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The Ontario legislature in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The Ontario legislature in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Peter Ferguson

Ontario should get its own House in order when it comes to diversity Add to ...

In light of the Parti Quebecois’s religion imbroglio in the province next door, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne took the opportunity to hammer on about her government’s affection for diversity – a statement that inspired considerable mirth in some circles. Her government – far from living up to these convenient pieties – in fact daily makes active mockery of them.

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While the Quebec National Assembly takes a simple minimalist “two old sticks on a wall” approach to religion in its legislative chamber (with a Christian cross on the wall), the Ontario government is much more aggressive. Each day the House sits, the Speaker rises and repeats the Lord’s Prayer as the first order of government business.

Far from ensuring everyone’s freedom of religion in public places, then, the Liberal government takes religious discrimination right to its very seat of power and dedicates its efforts only to Christians. No one else, of whatever faith, or of no faith, is given entrée to the fundamental life of Ontario. Diversity? No: explicit daily pandering to a single faith.

Five years ago, Dalton McGuinty tried to eliminate the prayer. An alternate proposal, to add various prayers from other faiths – based on the model, “If one prayer’s bad, let’s make things eight times worse” – foundered and there was a popular outcry across the province to retain the Lord’s Prayer. Even Dalton’s mum was upset. Far from having the grit to stand up for freedom of religion, though, the Liberals collapsed.

It was sad to see so many otherwise thoughtful Ontarians viciously fight to maintain the hegemony of their own personal prayer over a society in which we might rather live together fairly and equitably.

Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is supposed to protect us from this sort of thing. It stipulates that we all have “freedom of conscience and religion.” That means in many cases that we shall have freedom from religion, this being the only way of preventing one person’s religion imposing on another’s (the PQ’s laïcité thinking, perhaps).

But oddly, the Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled that a provincial legislature’s standing orders – “Speaker shall recite Christian prayer” – cannot be challenged under the Charter, under a doctrine of “sovereign governments” not being subject themselves to the law. This applies to the federal legislature, too, which also recites a Christian prayer daily. It is extremely unsettling to realize that our Charter cannot protect us from our governments.

The Charter does hold sway over our municipal governments, however, for they are not “sovereign” but, under the Ontario Municipal Act, only creatures of the provincial government; they exist and operate at the pleasure of the province. They are extensions of the provincial government.

Approximately 23 municipalities across the province now use the Lord’s Prayer or other Christian prayer to start every council meeting. In 1999 The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that indeed this is illegal under the Charter.

The Liberal government has control of all Ontario municipalities. In this matter, however – protecting Ontarians’ ‘freedom of expression and religion in public places’ as Ms. Wynne would have us believe she intends – its attitude is “we may be responsible, but we will not take responsibility.”

Accordingly, the Liberal government has no idea how many of its municipalities are breaking the law, and when asked it refuses to find out. It does not consider itself responsible for correcting or prosecuting Charter-breaking municipalities, and if you are concerned at having your Charter rights broken by your own municipality it will instruct you that if you wish to recover your statutory freedom your government will not assist you and you will have to cover the cost of prosecuting your council by yourself. Your government simply ignores, thereby enabling, the religious discrimination of its municipal arm.

Far from protecting our freedom of religion, Kathleen Wynne is systematically quashing it in the legislature and in council chambers throughout the province.

Before she stands to castigate others for this, she should set her own House in order.

Peter Ferguson, an architect, is suing Ontario’s County of Grey for its use of prayer.

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