Ashley Doyle, (Student volunteer)
Multiculturalism, Faith & Competing Human Rights
Moderator: Colin Boyd, Director Multiculturalism Policy, Citizenship and Immigration Canada
Balpreet Singh, Legal Counsel, World Sikh Organization
Rabbi Reuven Bulka, Machzikei Hadas, Ottawa
This workshop explored the intersection of faith and multiculturalism and the potential complications that often result in trying to make the appropriate accommodations. Though the issue of interfaith understanding has only recently begun to be addressed by the Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada is working with the Canadian Race Relations Foundation to foster this understanding. Moderator Colin Boyd, Director of Multiculturalism Policy at Citizenship & Immigration Canada, asked each of the three panelists to provide a short talk on the broad subject of multiculturalism and competing human rights. A question and answer period followed.
The first panelist, Balpreet Singh, Legal Counsel and Acting Executive Director of the World Sikh Organization, launched the workshop by speaking about the ground realities of human rights from the perspective of the Sikh community. Singh provided a brief overview of the Sikh community in Canada, explaining that there are between 400 and 500 thousand Sikhs in Canada yet only 10%-15% of this population are initiated. Additionally, only 35%-40% of Sikhs wear the turban. Singh then went on to address two principal challenges that often influence the manner in which accommodation takes place.
First, it is important to understand that religion-based requests for accommodation are perceived differently than are other requests for accommodation in the majority of cases. For example, because religion is not a mandatory accommodation, while disability is, it is not something that involves choice. Many Canadians feel that accommodations based on religion are unnecessary. Singh explained that there is a type of "mental block" in this sense, which prevents many Canadians from taking religion-based requests for accommodation seriously. Second, particularly following the events of 9-11, there is a particular image associated with the Sikh community (as well as a number of other religious communities). This image is in large part negative and interferes with clear thinking in regards to accommodations.
An example of an accommodation challenge is seen specifically with the wearing of the kirpan and turban. The Sikh community has never been against the idea of compromise. During the Olympic Games, for example, it was decided that the kirpan could be warn as long as it was under the clothing, restrained on a belt, and was no more than seven and a half inches in length. There are options available for accommodation; however, these options may not always be obvious. Regarding workplace safety issues, if a Sikh makes the choice to wear a turban rather than a helmet, that is a personal choice and although everyone may not agree with this choice, it is only the individual who is bearing the risk.
It was noted in conclusion that even where there is a willingness to accommodate, in some cases, an accommodation is not possible. In some cases, where policies exist, individuals are not aware of these policies. Additionally, some people may not feel comfortable asking for an accommodation. What this means for Canadian society is that individuals ought to work at creating an atmosphere in which fear of requesting accommodation does not exist and where people are knowledgeable about accommodation policies and their rights as citizens.
The second panelist, Rabbi Reuven Bulka, Machzikei Hadas, added to Singh's talk by explaining that first and foremost, rights need to be balanced by responsibilities; too often we focus on that which we are entitled to rather than paying attention to what needs to be done on our part. He went on to discuss that in many cases, accommodations for religious reasons are not made simply because of a lack of information. He provided the example of a Jew who wanted to take bereavement leave following a funeral rather than prior to, given that for Jews, the mourning period takes place after the funeral. In this instance, it was a simple case of needing to rewrite legislation to reflect newly learned information about Jewish practice. Misinformation or lack of information can easily lead to a policy or law which does not accommodate individuals of diverse faiths.
Rabbi Bulka also spoke about the competing rights involved in the controversial issue of ritual circumcision. First, because ritual circumcision has always been a part of Judaism, the right of the Jew to practice his or her fundamental freedom of religion is involved. The second right involved is that of the parent to choose to have their child enter into the Jewish faith. Lastly, the right of the child to choose his or her own religious path has become an issue more recently. It is clear that dialogue is necessary to work through these types of accommodation issues where competing rights are involved.
The last panelist hop emphasized the importance of education, resources and dialogue to move forward in a multicultural country. He explored the topics of the wearing of the niquab in the witness stand as well as inmates requesting mosque visits five times daily while in prison. He used the latter prison example to illustrate that the reality is that freedom of expression is not an absolute; compromises must sometimes be made.
Select Questions/points of discussion (addressed to all panelists)
What is your perspective on the use of the term "orthodoxy" and how would you explain the use of that term in trying to determine what a religious right is?
Interfaith seems to be more American – melting-pot – than does multifaith, which seems more Canadian and mosaic-related. Can you comment on this?
These summaries of the following discussions were prepared by volunteers from their notes taken during the workshops. While the CRRF fulfills its function as an organization which stimulates discussion on race relations issues, and provides opportunities for experts and communities to network and exchange information on these question, the posting of these summaries does not necessarily imply endorsement of the ideas and opinions expressed herein.