The cultural arrogance of attempting to restrict a woman’s freedom to choose her personal religious practice because we know better what is good for her and understand better than she what her religious symbols mean has dangerous precedent in our history.

It is easy to use the horror of Germany’s past to  preach the importance of respect for diversity. But what about our own past in Canada?

Back in June Rick Salutin, at the Toronto Star wrote a powerful and important opinion piece drawing attention to Canada’s tragic past in relation to First Nations Peoples.

Writing about the Canadian poet Duncan Campbell Scott who spent 52 years working in the department of Indian Affairs, Salutin points out,

Just to prove no one in authority ever seems to learn anything from past debacles, we now have a law recently passed for this Canada Day — to match last year’s repellent (literally) citizenship act: the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.

But Scott’s (and Sir John A.’s) Indian policy was all about zero tolerance for barbaric practices like the potlatch and sun dance, so as to bring their adherents “under the sway of civilization, as far as is practicable with any of their race.” The whole point of the residential schools was to, as they said, kill the Indian in the child by severing the cultural links.

The potlatch, which gave away and destroyed material goods, was viewed as antithetical to capitalist values; so it was banned. Native spiritual rites seemed to contradict the “dominion” over the earth which the Biblical God granted his human creations.

Salutin goes on to argue that the correct way to deal with harmful practices is through the legal system that, in a democratic country like Canada, aims to protect all people equally from harm and injustice. Salutin writes,

The way to handle “barbaric” practices like forced marriage isn’t with a cultural blunderbuss; it’s by outlawing particular acts like kidnapping and child marriage, which are already illegal here without attacking any specific cultures.

The point isn’t who has the better culture. It’s that you never know what challenges you may face in the future and what cultural resources might prove useful and adaptable in facing them. If Scott and Macdonald had succeeded in killing the Indian in the child, through the schools program, we’d be without the resources which First Nations cultures afford us now — and for whatever crises get thrown up by the always ornery future.

On the other hand, the precedents for declaring what’s culturally barbaric and therefore dispensable, are pretty scary, as the exhaustive, heart-rending and indeed poetic work of the TRC on the residential schools program, sadly shows.

There are no doubt flaws in the Canadian legal system. But, we are privileged in this nation to live under a rule of law that, at least in theory, is constituted to protect all people equally. For the most part this legal system works and is not easily circumvented. It is entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which ensures that no one can be deprived of their fundamental human rights except through due legal process based on clear and fair laws administered through the established justice system.

Reference to “barbaric cultural practices” sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the rule of law in Canada. We do not need legislation to protect women from their personal choices that fall within the parameters of our well-established legal system. We may not like or approve of a woman’s choice. This does not give us the right to legislate away her freedom to make ourselves feel comfortable.