Secularism in Canada

Last week I attended a Council Meeting at City Hall.  The older, smaller indoor pool I frequent was on the chopping block and I wanted to represent my fellow swimmers’ opinion that this relic was worth saving.  As I sat through other agenda items waiting to see if I would have the opportunity to speak, half paying attention and half thinking to myself that it had been ages since I’d been at a council meeting of any city or personally spoken publicly; I noticed that the mayor was being addressed as “Your Worship”.  Say what?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  There’s no way on earth I’m addressing him as “Your Worship”!  This got me thinking about the separation of state and religion.

For a bit of history, although still part of the British Commonwealth, in 1982 Canada adopted its own constitution and became an independent country.  The Canadian Charter of Rights outlines freedom of religion and freedom of belief.  There is no official religion in Canada.  We do, however, have some ties to Great Britain.  Even though the Queen is ceremoniously “Head of State” and “Defender of the Faith”, she doesn’t really have any power in Canada.  However, most of our courts and laws (except for Quebec) can be traced to Great Britain, and we have held some of the decorum in practice.

Basically, Canada is secular.  I say ‘basically’ because depending on where you look for definition and to which province you refer, the definition might be different.  I believe that government and religion should be separate.  Unfortunately what I’ve seen in the past couple of years is scary.  On one extreme, in the States, we have a President who until very recently was openly supported by Evangelists.  On the other extreme, in the Canadian Province of Quebec, we have Bill 21, which by aiming for total separation of state and religion bans any government worker from wearing any religious symbol.  This includes any public employee: police, wildlife officers, judges, court employees, teachers and school workers, social workers, etc.  The intent is that no one served by a government employee should feel they are being treated with bias.  The Bill affects Muslims who wear hijab, niqab and burka, Sikhs who wear turbans, Arabs who wear keffiyeh, and Jews who wear kippah.  In keeping, the Province of Quebec has removed many crucifixes from political buildings.  Furthermore, the Bill states that no one receiving public services (speaking with their social worker, attending school, riding a public bus) may have their face covered.  This targets the wearing of the niqab.  This is where the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and much of the pubic take issue, citing it targets minorities and is sexist.

Where is the balance?  In our ‘inclusive society’ can we not find a secular state in which government and religion are detached without excluding those who wear religious garb?  Iain Benson, author of Living Together With Disagreement: Pluralism, the Secular, and the Fair Treatment of Beliefs in Canada Today, defines inclusive secularism as: “The state must not be run or directed by a particular religion but must act so as to include the widest involvement of different faith groups, including non-religious.”

Wouldn’t that translate to having obvious representation of every faith or belief group?  I’m not sure how that might pan out for, say, atheists or humanists.  Wouldn’t it be worth the effort though?

I’ve veered away from my original thought.  Personally, I don’t care if the mayor of my city is Christian, Muslim, Jew, Atheist, or whatever.  I don’t care about the colour of his or her skin.  I don’t care if he or she was born in Canada.  I do care about his or her political beliefs and the actions he or she takes to improve my city.  Regardless, I won’t be calling him or her “Your Worship”.

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