Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button

76th Annual Summer Conference, August 9–12, 2007

Introductory Panel: Uneasy Partners

HAROON SIDDIQUI (bio), Editorial Page Editor Emeritus, Toronto Star
WILL KYMLICKA (bio), Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, Queen’s University
JANICE GROSS STEIN (bio), Belzberg Professor of Conflict Management and Director, Munk Centre for International Studies
Moderator: RIMA BERNS-McGOWN, CIPA Program Committe

Summary by Sumaira Shaikh

On the eve of the conference, Rima Berns-McGown, the moderator of the session coined as “Uneasy partners.” She talked about the importance of the issue of diversity and the need to discuss it in our society. She said the problem is that as Canadians we are too congratulatory about how tolerant we are. We need to move past that and address how we will make things better and improve the system even further.

Janice Stein, the director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, was the first speaker. She addressed the bumping of religion and rights and the spot of women in between. She said the conflict between her own religion, Judaism, and religious rights have been ripe, citing it as an example as a phenomenon in most religions. She says there are rights in Canada, listed in the Charter of Rights and Freedom that apply to public spaces only. The second fact she addressed was that the boundaries between public and private space are a lot less clear than we like to think, both are shadows of each other. Private space bleeds into public space, she said. This is not the lived experience of most Canadians and the notion of private space doesn’t work really well with how Canadians live their life. In our country, she said, our policies are not religion-free, since religious institutions are protected, and if you give charity to one, you get a tax-free receipt, so it is not wholly private. If you look at most religious practices of the world, something not unique to any one religion, most religions discriminate against women in some way or another. In her own synagogue she said, women are not counted as part of the group of ten needed to pray and are deemed not “fully human.” These rights of freedom of religion and equality cause friction, she said. Judges don’t lead a social consensus in this country, they don’t create the boundaries in Canada, but she pressed for the need to address a few big questions. What do we do when rights bump up against one another? What are the principles we use to resolve these issues? There are two sets of answers, she said, the first are legal principles and there is a rich legal tradition where words like balancing rights appear, which are principles of least harm and are implemented in a multitude of cases. Other principles rest in the nature of society, where people have choices. The third principle is a functional compromise among rights, the recognition that no right is absolute, and there are multiple rights. We should be looking for reasonable accommodation.

The next speaker was Haroon Siddiqui, the editorial page editor at the Toronto Star, who said it is false to say that diversity undermines social harmony in Canada and that multiculturalism threatens security. We are raising these questions, he said, because we are living in a post-9/11 world and are now working in a culture of fear where there is a need to justify the billions of dollars spent on two major wars. Canada has always had diversity from day one, even if not legally so. We have had a number of political compromises since the beginning. The new question of whether Muslims can integrate in Canada is actually an old one. He said the same happened to the Ukrainians, Japanese, Italians and Jews and now they are part of mainstream society in Canada. The next point he made was that terrorism is real and terrorism by Muslims is real as well. These days’ terrorists happen to be Muslims; in older days terrorists were from other religions. However, he questions our own racism, and gives the example that we don’t bother to count how many Iraqis and Afghanis die per day. Siddiqui said gender discrimination exists in all religions but this has nothing to do with multiculturalism. He said the discrimination against women that Stein spoke about would exist with or without multiculturalism. We need to find the balance between different rights. We need to find a compromise. There are certain public spaces for religion, which are subsidized by the state, and donations are tax deductible, so we need to make a change to the Charter. In Canada, we have never had a separation of church and state, because if we did, we wouldn’t have a Catholic school system until Grade 12.

Will Kymlicka, a Canada Research chair in political philosophy at Queen’s University was the final speaker and he addressed the worries that Stein had as well. He said we shouldn’t be addressing the issues of multiculturalism just because we don’t want to offend anyone. We need to open up these issues to have debate. He questioned how multiculturalism fit in Canada? Does it cause of the problems or is it the solution? He said if we compare Canada to other Western countries, then we are better off in terms of our immigration policy. We are the only country whose support for immigration went up after 9/11. Rates of taking up citizenship and voting by immigrants are higher in Canada than other countries. The basic process of basic socialization is going better in Canada compared to other countries, thus, on a relative scale things look good. However, we don’t want to be complacent, and we shouldn’t give up on what has been working. He said part of the success rests on our multiculturalism policy, which has given them the avenue to access the state and to have them feel at home in Canada. Our policy does not just say do what you want to do and we don’t care, but we instead say participate and here are the ground rules of the country. We support multiculturalism since it is linked to democracy, the ideas of human rights and is part of the jurisprudence in the country. It would be a real mistake that in trying to deal with these warning signs that we see we assume that the problem arose because of multiculturalism and that we should reverse tracks. He said, in his view, Canada has done better than others because of the multiculturalism policy but we should refine the policy so it continues to be a success.