A Tory blend of burqa-bashing and sex-education protests: Cohn

Martin Regg Cohn on the odd alliances at play and how he perceives Canada has changed:

Welcome to Canada, a country of diversity that imagines itself a beacon of multiculturalism, a bulwark of secularism, and a bastion of pluralism (which means, by the way, freedom for and from religion).

Now, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is lifting the veil on the phobias still lurking beneath our vaunted tradition of tolerance. Who knew so many of us could get so hot and bothered about burqas and whipped into such a frenzy about homosexuality and sexuality?

When I returned to Canada a decade ago, after 11 years abroad as a foreign correspondent, I never fathomed that niqabs — a misplaced symbol of Islamist fundamentalism that I encountered overseas — would one day distract voters in a federal campaign.

And when I took over the Ontario politics column four years ago, I never imagined that dogmatic religious conservatism — the intolerance and inwardness I’d left behind abroad — would make a comeback in my home province.

Some days I feel like I’m still stuck in the Middle East watching Palestinians and Israelis at war with one another — or worse, turning on themselves: The baiting, the poking, the code language.

Overseas, it’s fear and loathing. Here at home, it’s smear and goading.

Sex-education protests and burqa-bashing are crossover issues. Like cross-dressing, they can be curious fetishes and phobias.

The fight against sex-education makes for strange bedfellows, for it is the flip side of the battle over the burqa. A vocal fringe within our Muslim minority — many of them clad, it’s worth noting here, in niqabs or hijabs — has made common cause with social conservatives protesting against the provincial sex-education curriculum.

It’s a classic case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But with friends like that, who needs enemies?

Oddly for anti-sex-ed Muslim parents, their allies in intolerance of gays are in some cases Conservatives stumping on the campaign trail by stirring up mistrust of Muslims who wear the niqab (which tends to drag down all Muslims).

It’s a teachable moment for any Canadian tempted to join in burqa-bashing: Tolerance is a two-way street.

Not every single parent who has reservations about the provincial sex-education curriculum is homophobic. But if you read the work of the Star’s education reporters, Kristin Rushowy and Louise Brown, it’s hard to ignore the homophobic impulses driving many of the protest organizers — rallying religious newcomers by preying on prejudices they may have carried over from their homelands, where homosexuality equals criminality.

People who defend the right to wear a niqab in public (while requiring them to identify themselves when necessary) aren’t pro-burqa, as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair argued in Friday’s French-language debate, any more than people who are pro-choice are “pro” abortion. Their position is more a variation on the Voltarian dictum, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

One can disapprove of the niqab without disenfranchising women of citizenship and voting rights. But as a wedge issue, the burqa is unbeatable.

It presses our buttons, offends our sense of openness, makes it hard to connect with our interlocutor. Hence Harper’s undisguised glee in stirring up public mistrust of Muslims who cover up, and wounding his political opponents in the process.

Today the niqab. Tomorrow the hijab?

Will those armchair religious scholars who argue that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam (they are almost certainly right) next turn their sights on Canada’s ultra-orthodox Jews, the Hassidic (putatively pious) who persist in wearing black hats and silk stockings in public because they believe it an essential tenet of the faith (most Jews would disagree)? Shall we judge them next, stripping them of their garb as others did only a few decades ago?

Ah, but black hats and kippah and kirpans do not offend us as niqabs now do, you say? Recall that they were both proscribed in a proposed Quebec law banning religious symbols just a couple of years ago — so spare me the niceties on niqabs.

As for those who oppose an updated sex-education curriculum — the campaigning Conservatives having mischievously transposed a provincial responsibility to the federal polity — beware your bedfellows. All those Conservative candidates who tempt you into intolerance will lead you astray one day soon. Doubtless after voting day.

Some hard truths no one wants to hear on refugees: Cohn | Toronto Star

An appropriate note of caution in terms of long-term trends:

In the rush to sponsor Syrians to Canada, relatively little is said about supporting the infrastructure of refugee processing handled by the UNHCR in countries bordering Syria. While it may generate fewer headlines at home, not enough thought is being given to the more affordable, sustainable, realistic (if less idealistic) alternative of funding camps closer to war zones, so that refugees can be repatriated more rapidly if those conflicts subside.

We need to open our hearts to the latest wave of Syrian refugees, but we also need to open our minds to what lies ahead. The crisis is unlikely to be temporary. It cannot be resolved with a few thousand more sponsorships and a few million more dollars, as important as those contributions are.

The federal Tories have missed the boat on the latest wave of boat people, but many well-intentioned do-gooder’s have been selling us a bill of goods about the refugee crisis. We need to start thinking about what comes next.

It is good to be principled, but we must also be practical. Mass migrations are at the intersection of war, geopolitics, economics, logistics and human smuggling. They defy easy answers. The reality is that refugee fatigue will set in anew, because the flood never ends — it merely fades from the front pages. What then?

