11/06/2014 05:46 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST

Canada Needs Zero Tolerance For Its Own 'Barbaric Cultural Practices'

Forced marriages? Women forced to give birth in private and give away their children? Women trying to end an unwanted pregnancy with a coat hanger and the help of some back-alley doctor? All barbaric acts condoned, perpetuated, or conveniently ignored by the Catholic Church right here in Canada only a few decades ago. How soon we forget and pretend we're the evolved ones now...

Out of the blue yesterday, Canadians were suddenly informed that a bill, tabled by Chris Alexander, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, aims to target polygamy and forced marriages.

"We want to make it clear to anyone wishing to enter the country -- as well as those born in Canada -- that domestic violence, genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy are illegal in Canada and "won't be tolerated," said Minister Alexander.

Tough-as-nails words there, Chris. Way to crack down! ZERO TOLERANCE! *waves flag*

Ok, here's my real reaction.

"Domestic violence? Man, are you kidding me? Take a look at any stats floating around and you'll see we tolerate it just fine in this country."

"But, Toula!" you're thinking. "Genital mutilation, forced marriages of underage kids... Anything that decreases the likelihood of any of those practices in Canada can't be a bad thing, right?"

Absolutely. No one is advocating for any of that.

But here's where they completely lost me.

They named the bill (wait for the dramatic pause...) Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act!

Barbaric. Cultural. Practices.

I guess You Guys Are Animals and We Don't Want You Anywhere Around Us was considered too inflammatory and xenophobic.

It takes an incredible combination of self-ignorance, denial, and sanctimonious hypocrisy to utter something like that out loud and keep a straight face.

It got me thinking about a column I wrote years ago, after watching the North American premiere of J.M. Coetzee's Nobel Prize-winning novel, 'Waiting for the Barbarians'.

And here I am quoting from myself, because the day is short and deadlines await.

"At its essence, the novel is about the constant thread running throughout the course of human history that insists on pitting 'us' against 'them'. It's about humans reacting to this, most contemptible, of emotions that chooses to fear, to be repelled by, to be suspicious of that which is unlike them.

"Have these Barbarians in any way affected your life?" the Magistrate asks Colonel Joll.

"They are ugly and immoral," he replies. A blanket statement that, of course, reveals his utter ignorance of his subject. Ultimately, they are not like him. He, therefore, does not recognize them as human.

History is littered with examples of the 'civilized' attempting to 'civilize' 'barbarians' and despite the slight variations on the official reasons for such attempts, at the heart of these actions the same sentiment constantly reappears; you are not like us, we don't recognize your way of life as legitimate.

The Middle Ages are full of such examples. The attempt to 'civilize', assimilate, and ultimately 'save' was the underlying principle of French and Portuguese colonial rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Native Americans had built great civilizations with many millions of people long before Columbus wandered lost into the Caribbean. He didn't 'discover' America; it was already there. And the death and destruction he brought with him in the name of his 'civilization' should make Americans who know their history a little less inclined to celebrate Columbus Day with such fanfare. The idea that 'savages' need to be saved from themselves is also the ideological premise on which Christian missionary evangelization attempts were based on. Bringing the word of God and the light of culture was every civilized man's obligation.

Here at home the Canadian Indian residential school system is a giant stain on our country's conscience, and should be. Perhaps if the average Canadian knew more about the monstrosities committed they would be more inclined to pay attention to the Idle No More movement and why it matters. The forced assimilation of our First Nations is indeed a Barbaric Cultural Act of our own, yet we like to sweep it under the rug.

Even in its most benign form, nationalism; the idea that there exists an 'us' and a 'them', and that somehow the 'us' is far superior to 'them' simply because it's more familiar and more relatable, is humanity's major failing. We continue to make the mistake of believing that other cultures are just "failed attempts at being us", as Wade Davis so eloquently phrased it. It's hubris of the worst kind.

Humans' predilection to value the 'same' is manifested in the intolerance displayed by those who are suspicious of the 'different'; the way recently-arrived immigrants are looked down on by those who did nothing more than catch an earlier boat. This constant clash of cultures, values, languages, religions, plays out on a daily basis right here in Canada every day.

The concept of 'others' sometimes only exists to validate, confirm and assuage the insecurities of the 'us.' If the 'others' exist, than so do we; if only as a contrast and a comparison."

So, while I agree that all those practices that the bill aims to restrict are undesirable and should be eradicated, calling them Barbaric Acts is to elevate us to the status of the civilized preaching to the uncivilized.

And it's simply untrue.

On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. On any given day, more than 3,300 women are forced to sleep in an emergency shelter to escape domestic violence. A man killing his estranged wife? That's an honour killing, even if it doesn't involve the stereotypical clichés we've been warned to look out for and even if the media doesn't refer to it as such.

More than 1,200 Aboriginal women are missing and no one in government seems to give a damn.

460,000 sexual assaults take place in Canada every year and out of every 1,000 only six are prosecuted and a measly three actually lead to a conviction.

Where's the Zero Tolerance for those Barbaric Cultural Acts, or do they only have to involve people who come from somewhere else, dress, speak, or pray differently than you?

Oh, and here's one that continues to crack me up.

That Bridge named after Samuel de Champlain we're all talking about right now here in Quebec? That honourable historical figure, whose significance as the Father of New France we don't want erased? He married a 12-year-old girl. Sure, he promised to only consummate the marriage when she turned 14 (such a gentleman...) and sure it was ages ago, but let's not conveniently forget that these "barbaric cultural acts" were also once very much part of our own history.

Forced marriages? Women forced to give birth in private and give away their children? Women trying to end an unwanted pregnancy with a coat hanger and the help of some back-alley doctor? All barbaric acts condoned, perpetuated, or conveniently ignored by the Catholic Church right here in Canada only a few decades ago. How soon we forget and pretend we're the evolved ones now...

All this to say, go ahead and table laws (even if they're more hyperbolic utterances meant to elicit sanctimonious pre-electoral fervour than anything concrete) that will decrease the likelihood of sexual violence and child abuse, but don't be blatantly blind to our own deplorable shortcomings as a nation when you choose to point the finger and call others uncivilized.

The Conservatives may pretend to be the arbiters of barbarism, and Canadians with short memories may certainly go along with it, but it wouldn't hurt anyone to use our rusty critical thinking skills to question both the timing and the naming of such a bill.


Photo gallery Women Around The World See Gallery