Global, Identity, Politics

State v. Religion

The separation of church and state is complicated in Canada, thanks to the notwithstanding clause in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Nonetheless, the courts and (most) governments take strides to keep the two separate.
Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Stephanie Burker, who had been trying to get a get from her ex-husband for 15-years. (If memory serves, hers is one of the stories in the documentary film “Untying the Bonds: Jewish Divorce.”)

“The fact that a dispute has a religious aspect does not by itself make it non-justiciable,” Judge Rosalie Abella wrote for the majority. Denying the woman the ability to remarry was “an unjustified and severe impairment of her ability to live her life in accordance with his country’s values and her Jewish beliefs.”

I find it encouraging, then, that the court was able to take a specifically religious issue – that of Jewish women, gets, and agunot – and examine it from a purely legal vantage – contract law. [Read more.] In the wake of Quebec’s “reasonable accommodation” hearings, I’m curious to know if there has been any backlash against this ruling from the quebecois majority in Quebec, or from the Christian “majority” in the rest of Canada.

… And on “reasonable accommodation,” let’s speak to that for a moment. Over the last year, there was an increased backlash against Muslims and Jews in the [Catholic] province of Quebec. One small town outlawed hijabs and wrote a “code of conduct” instructing potential immigrants how to live “properly” in their town (the town has no immigrants). A young girl wasn’t allowed to play in a soccer tournament because she wore a hijab; her whole team walked off the field in protest solidarity. Teachers in Quebec declared it “unfair” that Jews could take days off for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but they had to work on their Christian holidays (um, because apparently schools are open on Easter, Christmas, and Sundays?!). After Passover, a reporter urged patients, who hadn’t found the hospital’s policy problematic, to start complaining about having been served kosher l’pesach meals. The media urged the public to protest women being allowed to vote while wearing a niqab or burqa. And many, many, more examples.
The result was a whole lot of hatred towards non-quebecois residents/citizens of Quebec. The provincial government decided they needed to act, and quickly, so they set up a Commission. For those not aware of the procedures of a provincial Commission (or of a federal Royal Commission), they are anything but quick, and usually incredibly ineffective. Thus, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission set out to talk with quebecois and Quebecers about reasonable accommodation, immigration, racism, and related topics. From most accounts, the public hearings became venues for people to “legitimately” air racist, xenophobic, and otherwise bigoted opinions without fear of consequence. Few and far between were the positive accounts of what living in a pluralistic society can offer. [Listen here to CBC’s Quebec This Week reporting on the first English hearing during the commission.] It’s just sad that, in many ways, Quebec is so far behind the rest of Canada. Sure, it had legislation promoting equality between the genders decades before other provinces, but when it comes to racism, bigotry, religious and ethnic intolerance, xenophobia… Quebec is decades behind.
Good luck, Ms. Burker. I hope yours isn’t the only good religion-related news coming out of Quebec these days. Here’s to a hopeful 2008.

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