Source: Some hard truths no one wants to hear on refugees: Cohn | Toronto Star

Jon Kay makes similar points:

The morally complex task of determining how many Syrians should be allowed to come to Canada must not be performed through the Tories’ usual practice of reciting jingoistic talking points and slogans. But it also cannot become a no-limit humanitarian bidding war. If we want to preserve the open and generous quality of Canadian society, we must balance our open hearts with hard heads.

Jonathan Kay: Even in face of tragedy, there’s no substitute for a seriously considered immigration policy

How Ontario travelled back in time as Canada moved forward: Cohn

Martin Regg Cohn on Ontario’s provincial flag and how it was a counter-reaction to the new Canadian flag 50 years ago:

While our flag looks and feels old, it is actually younger than the bold and modern Maple Leaf design of 1965. And was very much a reaction to the convulsive national flag debate led by then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson.

A former career diplomat, Pearson understood from his foreign travels that Canada’s emerging national identity demanded a flag that bespoke more than its colonial heritage. Yet in Parliament, Progressive Conservative opposition leader John Diefenbaker raged against the Maple Leaf as a betrayal of our British antecedents.

Tapping into that vein of resentment, Robarts’s PC government embraced the remnants of the discarded Union Jack design — and made it Ontario’s own ensign.

Until 1965, our national flag had featured a miniature Union Jack in the upper left quadrant and our coat of arms to the right — lumping Canada with other former British colonies boasting nearly indistinguishable and interchangeable flags. When Ottawa discarded that template, Ontario adopted it.

While retaining the Union Jack image, Robarts substituted Ontario’s Shield of Arms where the Canadian symbol had once been. The legislature quickly adopted the premier’s suggestion, though one dissenting MPP dubbed it a “revenge flag.”

And very much a reactionary response.

Parliament had chosen a flag for the future that captured the national spirit in early 1965. The Legislature had reacted, three months later, by travelling back in time to conjure up a flag of the past inspired more by tit for tat than tradition.

As Canada renounced the Union Jack, Ontario revivified its British roots, ever mindful of its official motto: “Loyal she began, loyal she remains.”

Do we dare display disloyalty to that design today? Is it time to revisit our faux flag?

It’s not a historical keepsake but a political quickie dreamed up by Robarts in the mid-1960s — just as another false idol, the Gardiner Expressway, was being completed. Should we be stuck with such symbols of short-sightedness for all time?

In Ontario, times change. But it takes time to build up momentum.

The British monarchy is in malaise — out of date and out of place in Canada, but difficult to dislodge. Just as our old Union Jack ensign could be confused for the British flag, so too Canadian postage stamps showing the Queen as our head of state are an anachronism (my airmail letters to British friends look like domestic mail to them).

But when I covered Australia’s ill-fated referendum on ridding itself of the monarchy in 1999, I watched voters quarrel over what would replace the Queen. The lesson is that you first need to marshal public opinion toward a durable consensus.

While many Ontarians clamour for an end to funding of separate schools, public opinion is still deeply split on ending constitutional protection for Catholic education. Until there is a consensus, there is no point launching a battle that will inflame religious passions, divide the province and end in stalemate.

As Ontario becomes less Loyalist and more modernist, demographic shifts will drive democratic change. In time.

How Ontario travelled back in time as Canada moved forward: Cohn | Toronto Star.

Sex-ed controversy exposes how different religions, cultures fit into Ontario’s mainstream: Cohn

One of the better pieces of commentary on the opposition to Ontario’s sex-ed updating:

Should a minority movement be able to impose its own viewpoint — and veto — on the majority? Thousands of protesting parents withdrew their children from all classes earlier this month to protest future sex education classes, but let’s be clear on what they are demanding — and what they aren’t.
They are not merely trying to keep their kids out of sex-ed classes. They already have the right — rightly or wrongly — to deprive their children of a curriculum that teaches them how to protect themselves from sexual infections.
Anyone can claim an exemption currently. No, what these parents are fighting for is a veto on all other children benefiting from updated sex-ed classes that the protesters might disagree with — even if the majority of Ontarians support a modernized curriculum.
Consider this analogy: In some GTA schools, parents regularly withdraw their children from dance and music classes they deem to be in conflict with their faith. What if those parents demanded that all music and dance classes be banned in our schools?
An absurd notion — it would never happen — yet the latest wave of protests against sex-ed has taken on that character: Not only shall the protesters’ children not be exposed to updated sex-ed classes, neither should anyone else’s.

No matter that the 240-pages of turgid material does not provide masturbation lessons in Grade 6 (it merely offers basic teacher prompts in case kids raise the subject), or that it does not extol anal sex but rather alerts students to the risks. Never mind that the curriculum was assembled after consultations with hundreds of pedagogical experts (and thousands of parents from school councils), and that it mirrors similar updates in places like Alberta.

