multiculturalism policies are failing as well.

Not so, says Professor Will Kymlicka, the Canada research chair in political philosophy at Kingston’s Queen’s University. Kymlicka says that what passes for analysis is often really anecdote and hunch. He adds that research across national boundaries indicates that Canada is, in fact, successful in the integration of immigrants and their children, and that policies — aimed at promoting social cohesion among a variety of racial and ethnic groups — play a role in that success.

Multiculturalism was even included in Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is perhaps another reason why Landry doesn’t like it.  He instead argues that Canada will long come to regret its policy of multiculturalism, which he says creates racial and ethnic ghettoes.

And so, we are left with the odd spectacle of the Parti Quebecois, which has always claimed to be progressive and socially democratic, promoting policies resembling those of Canada’s Right.

This piece was published earlier this week by the United Church Observer.   

Canadian immigration, Hungary and thin ice

Parliament in Budapest

I spent four weeks recently in Central Europe and while in Hungary I spoke to a university audience about how Canadians view immigrants, refugees and multiculturalism. One is always on thin ice, to use a Canadian metaphor, when speaking in a country where you are a tourist and may offend sensibilities. But I believe that Canada’s experience with managing ethnic diversity might be of use to other countries.  I took as my point of departure the 1950s in rural Saskatchewan. I grew up in a farming community that had been created as part of a great human migration late in the 19th and early in the 20th century when the Canadian government settled the West with farmers. My small village was diverse for its time. There were Germans, Ukrainians, French, Hungarians and others. In fact, I discovered upon rereading our local community history book that when it was created one of the names being considered for my village was Budapest. The village was eventually called St. Benedict, to recognize a religious community of Benedictine monks that had been established nearby – but Hungarians were significant in our population. Continue reading Canadian immigration, Hungary and thin ice

Remembering Andrew Suknaski, Wood Mountain Poems

Andrew Suknaski, citizen of Wood Mountain

I sat in the upper room of a rundown Ottawa pub on a rainy evening last week reminiscing with a dozen others about recently-deceased Saskatchewan poet Andrew Suknaski and reading short excerpts from his work.  Earlier there had been a similar gathering in Montreal, far from the small prairie city of Moose Jaw where Andy died at age 69 on May 3.

Andy was a gifted writer (and visual artist) and in the 1960s and 70s he had a seminal influence upon a generation of prairie and other authors.  Tragically, he was also plagued by mental illness and in the 1980s felt he had to choose between his writing and his health.  He produced little or no writing for the last several decades of his life but I am impressed by how widely within Canada his work is read and treated in academia.

Born in Wood Mountain

He was born in Wood Mountain, a small village on the Wood Mountain Plateau, which rises hundreds of metres above the surrounding prairie southwest of Assiniboia deep in southern Saskatchewan.  The village was always tiny and has shrunk even more to a population of a mere few dozen but it is incredibly rich in a history that Andy thoroughly absorbed.

The Metis from far away Red River established camps there for the buffalo hunt and some came to settle permanently after the violence involving Louis Riel in 1870. The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Mounted Police set up Wood Mountain posts.  In 1876, Sitting Bull led 5,000 of his Sioux people to refuge near Wood Mountain after they had annihilated General Custer’s army at the Battle of Little Big Horn.  Sitting Bull and most of the Sioux were forced to go back to the U. S., but a small Dakota reserve was later established near Wood Mountain village.

Imbued and conflicted

Andy was imbued with this history and he wrote about it with great knowledge and sensitivity.  He was of Polish and Ukrainian heritage.  As he describes it in Wood Mountain Poems, his most famous book, his father filed homestead papers in Moose Jaw in 1914 and then walked the 170 kilometres to Wood Mountain to take up his land.  His mother had emigrated from Poland, her way paid by a brother who had arrived earlier to Southern Saskatchewan.

Andy was conflicted, at once loyal to his family roots but fond of and deeply concerned about Metis and First Nations people as well.  He pulled it all together in his strongly realist poetry, which is especially lucid and sympathetic in its descriptions of the people, past and present, of Wood Mountain.  Al Purdy, who acted as the editor for Wood Mountain Poems when it was first published in 1976, wrote: “There is a sense of place here that I find unequalled anywhere else. It is a multi-dimensional place, with an over-riding feeling of sadness because so much is lost.” Andy spent much of his life both leaving Wood Mountain and returning, only to be disappointed and leave again.

Trail’s End Hotel

One weekend in summer 1978, a friend and I set out from Regina with our copy of Wood Mountain Poems in hand, reading aloud from it as we drove.  When we finally got to the village, we stopped in at the Trail’s End Hotel, the pub where a number of Andy’s poems are set.  We were surprised by how small it was inside, a narrow room only a few metres wide and not that long either.  I recall that it had some bronzed cowboy boots mounted on the wall.  We wandered around the small village seeing its tiny houses, the grain elevator (gone now), and the cemetery at the edge of town.  Andy had written about all of this but what was missing for us of course were the people — Lee Soparlo, Gus Lecaine, Jimmy Hoy, Dunc and Babe McPherson, Jerry Potts and Sitting Bull – all, in Andy’s mind, citizens of Wood Mountain in time and space.

At the end of Wood Mountain Poems, Andy was on his nomadic way once again.  Here is the final poem in his book:

Western Prayer

time poet
to put aside what you came to
leaving all else

time to unsaddle
this lame horse ridden
into ancestral dust
and cease living like an indian
of old

time to do things with the hands
working all seasons
with pride
and three weeks vacation
each year

time to tie this dream horse to a star
and walk ordinary earth

(used with permission of Hagios Press)

Andrew Suknaski’s ashes were interred in Wood Mountain. Saskatchewan writers and friends celebrated his life and work in Moose Jaw on Sunday, June 3.

Conservative pundits diminish Breivik’s Norwegian victims

By Dennis Gruending

The flat of NorwayOn July 22, Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in downtown Oslo that killed eight people. Then, dressed as a policeman, he traveled to a nearby small island and used a semi-automatic rifle to massacre 77 members of the Labour Party’s youth wing who were attending a summer camp. Now the dead (many of them just teenagers) have been buried. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has been unequivocal in saying that Breivik’s unspeakable actions will not change Norway’s commitment to democracy and tolerance. However, many media commentators, columnists and pundits on this side of the Atlantic have conspicuously lacked Stoltenberg’s vision or grace. On his syndicated talk radio program, the notorious Glenn Beck compared the young Norwegian victims to Nazis. As New York Times columnist Timothy Egan described it, Beck said the summer camp attended by the Labour Party youth “sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler Youth.” Continue reading Conservative pundits diminish Breivik’s Norwegian victims

Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

By Dennis Gruending

Reginald Bibby (Art Babych Photo)Sociologist Reginald Bibby is probably Canada’s closest observer of religious trends. He has been polling on religious practices and attitudes since 1975 and has placed the numbers into context in several books beginning with Fragmented Gods in 1987. Bibby has just released another book called Beyond the Gods and Back, and he spoke about it recently at an Anglican cathedral in Ottawa.

Bibby says that for many years he accepted the secularization thesis commonly proposed by most sociologists and researchers. In its most simple terms, Bibby says, “secularization refers to the decline in the influence of organized religion.” There are a variety of ways to track this situation but the one most often used is the frequency of attendance at religious services. Using Gallup Poll results from 1957, and later his own survey data, Bibby found that weekly church attendance in Canada fell precipitously among the population from 53% in 1957 to 24% in 1990.

Continue reading Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back