AFT Blog # 10: Accommodation

Unreasonable Accommodation

Denis Valiquette

In recent years, the practice of accommodating religious beliefs and traditions by forcing public institutions to make exceptions to their normal functioning has become highly controversial in Quebec. This practice is often called “reasonable accommodation,” but that expression is an oxymoron. It should more accurately be called religious accommodation or, as Denis Valiquette explains in this installment of our blog, unreasonable accommodation.

In a kindergarten in the neighbourhood of St-Michel, a little girl must wear a noise-filtering headset because her religion forbids listening to music. Was any thought given to the welfare of this child, who must be an object of ridicule for her classmates? She is cut off, isolated, and unable to communicate fully with her fellow pupils. Is this the way to integrate Muslim immigrants into Quebec society? Music is an integral part of social life, it is the reflection of a community, a people and its culture. Music can relax and have a calming effect. One way to integrate into the Quebec population is to listen to Québécois music or to express oneself through that music, which, by the way, is an effective and pleasant way to learn the French language.

They tell us that this is an isolated case. Not true, because in Quebec unreasonable accommodations are becoming increasingly common, and are forced on the population without their consent. We are told that this particular case is only provisional because no such accommodation will be made in subsequent years. If that is so, then why do it now since this little girl will be listening to music next year anyway? Quebecers should not be obliged to submit to religious rules. Unfortunately, government ministers who have shamefully failed to take a principled stand need to be reminded that the religious practices of some must not be allowed to infringe on the rights of others.

Another unreasonable accommodation is the imposition of the Ethics and Religious Culture programme on primary and secondary schools. Religion has no place in schools. It is within the family in places of worship that religious teaching should occur. In my opinion, parents have the right to demand exemptions to this course. In particular, atheists should currently have the right to be exempted from this religious course, which is undemocratic. Even better however would be simply to abolish this programme and replace it with a course in civics or science. Religion continues to be forced on us in schools. Who can guarantee that this programme will be given equitably, without favouring one religion over others? In the name of multiculturalism, Quebecers are obliged to follow the demands of a few immigrants without regard to the opinions of Quebecers themselves. The identity of our citizens is compromised and threatened by these accommodations. The only response to this dilemma is the adoption of secularism and the abolition of all religious symbolism in public spaces and in public schools.

Halal foods constitute another unreasonable accommodation. Since its opening in 1988, all the children in a certain Montreal daycare centre are fed halal meat even though only a minority are Muslim. The pretext is that halal food is healthier. Pork is not served either. Once again, parents were not asked their opinion. Some parents were angered by the fact that the halal butchering method is cruel. The animal’s throat is cut and it is hung to bleed to death. In accordance with the halal ritual, the animal is positioned to face towards Mecca. The animal is thus subjected to fear, stress and pain, and this may result in lower quality meat. All this is done without the public’s knowledge. Quebecers are obliged to accept these accommodations without being informed. Normal practice in Quebec is to anaesthetize or stun the animal before killing it. The company Olymel, which produces chickens for consumers of halal meat, claims that its animal are rendered senseless before being bled out. Some consumers would prefer that halal foods be identified as such in our supermarkets. A veterinary has said that when an animal is hung for bleeding, material may leak from the gastrointestinal tract, thus creating the risk of contamination and disease. In my opinion, halal food should be labelled.

The kirpan is a weapon. Carrying a hidden knife is illegal in Canada. However an exception is made for a student carrying a kirpan. It is allowed in a school, but I doubt that it would be in an airplane. A double standard. I imagine that if a student were involved in a fight and used his kirpan to wound or kill another teenager, but the kirpan would be forbidden, but it would be too late.

Hassidim in Montreal paid for tinted windows to be installed in an exercise room of a YMCA, because they did not want their children to see women in sports attire. Another accommodation forced on us. The YMCA should have ignored this demand in the name of freedom of choice. There was nothing indecent in this case. And so it goes. Not a year goes by without more demands form unreasonable accommodation.

Consider the case of the ambulance workers expelled from a cafeteria of the publicly funded Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. They had brought their sandwiches, and the hospital forced them to leave the cafeteria because only kosher food is allowed there. A hospital is a public place and should not serve the interests of a religious community.

A Sikh was allowed not to wear a safety helmet. But the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the requirement to wear safety equipment must be respected. Fortunately, in this case, the right decision was made.

According to laws of the Talmud and Torah, a space can be delimited by walls and strings suspended between poles or trees. This demand was authorized by a judgement of the Quebec Superior Court. Why was the Hassidic community accorded the privilege of having the city recognize the religious character of a specific space? The city of Outremont should not be required to submit to such a demand. It is rather up to the Hassidim themselves to change their rules if they find that laws of the Torah or Talmud are too severe.

Quebecers are fed up with giving concessions to any religion. Currently, certain religious minorities have more rights than native Quebecers. By “native Quebecer” I mean an individual born in Quebec, regardless of the nationality of his or her parents. The current government no longer responds to the needs of the Quebec population. All the current discord could be avoided by proclaiming Quebec to be a secular society. Accommodations are unreasonable if they grant privileges to one community which others do not have. Inequality between individuals is the product of injustice. Laws should be more precise, to avoid ambiguity. Unfortunately, it is because of these accommodations that racism can develop. Certain communities are targeted are responsible for the problems of our society.

The tension continues to mount, and as more accommodations are made the population reacts. Atheists are shoved aside; our opinion is not asked for. Who will speak out publicly for atheists and our concerns, on television or on the radio? What journalist will take an interest in this question? Some would be surprised to see the percentage of atheists in our society. I am an atheist and I feel disadvantaged because the media pay no attention to atheists’ concerns, as if the subject were of no importance to them. The government avoids the question; indeed it is taboo. Are all secular movements in Quebec working in the same direction? Have all secular associations formed an alliance. I think that these associations should do more to oppose accommodations.

With all these accommodations, we almost feel no longer at home in our province. We feel shoved aside and ignored. I hope that one day we will become a secular society.

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