We do a pretty good job of welcoming newcomers to this country. It's one of our great strengths. I don't buy the myth, beloved of some, that Canadians harbour deep racist and xenophobic tendencies that are just waiting to be set alight by the likes of Kellie Leitch.
But some days, I have to wonder what's gotten into people. Who, for example, would want to deny Muslims the right to bury their dead?
It seems that there are more than you might think.
The terrible massacre in January of six worshippers at a mosque in Quebec City revealed a problem: Quebec Muslims have few places to bury their dead. The only Muslim-run cemetery in the province is in Montreal, several hours' drive away. After the massacre, the small town of Saint-Apollinaire (population 6,000) found some land that would be suitable for another one, and quickly struck a deal to sell it to the Muslim community. It seemed like a neighbourly way to help. But as The Globe and Mail's Ingrid Peritz found, the plan was met with a storm of protest.
"This cemetery is just the embryo of other projects," one person wrote in an e-mail to the town's mayor. "These people are here to grab religious and political power."
The mayor, Bernard Ouellet, is staunch in his support for the plan, and believes most townspeople support it too. But he'll have to work hard to quell the fears. As Quebec imam Hassan Guillet says, "If the project is refused and we're not allowed to be buried in this land, how are we going to be accepted to live in this land?"
Religious accommodation is always a touchy subject, but the opposition to this plan is simply wrong. There is no place for it in my Canada.
Here in Ontario, we have our own hysterias. A strident group of anti-Muslim activists have been waging a noisy campaign to end Muslim prayer at schools in a big district near Toronto. At one school-board meeting, someone tore pages from the Koran and stomped all over them. At others, people leaped to their feet to denounce Islam. A parents' group launched a petition complaining that "unsolicited exposure to religion" could "create subconscious bias in the minds of impressionable children for or against a faith." In the latest bit of hate-filled showmanship (as a school-board spokesman aptly called it), a local agitator offered a $1,000 reward to any student who surreptitiously recorded hate speech during a Muslim prayer service.
Needless to say, Muslim prayer in schools has always been contentious. You may believe, as I do, that any type of prayer – including this type – has no place in the public schools. But I also believe it's not the worst idea. Like it or not, religious accommodation is the law, and the schools are devoted to inclusiveness. Our interest is to integrate new Canadians, not segregate them. We want their children to be educated in the public schools, not religious schools. So we'd better make sure the kids (and parents) feel comfortable there. And if an optional 20-minute prayer session once a week helps them feel more welcome, then why not?
The Peel District School Board, where the current commotion has broken out, serves a sprawling, suburban multiethnic community whose Muslim population is around 10 per cent. Muslim students have been observing Friday prayers for 20 years. Other schools around the province make the same accommodation. It's been a work in progress. One heavily Muslim school in Toronto faced tough questions a few years back because menstruating girls weren't allowed to take part in the prayer service. There have been concerns about sexism, as well as worries about just what kind of Islam is being preached. The Peel board has conducted lengthy consultations about whether the students who lead the sessions may write their own sermons, and by whom, if anyone, they must be approved.
To be honest, I have no idea how all this will work out, and neither does anybody else. It will take a generation or more to tell. Canada is not immune from the ethnoreligious tensions that are rocking the world and there's no way we can avoid them. But we can discourage the fear-mongers and the hate-mongers from poisoning our public discourse. We won't always agree, especially over symbols that touch our deepest values. Let's just hope we can keep finding ways to disagree politely. That's supposed to be the Canadian way, and I don't want to lose it.