Sex-ed controversy exposes how different religions, cultures fit into Ontario’s mainstream: Cohn

Radicalization, the Loss of Canadian Innocence and the Need for Perspective

With the two killings this week of Canadian soldiers, one by Martin Couture-Rouleau’s running over soldiers in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the other by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and his the attack on the War Memorial and Parliament Hill.

Surreal morning for me as I was downtown for meetings, about 8 blocks away from the Hill, learning about the shootings from TV monitors, along with others glued to TV monitors following developments. Felt very much, albeit on a much smaller scale, when I was in LA during the 911 attacks.

Some common points in recent commentary.

A note of caution on over-reacting and the need to maintain balance between freedom, access, and security. John Ivison: In response to Quebec terror attack we must remember a healthy balance between security and freedom, a point echoed by Andrew Coyne in Andrew Coyne: We can’t stop every little terror attack, so let’s brace ourselves and adapt where he recommends, not “a panicky search for false assurances, nor even defiance, but a collective insouciance.” Martin Regg Cohn praises the Ontario political leaders for keeping to the normal Parliamentary schedule in The democratic show must go on: Cohn.

While there was universal praise, and deservedly so, for Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers, both for his quick and efficient handling of the attack as well as his philosophy of keeping Parliament a public space, Michael Den Tandt savages the overall handling of the attack in Michael Den Tandt: Ottawa shooting shows Canadian capital’s utter lack of readiness, and how information was not communicated. Haroon Siddiqui makes similar, but less well argued points, in Killings of two soldiers raise troubling questions: Siddiqui.

Margaret Wente takes the opposite tack, in an almost boosterish tone, contrary to much of the reporting, argues that Canadians will not change and that the attack was handled calmly and without hysteria in  Terrorists don’t have a chance in this country. Joe Warmington of The Toronto Sun takes the opposite tack in Canada will never be the same, as does Ian MacLeod in The Ottawa Citizen, in Analysis: Effects on Ottawa will be lasting and far-reaching (with video).

Also in the Post, which generally has some of the strongest reporting in this area, Tom Blackwell, their health reporter, reports on the “lone wolf” phenomenon and some of the factors that may result in some being open to radicalization in ‘Rhetoric and bluster’: Was attack on soldiers really terrorism, or just the violent act of a disturbed man? The Globe has a good profile on Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the War Memorial and Parliament Hill in Suspected killer in Ottawa shootings had a disturbing side, that reinforces some of these points.

From La Presse, a report on the local mosque in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and what appears to be a very conservative Imam in terms of social teachings but no indication that he preached violence, or whether Couture-Rouleau went to the mosque regularly (seems he was most active on social media) in Un imam controversé à Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

Listening to the RCMP outline what they did and what they could do, particularly in the case of Couture-Rouleau (as of writing not as fulsome an account for Zehaf-Bibeau) hard to see that any of the Government’s recent or planned initiatives would have made a difference. The RCMP monitored him, spoke to friends and families who shared their well-founded worries, confiscated his passport but as the RCMP officer at the press conference said, “We couldn’t arrest someone for having radical thoughts, it’s not a crime in Canada.”

Couture-Rouleau, like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, were both born in Canada. Couture-Rouleau was not a dual-national and would not be subject, had he lived, for citizenship revocation. It is unclear whether Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, given his father was Libyan in origin, would be entitled to Libyan citizenship and thus theoretically subject to revocation.

And while tragedies for the families and friends of the soldiers killed, and (another) reminder that we have extremists among us, both reassuring and worrying that both of these appear to be “lone wolf” attacks rather than groups and more “sophisticated” plans and conspiracies that could result in significantly more casualities.

I tend to be between Wente and Warmington: no, not everything has changed but neither has everything remained the same. Our political leaders, of all stripes, as well as the media and others, will play a role in ensuring, or not, that we retain perspective and balance.


Helmetless motorcycling isn’t a human right: Cohn

Short and to the point:

For observant Sikhs, wearing a turban is a religious obligation.

But there is no human right to drive a motorcycle without a helmet — no matter how dehumanizing gridlock gets in Toronto.

Helmetless motorcycling isn’t a human right: Cohn | Toronto Star.

York University conflict courts Quebec-style backlash: Cohn | Toronto Star

Good piece by Martin Regg Cohen of The Star noting the risks of a backlash to reasonable accommodation when it fails the common sense test of “reasonable” – which York U Admin sophistry clearly did:

When the authorities align themselves with outliers who would superimpose their extreme religious views on other people’s entrenched legal rights — undermining the status of an accused in court or a female on campus — it fails the common sense smell test.

To this day, officials at York cling to their muddled thinking, rationalizing and over-intellectualizing their thought processes without thinking through the consequences. They not only let down their female students, they undermined public confidence, the sine qua non of non-discrimination.

They are their own worst enemies. By indulging tenuous claims on matters of religious faith, they undermine public faith in the ethic of tolerance.

York University conflict courts Quebec-style backlash: Cohn | Toronto Star.