The ongoing debate over "reasonable accommodation" has been cause for significant unease and discomfort for many Canadians.
However, rather than demonstrating clear leadership by addressing those concerns constructively, some of our political leaders have exploited the issue for short-term political gain, creating even greater unease.
As our society becomes more diverse, it is natural for a conversation about our evolving identity to arise. However, the key to success lies in that conversation being grounded in respect and dignity rather than mistrust and division.
The dialogue should focus on how we build a community that contains respectful space for all of our cultural and religious traditions to interact and contribute within the laws and norms of a liberal society.
We are witnessing a toxic version of that conversation unfold today. Naturally, the notion of "reasonable accommodation" might mean different things to different people, and that gap in understanding is being used to polarize Canadians into "us" and "them."
Some opportunists suggest that multiculturalism is a threat to the very essence of Canada and Quebec; these fears are entirely unfounded. Aside from stoking ill-founded fears, none of the opportunists has demonstrated how one Canadian's expression of their faith or culture diminishes those of others.
How does allowing a Muslim to wear a hijab or a Sikh to wear a turban diminish the rights or beliefs of others? These expressions of faith do not require any compromise by others because they are simply individual life choices. Clearly, they are red herrings in the "reasonable accommodation" hysteria.
Of course, there may be instances when respecting someone's cultural or religious practices necessitates some accommodation, like requesting a prayer space or providing for special dietary needs. However, such requirements are both minimal and reasonable.
Last month was the 78th anniversary of Persons Day, which celebrates the date in 1929 when women were declared "persons" under Canadian law. Looking back, we might find it strange, or even absurd, that women were not legally "persons" in this country. However, I wonder if the opponents of women's rights in 1929 might have argued that such an extension of legal rights was an accommodation that threatened the "Canadian way of life."
The fear that the Canadian way of life will be lost if we accommodate others is based on a narrow view of this great country. Canada prospers because our identity is robust and open to new ideas. For example, bilingualism likely would not have survived if not for Canada's values of respect and inclusion. Some have argued that "multiculturalism" fosters division and segregation. On the contrary, it is a policy that appreciates the reality of this country by promoting healthy integration balanced with respect for difference.
Many Canadians are immigrants or the children of immigrants who emigrated from countries that brutally denied minority rights and demanded assimilation. For those Canadians, it must be disheartening to see strains of their native lands' assimilationist policies arising in Canada under the cover of a debate on "reasonable accommodation."
Rather than exploiting misunderstanding and fear, political leaders should be bringing Canadians together. They ought to reassure us that celebrating Diwali does not mean the rejection of Christmas, and accommodating Kosher dietary requirements does not mean banning the consumption of pork.
Unfortunately, the separatist parties and the governing Conservatives have been fuelling anxiety by jumping on the unreasonable accommodation bandwagon.
Xenophobia is largely driven by fear of the unknown. Political leaders can act responsibly by demonstrating that diversity is not a zero sum game; diversity holds the promise of economic prosperity for Canada and cultural richness for its citizens.
The process of nation-building is delicate and difficult. But, does that mean we should shy away from what is required to continue building the best country in the world? In this new millennium, Canada is well-positioned to leverage its great strengths and lead the world economically, politically and socially.
Our diversity is one element of our strength as a nation. Realizing that, we can become more united and cohesive than we have ever been. All we need is proactive leadership to take us there. [Link]
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