08/25/2012 08:09 EDT | Updated 10/25/2012 05:12 EDT

The Perils of Pauline


It's the 21st century. How far have we come in respecting the diversity of a modern pluralistic Canada? Many would argue not far at all.

Last week, we saw the beginnings of an uproar over the Bank of Canada producing a $100 bill with the image of an Asian woman looking through a microscope. Focus groups heavily criticized the design. Thus when Asian immigration and the incalculable good it has done for this country is at an all-time high, the Bank of Canada seemed to acquiesce to racist attitudes and decided to forgo the design.

Also last week, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, the United Church of Canada, at their General Assembly passed a resolution waffling on the proposition that Israel is a Jewish state. Essentially this denies Jews self-determination to the exclusion of any other nation on Earth.

Ominously, the Canadian government appears to target Roma refugees as false claimants and denies them and others long-held health care. The action provoked the usually apolitical doctors, pharmacists and others to take action. Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel spoke out in support of Roma refugees.

And in Quebec, Pauline Marois, who may be the next premier, releases a policy statement in the midst of a provincial election stating that turbans, kippahs and hijabs will be forbidden to public servants while a crucifix would be allowed as a symbol of Quebec's historical and cultural past.

Of course such action would be in direct violation of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, though Quebec could very well impose the Notwithstanding Clause. Whether or not such anti-faith laws come into being is almost beside the point. More germane is the fact that in modern 21st-century Canada, a political leader feels no compunction whatsoever in openly suggesting laws be developed that would sustain state sponsored religious discrimination.

What could she be thinking? Can it be that all we have worked toward in the last number of decades that has made Canada an accepting, multicultural nation has been for naught?

And where are the voices of Canadians who should be speaking out boldly against such intrusions of our freedoms? Those who have been so vocal in denouncing Canada's anti-hate laws in favour of total and unfettered free speech are ominously silent. Faith leaders who are not affected by such a draconian policy seem to have taken a vacation. Complacency and compliance as opposed to outrage and defiance has gripped too many of us.

Step back for a moment and consider what might happen if Marois were to get her way. Observant Sikhs, Jews and Muslims would no longer be able to get jobs in the public service. Those already employed would have a choice to make: either they abandon their firmly held beliefs, leave their jobs or defy the edicts and risk fines, jail or both. Is it possible that in the year 2012 we have regressed to a point where we no longer need accept those who are different from us?

It is still within living memory that a former Quebec government, under then Premier Maurice Duplessis, mercilessly targeted Jehovah's Witnesses, encouraging Quebec police to raid and lock down their Houses of Worship.

This action was undertaken through the infamous Padlock Act passed by the Quebec Legislature in 1937. Its original target was to be Communists; however the law was used extensively to persecute Jews, trade unionists, other "subversives" and of course Jehovah's Witnesses. It has been recognized as one of the most regressive laws in Canadian history.

To be sure, Quebec was not alone in its history of racism and bigotry. Ontario had restrictive land covenants in place that forbade Jews and people of colour from owning land till the 1950s; British Columbia's attitude toward the Doukhobors in the 1960s was highly questionable, and we cannot overlook our relationship with Canada's original people, the First Nations, where bigoted attitudes led to terrible and even deadly consequences.

One would hope that the days of Duplessis and politically motivated religious discrimination are far behind us. Yet the disdain and intolerance demonstrated so avidly by Pauline Marois threatens to bring us back to darker, more foreboding times. Like the other vestiges of bigotry appearing today, this must be firmly rejected