Speaking remarks: Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage – M-103 – religious discrimination

Written submission to the committee linked here:

M-103 CHPC study on Religious Discrimination (E)

M-103 CHPC study on Religious Discrimination (Fr)


Thank you Madam Chair for the opportunity to participate today. My comments will follow my written submission.

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Anti-religious discrimination in Canada has not been confined to any one religious community. And, such incidents cannot be considered to be of greater or lesser significance based simply on which religious community is targeted.

While unfortunate that M-103 highlighted one religious community, the motion did spark national debate and provided a mandate for this committee that goes beyond the concerns of or for any one religious community.

I will set aside comment on the use of the uncertain term Islamophobia; except to suggest that the concern of this committee ought to be in regard to mistreatment of people from any and all religious communities. Islam is not a race. Muslims, and people in any other religious community, are from a variety of races. My comments will address the committee’s study in regard to mistreatment of people based on their religion and reducing systemic discrimination based on religion.

Canada is a nation with a history steeped in religious tension, religious accommodation and the development of robust political, legal and constitutional principles in regard to freedom of religion, including prohibitions on discrimination based on religion. A brief history of that religious tension and accommodation is set out in paragraphs 8 to 16 of my written submission, particularly noting the Constitution Act, 1867 did not assign responsibility for religion to either the federal or provincial governments. Although, both jurisdictions impact on religion.

The federal government assumed a role in regard to religion through its criminal law and taxation powers. The provinces, through constitutional jurisdiction over civil rights, enacted human rights legislation that includes recognition of religious rights to belief, association, assembly, teaching, practice and worship.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was included in the Constitution Act, 1982. The Charter applies between all levels of government – federal, provincial, territorial, municipal, school boards, other government agencies – and Canadians.

The first freedom in the Charter is “freedom of conscience and religion.”

In decisions on Charter cases, the Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed several pre-Charter legal concepts in regard to freedom of religion and religious accommodation which are briefly described in paragraphs 17 to 20 of my written submission.

In the Charter, freedom of religion is intimately connected with the freedoms that follow it in section 2. “Religion” is also a stated ground on which discrimination is prohibited under section 15 equality rights. Section 27 requires the Charter to “be interpreted in a manner consistent with… the multicultural heritage of Canadians,” which necessarily means a multi-religious heritage as well.

The Supreme Court has asserted a robust definition of “freedom of religion” that aligns with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, stating:

A truly free society is one which can accommodate a wide variety of beliefs, diversity of tastes and pursuits, customs and codes of conduct. … The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.

The Court continues:

… Freedom in a broad sense embraces both the absence of coercion and constraint, and the right to manifest beliefs and practices. Freedom means that, subject to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, no one is to be forced to act in a way contrary to his beliefs or his conscience.

The right applies to individuals, groups and institutions, because religion is practiced both individually and in community.

Canada does not have a doctrine of separation of church and state, a constitutional concept in the USA. The Supreme Court has ruled the Canadian state is to be “neutral” in regard to religion, not permitted to act as arbiter of religious beliefs or to favour one religion over another. Nor is government permitted to require “no religion” in its relationship with Canadians. All Canadians are constitutionally welcome to participate in Canadian life from the perspective or worldview that informs the way they choose to live, without fear of mistreatment or punishment for doing so.

Statistics Canada confirms that our nation’s largest identifiable religious community comprises simply the largest minority religious community in the country. Catholics, including Roman Catholics, comprise under 40% of Canadians. We are a nation of minorities.

2015 data on hate crimes notes 35% of reported incidents were motivated by anti-religious bias. 37% of anti-religious incidents were directed against the Jewish community, which comprises 1.1% of the Canadian population. 34% were directed against the Muslim community, which comprises 3.2% of the Canadian population.

This brief historic tour and commentary is offered in a context expressed by a Mi’kmaq friend. Look back to learn how the issue has been considered in the past. Assess the status today. And then look forward seven generations to consider the future impact of actions taken today. Looking forward seven generations would take us from #Canada150 to #Canada300. If that seems a stretch, at least look to #Canada200, which will take place within the lifetimes of many in this room, rather than be overly concerned about scheduled federal elections in 2019 or 2023.

The following recommendations are made in the spirit of the Constitution Act, 1867’s provision that the federal government “make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada,” the Constitution Act, 1982’s description of Canada as a “free and democratic society,” and a whole-of-government approach.

Parliamentarians are encouraged to engage openly with people of various religious beliefs, including connecting with faith-based organizations in the community and those participating in the process of policy development.

Continue to Protect

Remove from Bill C-51 its section 14, the proposal to eliminate section 176 from the Criminal Code. Section 176 protects the ability of religious officiants and congregations to celebrate religious services, without threat, interference or disruption. If the Criminal Code did not already contain such a provision, adding it would be the kind of recommendation anticipated from this committee.

Retain section 30 of Bill C-51, the proposal to remove section 296, the Criminal Code’s blasphemy section. Blasphemy laws in other nations have led to persecution of religious and non-religious minorities, counter to the values of a free and democratic society. In Canada, all beliefs and practices, religious and non-religious, must be open to critical evaluation and peaceful dialogue, debate and dissension.

Retain Criminal Code provisions dealing with hate propaganda and with mischief relating to religious property.

Progress from Protection to Promotion

Seek opportunities to educate Canadians about our constitutional and legislated positions on religious freedom. It is important to move from protection of rights to promotion of understanding rights.

Ensure religious representatives are participants in appropriate government activities, including public events and situations such as donation matching for emergency disaster relief.

Continue working with religious organizations, whose work provides public benefit.

Maintain and develop appropriate historic markers that recognize the contribution of religious individuals and communities to the development of the nation.

Continue to collect and share data in regard to religious observance by Canadians.

The Government of Canada is encouraged to hold a First Ministers’ Conference with an agenda committed to promotion of religious freedom.

The Government of Canada is encouraged to establish guidelines that facilitate faith-based activities across the public service with consistent application within all government departments.

Encourage Canadians to continue support of religious and religiously-based organizations that provide public benefit, including by means of the personal tax credits.

Continue to provide a well-funded chaplaincy for inmates in Canadian prisons and members of Canada’s military.

Continue military briefing on religion relevant to theatres of engagement.

Re-establish the Office of Religious Freedom or a similar dedicated office. Matters of political theology and religious literacy are essential to global engagement.

Re-establish Global Affairs consultations where representatives from religious and other communities of concern may comment on developing global situations.

Canadians are affected by religious freedom challenges, and systemic religious discrimination, that happen in Canada and globally, requiring a whole-of-government approach.