Printer Friendly

Ethics and cultural difference: accommodation must have its limits.


Canadians should be open to accommodation of difference that enhances life in Canada, or at least makes sense. And most are--most of the time. But there must be limits to Canadian embrace of diversity and accommodation of difference, because not everything different (or diverse) is different in a good way. Some of what is being brought to Canada from elsewhere is different, but not desirable.

For example, some people come to Canada to escape religious persecution and enjoy freedom of religion as is guaranteed by the Canadian Constitution. We should offer them sanctuary--it is the right thing to do. But the same people may have little idea of what it is to live in a society where women are entitled to the same freedoms as men. If they assume that gender or inter-generational relations can continue in Canada as they have known them in their countries of origin, serious trouble may ensue. Aqsa Parvez's father, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to murdering her in what was clearly an "honour killing," came to Canada as a refugee.

To use another example, not related to gender, many people immigrating to Canada come from highly corrupt countries where police and judges are routinely bought off. (1) Importing profound, pervasive corruption to Canada would make our law enforcement and judicial systems more "diverse," for sure, but in an entirely bad way. Indeed, it is to escape lousy governance--such as rampant corruption and its cruel consequences--that many seek a better life in Canada.

Yes, of course: many new Canadians arrive with a well-informed and passionate commitment to Canada's public values and way of life, often stronger than that of many long-time Canadians who take what we have for granted.

But this is not true of all new Canadians and, faced with problematic attitudes and practices on the part of some newcomers, many well-intentioned Canadians are unsure how to react. They are conflicted--torn between their inclinations to embrace increased diversity and accommodate difference (praiseworthy inclinations for sure) and their instincts to reject change which seems to threaten human rights or other elements of our democracy, or which seems just absurd or unjustifiably demanding.

Quite a few of these conflicts have focused on cultural or religious dress codes for Muslim women, especially the face coverings that some Muslim women wear (both the burka and the niqab).

One controversy in Quebec over the niqab-which leaves only the eyes uncovered--provides a good opportunity to explore how reasonable limits to embrace of diversity and accommodation of difference might be set. The controversy concerned a woman in Montreal who insisted on wearing a niqab to French language class. Expelled from class, the woman claimed the province of Quebec discriminated against her. Instructors say her refusal to uncover her face hindered learning; her pronunciation could not be corrected because they could not see her mouth.

Reports also suggest that she refused to deal with male students and instructors. The issue prompted the province to formulate "new rules on religious displays for those seeking to use public services." However this specific case unfolds as it winds its way through the Quebec Human Rights Commission, it provides an opportunity to consider an immensely important question: how far, ethically, do institutions have to go before they can justifiably say "enough is enough"?

Let's start with the obvious: there must be a point beyond which accommodation demanded by individuals would do more harm than good. The problem is determining when that limit has been reached and defending it with sound reasons.

Many people are impatient with anyone, but especially immigrants, seeking any relaxation of rules or other special treatment. But equality is not achieved by treating everyone alike. For example, most people want and need full-time work but some have special needs, such as enough hours away from work every day or week to take care of young children or elderly relatives. Their needs should be accommodated wherever possible with part-time employment opportunities.

As another example, stairs serve the able-bodied well, but people confined to wheelchairs need elevators. Canada is a better, fairer country for its willingness to accommodate those with obvious special needs, such as the disabled. But logic and past experience prove that we cannot stop there. We must extend the same consideration to others who, legitimately, request special treatment.

The thorny question remains: how far is too far? First, we know we have reached the limit when any further accommodation would put unreasonable strain on the organization involved. Human rights law requires employers and providers of public services to accommodate, but only up to the point of "undue hardship," and on the face of it, this makes good sense. However, that raises the question of what constitutes undue hardship.

The case of the niqab-wearing woman in Montreal gives us some idea of how to answer that question. Apparently, the woman insisted on having a female instructor in her French course. But administratively, such a guarantee would be difficult, if not impossible--sometimes the available teachers are female, sometimes male. And devoting scarce resources to trying to satisfy her demand that she would always be taught by a female could jeopardize other programs and activities.

Second, common sense tells us that the accommodation limit has been reached when to go further would undermine the very activity in question. The language school's position was that the student's face covering made the learning of French difficult, perhaps impossible. I think it is entirely plausible that baring the face is necessary for correction of pronunciation and, if so, then wearing a niqab renders participation in a conversation class futile. If seeing the face is necessary for language learning, then it is ridiculous to allow someone who refuses to bare her face to stay in class, and it would be wrong to insist that our institutions behave in a ridiculous manner. But this "functional" approach to accommodation of difference, some might say, ignores the obvious, overarching issue: in a modern liberal democracy such as Canada, where women are involved in every aspect of society, isn't it fundamentally unreasonable to demand that face covering be accommodated?

I sympathize with the view that it is preposterous to expect accommodation of face covering in Canada. Like many others, I also view the niqab and burka (but not the hijab which covers only the hair) as "ambulatory prisons"--embodiments of women's oppression.

Nevertheless, we have to be very careful about the attitude and tone which we bring to these discussions. We must be respectful of those with ideas very different from our own. That doesn't mean we have to agree with them, but we cannot, for example, assume that every woman who wears this kind of garb is coerced into doing so.

And because Canadians correctly put great importance on freedom of conscience--the right to live our lives according to the principles we consider most important--we cannot blithely conclude that such dress should be banned from public institutions as a general rule.

It is perfectly justifiable, I think, to maintain that women (and men) taking publicly-supported language courses should bare their faces, because seeing the mouth is necessary for the correction of pronunciation. But even if correct, such a conclusion does not justify a general ban on burkas or niqabs in connection with access to public services such as libraries.

Why not? Because even if the uncovered face is necessary for language learning, it is not necessary for using public libraries unless they are offering language classes, in which case the same considerations apply.

Canada is a better place than many in the world because we think it is important to treat everyone fairly and we know that "fairly" does not mean "the same". But there is growing impatience with what some see as the incessant demands of some minorities for accommodation of their different cultural practices such as wearing the niqab or burka. In order to protect our openness to diversity and difference and be ready to deal with the next controversy, confident we are doing the right thing as a society, we have to engage with each other and the issues. As Charles Taylor wrote in the Globe and Mail recently, "Our [democratic] societies will hold together only if we talk to each other with openness and frankness, and, in doing so, recreate a certain sense of solidarity from all our different roots." (2)


(1.) For the last few years, three of the countries from which the most immigrants to Canada have come are China, India, and the Philippines. While Canada ranked 8th on Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index of 180 countries--and the lower the ranking, the less the corruption--China ranked 79th, India 84th, and the Philippines 139th. Another major source country for Canadian immigration is Pakistan, which also ranked 139th.

(2.) Charles Taylor "All for one, and one for all", The Globe and Mail, Thursday, September 30, 2010.

Janet Keeping is a lawyer and President of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership which is based in Calgary.
COPYRIGHT 2011 Legal Resource Centre of Alberta Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Feature Report on Multiculturalism
Author:Keeping, Janet
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Previous Article:Religious accommodation in the workplace.
Next Article:Cross-border mediation--family context.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters