Seeking to end months of debate, Premier Dalton McGuinty now says "there will be no sharia law in Ontario" -- an announcement that should quell a growing public-relations crisis concerning the use of Islamic law, but which also exposes Queen's Park to attacks from other religions.
Following widespread condemnation of a plan that would formally allow the tenets of sharia to be used in resolving family disputes, the Premier said he'll make the boundaries between church and state clearer by banning faith-based arbitrations.
Ontario explicitly gave the green light to such practices in its 1991 Arbitration Act. But as early as this fall, new Ontario laws may put a stop to religion-based settlements in matters such as child-custody disputes or inheritances.
This means that orthodox Jews and some Christian leaders may soon make a common cause with fundamentalist Muslims in seeking to limit the scope of the new proposals.
"Our reaction is we're disappointed, we're very disappointed," said Joel Richler, chairman of the Ontario wing of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
"It's what we consider to be a knee-jerk reaction against the sharia issue."
He said orthodox Jews have used tribunals to settle family disputes for centuries, but the future of these tribunals is no longer clear in Ontario.
Many moderate Muslims say they are overjoyed by the Premier's announcement.
"I'm so happy today. It's a victory for the women's rights movement," said Homa Arjomand, an Iranian immigrant who has launched a campaign to stop sharia in Ontario.
"Women's rights are not protected by any religion," she said.
But fundamentalist Islam, in particular, can be harsh, she said.
"Divorces are happening behind closed doors and the woman is banned from having custody of her children," Ms. Arjomand said. "She is being sent back to her home country to live with her relatives."
She went so far as to say that proposed new laws ought to allow for the prosecution of religious leaders involved in faith-based arbitrations.
While it's unlikely that amendments to the Arbitration Act will go that far, Mr. McGuinty told The Canadian Press yesterday that "I've come to the conclusion that the debate has gone on long enough. There will be no sharia law in Ontario."
"There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario," he said. "There will be one law for all Ontarians."
Legislation will be introduced "as soon as possible," he said.
The 1991 legislation was originally hailed as a victory for multiculturalism, but since then Canada's Muslim population has grown considerably and now numbers around 650,000.
Already imams are using Islamic law to help settle family disputes -- and will likely continue to do so regardless of what Ontario does.
But outspoken opponents of sharia fear that well-intentioned politicians seeking to steer family feuds away from courtrooms will, through religious arbitration, end up ensconcing outposts of fundamentalism in the West. "It's happening in England, it's happening in Sweden," Ms. Arjomand said.
Last year, former NDP attorney-general Marion Boyd recommended the province handle Islamic arbitrations as it long has other religious arbitrations. She said participants must go into the process voluntarily, and that all decisions could be appealed in court.
Yet the proposal is exceptionally controversial. In the past week alone, there have been a series of marches against sharia and reports of female Ontario Liberal MPPs denouncing the initiative. This past weekend an open letter from prominent Canadian women urged Mr. McGuinty to take a stand against "the ghettoization of members of religious communities as well as human-rights abuses" that religious tribunals would bring.
Many observers said the Premier's means of pulling the plug on sharia, by talking to one news agency on a Sunday afternoon, was a curious way to go about ending a debate that has raged for months.
"By letting it go on, and suddenly ending it mysteriously on a Sunday afternoon, is not probably the best kind of leadership that one could show," Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory told The Canadian Press.
Government sources told The Globe that Liberal MPPs have been inundated with telephone calls in recent days from their constituents, expressing concern that Ontario could become the first Western jurisdiction to permit Islamic law to be used in family arbitration cases.