With a resounding victory and a meteoric rise to being the first person of color to lead a Federal Canadian Political Party, Jagmeet Singh has to be credited for everything he has achieved. However, it is also important to remember that he is not the first, but one among many who have come before and really spearheaded political representation of people of colour in Canada.
Fast forward less than a month and in Quebec, a law is passed which essentially bans the wearing of the ‘nikab’ by anyone who accesses a public service, including when they are making use of public transport (i.e. boarding a bus). The first event happened in Toronto, the mecca of diverse Canada and the second in Quebec City, the citadel of Canadian-French culture in North America.
While the happening of these two events was separated by time and geography, there was this interesting link between the two. The left leaning political party in Canadian federal politics, was electing their first non-white leader and in mostly left leaning Quebec (not that Canadian politics is that homogenous, let’s just say Quebec is a bit more left leaning than the ROC), we were passing a law to ban a piece of clothing.
I found these two events more connected than we would want to imagine. The proximity of the rise of a brown, turban wearing man to become leader of the National Democratic Party of Canada and the Quebec government deciding to clamp down on the wearing of the nikab seems like a celestial miracle. Having said that, the obviousness of the Quebec’s Liberal government’s eye on next year’s provincial elections hasn’t escaped me and I’ll let that reality hover over this entire discussion.
I don’t even feel the need to comment on the merits of a law that tells someone what to wear or not. My critics have argued that principles like social modesty and decorum in work places require dress codes. My simple submission is that this is not about a dress code and most certainly not about social decorum. This is simply the majority imposing its rules on a minority. So, I brand this majoritarianism. But having said all of this, let’s look at this confluence.
The rise of Jagmeet Singh and all those who have come before him, evidences a gradual and more recently fast paced, demographic shift in Canada. As a nation of immigrants, we are seeing the colour of our cities and towns change. This is a natural consequence of both globalization and immigration. But while immigration brings skilled workers to cater to jobs of various kinds, there is a value system, a thought process and a history of these immigrants that comes with them.
The whole debate within Quebec about secularism (or the brand of secularism that is bandied around) is more a desire to stay true to a historical identity that people still hold dear. I think it’s a legitimate desire, for the people in the province shunned the church and its religious dogma during la Révolution tranquille. Where I find myself lost is how we are comparing the shunning of a powerful religious institution, that permeated all levels of social and political systems, to what clothing people of a particular religion choose to wear. Do I blame people for strongly opposing the wearing of a nikab? Not really, as this is a product of their history and a desire to homogenize a cultural/social identity. There are no official statistics out, but the grapevine and the media suggest that the support among Quebecers for the nikab ban is rather high.
So where does that leave us? We have a person of color, who proudly wears religious symbols, identifies with them, and may have a shot at the highest political office of the land in two years. And then you have a province that has banned a religious symbol, that it finds abhorrent to its ‘secular’ values.
The changing world has brought change to our shores. I firmly believe a lot of people in this country (and my definition includes all of Canada), are refusing to see the change around them. This never was and never will be a homogenous society of only English or French descendants. Without raking up wounds of the past and the genocide that this land has witnessed, the changing landscape of Canada’s population means different traditions, different values, different ways of life, and most definitely different religious attire populating its various corners. While a large part of Canada is admittedly ‘tolerant’ of difference, accepting of immigrants, there is a shift in the way of life in this country that is happening and irreversibly.
As an immigrant who made this country my home a decade ago, I think Canada will have to find, to re-define its values, its core principles. Is tolerance enough to make a new entrant feel at home? Is acceptance of the ‘other’ a fair measure of equality, while the other-ing has already occurred? And most importantly, is the new Canada still only a (culturally) bilingual country that continues to live with the remnants of its colonial past? Or will Cantonese, Punjabi, Filipino, Arabic, and other languages, be accepted as the new (additional) official languages? Unofficial statistics suggest that 22% of Canadians have neither English nor French as their mother tongue, and it’s a struggle to find firm numbers of people who speak indigenous languages.
At the risk of making the election to the highest office of the land sound rather simplistic, which it really is given that a family name is a ticket to Ottawa, when I heard Jagmeet Singh give his acceptance speech after being elected leader, the first question I asked myself was: Are Canadians ready to elect a turban wearing non-white Prime Minister? Is that cultural shift possible?
When “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies (original French: Loi favorisant le respect de la neutralité religieuse de l’État et visant notamment à encadrer les demandes d’accommodements pour un motif religieux dans certains organismes)” was passed by the National Assembly in Quebec, I had my answer. I really hope that I am wrong.