While making small talk with locals on a recent trip to Innsbruck, Austria, many of the people I met were surprised of my nationality because as they did not perviously consider that individuals of African ancestry called Canada home. I told them that historically, Canada is in many ways a nation of immigrants. I proudly described that our borders house an ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous population and was the world's first nation to adopt multiculturalism as official federal policy.
I recalled the case of Sikh RCMP officer Baltej Singh Dhillon who was the first Mountie to wear a turban after the Canadian Federal Government removed a ban on this religious headpiece from being worn instead of the traditional Stetson.
While I was giving an unexpected but brief history lesson to the Austrian ski instructor, 6000km away in Montreal, Rania El-Alloul was denied her right to be heard in the courtroom of Judge Eliana Marengo.
In explaining her refusal to hear the case of the Muslim Canadian, Marengo stated: "I will therefore not hear you if you are wearing a scarf on your head, just as I would not allow a person to appear before me wearing a hat or sunglasses."
I find that the likening of a muslim's hijab, tied so closely to the identity of many women of Islamic faith, to "a hat or sunglasses" that is taken on and off indiscriminately to be untoward.
Marengo delivered an ultimatum that would have El-Alloul compromise her individual expression of faith if she wished to be granted the opportunity to have her voice heard in court. Judge Marengo believed that her own concept of decorum outweighed El-Alloul's right to express her religion.
The fact that over $20,000 was raised in a single day to pay for El-Alloul's impounded car (which she was in court to retrieve after her son had been caught with an expired licence) speaks to the sympathy that many, but certainly not all, Canadians share for this Kuwait-born woman's plight.
This extraordinary collective gesture from supporters all over Canada does not rectify the systemic problem at play though. The stakes at hand are greater than a car and the gravity of the case reach beyond the walls of an individual "secular" courtroom.
Unless we, as a society, systematically protect the right to reasonable accommodation of expression of religion in all arenas of Canadian life, others that would be in a case similar to that of El-Alloul will be systematically unwelcome form fully participating in the judicial system.
The Preamble of Canada's Multiculturalism Act, states that "the Constitution of Canada recognizes the importance of preserving and enhancing the multicultural heritage of Canadians." This was not reflected in court on 24 February 2015. The idea of multiculturalism in Canada runs further than a part of legislature. It reverberates from scores of countries that families and individuals alike have left to call Canada their home. Multiculturalism in Canada is a badge that many Canadians carry proudly and every Canadian has benefited from.
Multiculturalism is to be ardently defended.
The late Dr Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In this vein, I am compelled to support El-Alloul's right to have her voice heard in court with reasonable accommodation of religious expression. Multiculturalism must be reflected in all Canadian institutions at all times for it not only merely reflects the different societies and histories that weave the fabric of Canada, it is the cornerstone of the equality of all people.
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