Cultural, religious differences face off

By Pat Watson Thursday January 16 2014 in Opinion
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Perhaps the joke is on York University policymakers. Perhaps the male student who requested for religious reasons not to participate in group work with female students in a sociology course was carrying out his own sociology experiment without clearly stating that was his intention.


At the same time that Quebec’s controversial secular charter is being debated, the issue of religious accommodation erupted after the decision by the faculty’s dean and York University’s human rights centre to allow the student’s request. Despite that decision, course director, Prof. Paul Grayson denied the student’s request, after which the student reportedly participated in the course requirement.


Canada needs a stable and competitive economy and the method for doing so has been to maintain its population through immigration. With immigration has come the introduction of new cultural and religious practices that are proving a shock to the previously homogeneous culture, challenging the predominant White, Protestant norms.


The current Parti Quebecois minority government is responding by setting out rules to institute secularism within the government. Among the controversial features of the secular charter, which has been met with public protests particularly in Montreal where there is a large immigrant population, government workers would be prohibited from wearing any outward religious symbols. That would be such symbols as kippahs, hijabs, or large crosses.


Quebec culture is especially antagonistic toward religion, having endured a common experience of repression under the powerful Catholic Church there. The breakaway came during the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s, Quebec’s equivalent to the French Revolution. So there is a history which the Parti Quebecois seems determined to protect, and which does have support mainly outside of the larger urban areas.


This new social dynamic is really about how flexible the new Canadian culture is as it deals with change. The old order was not a particularly religious set. Religion was not central to how their lives would function. Not so with many New Canadians whose lives are entirely directed by rules as set out by their particular religion; in contrast, perhaps in direct opposition to much of the common culture already in place.


When Canada sends a message to those it would welcome here that they can still live as they did in their homeland, there is bound to be greater demand on the old guard to adjust. This is a country that has legalized same sex marriage and where the Supreme Court has just struck down laws governing prostitution. Yet it is also being confronted with older traditions and beliefs that include separate accommodations for genders.


In an uncertain world, many take comfort in the confines of religious practice. It makes them feel safe because it tells them what to do in the absence of a personal sense of direction. When those ingrained guidelines conflict with one’s new cultural environment there will be conflict and dissonance.


There’s that old saying: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ In Canada, there is another message: ‘When in Rome do what you did when you were someplace else.’

A note on Haiti’s ongoing trials…


It was just about this time four years ago that an earthquake shook one of the most populated areas of Haiti. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12, 2010 resulted in the death of tens of thousands and left 1.5 million homeless. The capital city Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas became a landscape of rubble, much of which remains.


The millions in aid that poured into the poorest country in the region have not yet accomplished the aim of rebuilding damaged infrastructure. With many still living in tents, the nation’s president, Michel Martelly, has blamed the lack of progress on infrastructure on the direction of aid spending, which he said was “used by non-governmental agencies for emergency operations, not for the reconstruction of Haiti.”


As if that were not enough, the country is still dealing with an outbreak of cholera described as the worst in recent history. The disease was traced to United Nations soldiers from Nepal who were brought in the aftermath of the earthquake. Cholera took over 8000 lives and made some 650,000 ill. Despite a class action lawsuit on behalf of those affected, the UN refuses to accept responsibility. In more recent days, the other country Haiti shares Hispaniola with, the Dominican Republic, took to deporting people born there of Haitian parents. What will it take to resurrect Haiti?

Pat Watson is the author of the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.

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