Canada Oct. 30, 2017

Debate essential to civic life, Islamophobia committee told

By Deborah Gyapong

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid told the Heritage Committee Sept. 18 she hopes the study of the anti-Islamophobia motion will include all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination. (Deborah Gyapong / CCN)

OTTAWA (CCN)—Witnesses urged government protection of charter freedoms and respect for pluralism before the Heritage Committee Oct. 16 in a study called for by anti-Islamophobia Motion M-103.

Former Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett, now head of Cardus Law, told the committee Canadian society needs to address anti-Muslim hatred that comes from “ignorance, indifference, and fear,” but it must also address similar “hatred of Jews, Catholic, LBGTQ persons, people who oppose same-sex marriage, First Nations People, pro-lifers, and the list goes on.”

The Government of Canada's role is “to uphold the Constitution and to guarantee the freedoms we bear as citizens,” Bennett said. “These freedoms are not the gift of government. They are borne by us as citizens by virtue of our humanity.”

The former ambassador urged an embrace of pluralism and government defence of freedoms rather than encroaching on them.

“This is a society that must be founded upon respect for difference, even when beliefs are so different that they are seen to run counter to the prevailing narrative of the day – whatever that might be,” Bennett said. “The government should be careful to not be too prescriptive of freedoms.”

Genuine pluralism means leaving room for deep disagreement, he said. “A common civic life without debate and encounter between us is no civic life at all.”

Combating racism and religious discrimination requires a “cultural shift” at all levels “from Parliament on down, and from local communities on up to live their religious faith and beliefs publicly, including in professions, in our universities and our schools, our cultural institutions, and in our legislatures and public services,” Bennett said.

That shift would allow people to say, “I don’t believe Mohammed is the Prophet,” or for a Muslim to say, “I don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God,” he said.

Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, told the committee his organization’s 1,600 physicians and dentists “cannot turn off or on our faith in God.”

“Faith is so much a part of who we are that it must, by its very nature, spill over into all aspects of our lives,” he said. “Because of this commitment, we are very empathetic to the concerns of all religious groups when we hear about prejudice, discrimination, or lack of tolerance in Canadian society.”

Worthen asked the committee to imagine a scenario in which a group with a characteristic protected by the human rights codes and the charter “was unable to practise their profession in certain provinces, or be educated in certain professional schools, because they had a particular protected characteristic.”

Imagine these people faced “no acknowledgement of the legitimacy of viability of their world view; were told “not to seek positions in rural areas;” and advised they would “only work in small areas of their profession because of their protected characteristic.”

“Imagine policies put forward by their regulatory bodies designated that people who shared their moral convictions on a topic were seen to be unprofessional, selfish, and not worthy of the noble position that their profession provided,” Worthen said. Imagine “regulatory leaders used their power to act upon their prejudice,” inevitably ending in discrimination.

“This scenario is not fictional,” Worthen told the committee. “It is real. It affects doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals in parts of Canada who cannot, because of their religious beliefs, be involved in the intentional killing of patients at any stage of life.”