02/12/2016 05:06 EST | Updated 02/12/2017 05:12 EST

Who Gets To Decide Who You Are?


One of the most difficult questions that everyone who lives in a democracy faces is "Who gets to say?" Who interprets law, who determines how I identify myself, and most importantly, who makes the final decision about where we draw lines?

This week's news has brought a few troubling stories that beg these questions:

In B.C. a young basketball player who identifies himself as a First Nation member, expected to play in the All Native Basketball Tournament. He was refused entry to the tournament because, while he is a status member of the Heiltsuk Nation, he was adopted as a baby from a community that does not have indigenous "blood lines." Is he indigenous? He and his father think he is. The tournament officials say he is not.

A young woman in Ontario chose to attend a public Catholic school because it offered science and mathematics courses that were not available in her local public non-denominational school. She is not Catholic and wanted to be exempted from the mandatory religion courses that are required for all students each year they attend the school. Being exempted from these courses would also mean being forbidden from participating in a number of social and other school events. She says she has the right to attend the school, as well as the right to participate in school events, even when she refuses to attend the religion courses. It is, she says, a matter of her human rights and she has filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

Should a country that has a guarantee of human rights for all permit groups to designate themselves as special, separate or exclusive?

In another publicly funded Catholic school in Alberta, a student chose to wear a rainbow flag at a school rally. He was ordered to remove it because his principal said it did not send the right sort of message. Another student who wore a Spiderman costume to the same event was not disciplined. The principal did not appear to believe that the Spiderman costume crossed the invisible appropriateness line, even though the student in the rainbow flag was told the reason he had to remove the flag was that the event was meant to be "formal." The student said he was following the province's education guidelines in taking actions that would make students of every sexual orientation feel welcome and comfortable in his school.

Each of these stories leads us to ask the same question, "Who gets to say?" If an event, program, or institution is created to support a specific group of people, who determines the membership in and the rules to be followed by that group? Does it matter whether the group identifies itself as disadvantaged? What if others see the group as privileged? Should a country that has a guarantee of human rights for all permit groups to designate themselves as special, separate or exclusive? Is there such a thing as segregation for a good purpose, or "reasonable and justifiable discrimination," as some Human Rights Codes would have it?

This question is getting more and more difficult to answer. Perhaps the difficulty comes from our acknowledgment that our diversity extends to even our smallest communities. Whatever your religion might be, even if you identify as an atheist, you will know people whose practices differ from your own. Are they still bona fide members of your religion?

Should an atheist who religiously attends church services in order sing in the choir be permitted to call herself an atheist -- or a church member? Should a Jewish musician be permitted to direct a church choir? Should you have to be male and Catholic to become a Catholic priest? Should a person who does not look like the rest of her family because she is adopted from a different culture, still identify herself as belonging to the groups her family belongs to?

Because we are a diverse and divergent society we will never be able to reach agreement on such questions. But, as a democratic society, we need to focus our attention on the central issue: Who gets to make the decisions? Who gets to say?

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