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where is there a good stone when I need one…?

October 13, 2015


Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.

 The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Fundamental Freedoms

 Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion;

  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

  • (d) freedom of association.


I remember a time, not too long ago ( just over 10 years ago) when, as Canadians, we liked to pride ourselves in having made great leaps forward in our understandings of human rights – that all people regardless of religion, sexual preference, culture, skin color – should have equal access and equal opportunity to all that this country offers.

Sure there was still much work to be done, but considering where we were in the ’50’s and ’60’s, we were moving forward, making progress. We strove to achieve the higher good. And we expected our politicians and our courts to be leaders in making sure that we continued to move in the direction of inclusivity.

In this regard, we were the envy of the world.

This notion was tempered for me in university when one of my political science professors noted that History reveals that  an “open society” is but a thin layer of icing on an otherwise noxious cake of intolerance and tribal sensibilities.

Stephen Harper, in his on-going federal election niqab hysteria – his notion that the niqab is somehow the symbol of terrorism, misogyny, and Islamic barbaric intolerance; his call for its ban from all civil ceremonies, courtroom proceedings, and public events (now including Parliament Hill); and the anti-Muslim outrage he is stirring amongst his conservative base is testament to just how thin that layer of icing really is.


It has become apparent, having recently moved out of the downtown core of Toronto and back into the rural of eastern Ontario, that we old-stock Canadians do indeed love our libertarian “freedoms” (no gun registry, no census, no taxes, less government regulations), and that we love to dress and read and watch and eat whatever we feel like.

You would assume from how we talk that we were all scholars of John Stuart Mill and his famous book “On Liberty” (which in a nut shell stated that “everyone should be free to do whatever they want, so long as they bring no injury to anyone else”).

And you too – (the “you” we are talking about here being Chinese, Arab, Pakistani, Guatemalan, or whatever) – you are free to do all of these things, just as long as you do and act just exactly like the rest of us (who coincidently just happen to be predominantly Anglo Saxon, Christian, and working class). Just as long as you agree to do, and think the same things that we do, you are completely free to do anything you want.

So, in that regard, we can tolerate the local Mennonite women and their bonnets, or the obese men and women who insist on showing us their ass cracks and drooping butt cheeks (while wearing those nasty short-shorts) at the county fair, or the teen girls who walked around all summer in skirts so short we could often see their panty line. Hey, it may be somewhat tasteless, but what can you do, people are free to do what they want.

My mother didn’t like any of this, but she is tolerant, and has a live-and-let-live attitude about it all. Afterall, she was of that generation of women who had to fight against social stigmas just to wear pants, wear a two-piece bathing suit to the beach, own her own business.

She can go to church on Sunday morning unaccompanied by a man (or any head covering). She owns her own business, runs a horse ranch on the side, has a driver license, butchers her own meat, votes. She was one of the first to support gay marriage in her community.

But the niqab goes too far for this type of community and Stephen Harper knows it. That Muslim women only make up 1.6% of the Canadian population, and niqab-wearing women make up less than 2% of Muslim women who live in Canada is beside the point. Harper knows where to find, and how to exploit his voter-base intolerances – and the homogenous communities outside of the multicultural city core is where this ignorance and intolerance always lurks.

Nationalist politicians in France, Greece, and Hungary have all recently gone back to their rural communities to stir up the pots of racial and religious ignorance and intolerance.

That we have not reduced ourselves to the Lord of the Flies (yet) is a testament to the strength of our democratic principles, but that doesn’t mean the sand isn’t shifting under our feet. No longer is Canada seen by the world as standing on the hill and looking out as great beacons of multicultural tolerance.

No, down here in the valley of the everyday, the great tribal fire has again been lit (it was never really out), and it is here around the fire that the fearful and the intolerant are starting to gather.


 I believe man suffers from an appalling ignorance of his own nature.

I produce my own view in the belief that it may be something like the truth.”
William Golding, Lord of the Flies      


So, now Zunera Ishaq has got in Stephen Harper’s face – and by extension in all of our faces – and said that if we really do live in a free society, then as long as she follows the principles of the Canadian Constitution and Bill of Rights – as long as she doesn’t harm anyone else, and break no laws for which she must then be held accountable – as long as she treats her neighbor with the respect accorded to me, then she can wear whatever she wants to wear.

That she is a young educated attractive woman, who has come to Canada from an otherwise understood repressive society (Pakistan), that her husband nor her family has encouraged her to wear the niqab (her husband actually wishes she wouldn’t) – only seems to bewilder us even more.

“But she’s a woman!”

“Why would she not want to free herself?”

“No, she can’t wear a niqab. We are a free society, and in a free society women don’t wear the niqab! We really must draw a line in the sand on this!”

“Doesn’t she get that we have fought hard to obtain our personal freedoms, and that in a free society women no longer need to cover their faces, or their hair, or any other part of their body for that matter?

Ms Ishaq doesn’t seem to understand the fundamental principle that she can’t wear her niqab if she wants to live in our free society.


Of course the irony and inherent contradiction of this view of “freedom” is like being hit on the head with a 2×4.

In his classic examination of the “individual” and a “free” society Eric Fromm pointed out that for most people the idea of actively engaging with our “freedom” is so fearful a state for most of us to comprehend, that it actually compels the majority of us to conform more than we otherwise would in a more repressive society.

The irony of freedom is that it scares the shit out of most of us, and when someone comes along who actually wants to use our professed freedoms – freedom of dress, freedom of religion, freedom of speech – we collectively step back with a gasp, and look to enact government bills that will control, or define what those freedoms will be – all in the name of protecting our freedoms.

How hollow and meaningless words are at such times.

Lao Tzu, in the very first lines of the Tao Te Ching (2500 yrs ago) noted that “there are names for all the things of the world, but do not confuse the name for the nature or substance of the thing named”. Judge ourselves on how we act, not what we say.

Our constitutions, our declarations of Human Rights, are at once a) just words on paper, and b) actual living ideals that are only real when acted upon.

Our hard-gained freedoms, the old vestiges of social tyranny from whence they came now long forgotten, are now being turned against us – as if we were all characters in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, destined to forever repeat our own foibles.

Who cares if Ms. Ishaq wants to wear her niqab to her citizenship ceremony? Who cares if the Pakistani man beside her wants to wear a 3-piece suit tailored in London, England? Who cares about the lesbian from Ghana, or the heterosexual immigrating from Ireland?

My daughter once noted when she was 5-years-old that there were only two kinds of people in the world…good people, and bad people.

Where you come down on your commitment to Human Rights, equality, freedom of speech and religion and culture, and how much you decide to defend/remove these rights from your neighbor, places you squarely in one of those camps.

Either we are all in this global experiment together, or we reduce ourselves to tribes, where in our fear of the unknown we beat our chests, ostracize and/or imprison (or kill) the Other, and we do it under the guise of protecting our freedoms.




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