Seminar examines religion and inclusion in Canadian society

Seminar examines religion and inclusion in Canadian society

Immigration to Canada is making the country increasingly diverse in many respects, including with regard to religion. How is our society responding to this growing diversity?

This question was explored at a seminar held at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto on November 13 – the second in a series organized by the Baha’i community’s Office of Public Affairs, in partnership with the Global Migration Lab and the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Toronto. The first in the series focused on initial settlement in Canada.

This seminar examined the issue of reasonable accommodation and inclusion, which have become prominent themes in public discourse about religion in Canadian life. 

Survey research reveals two broad trends in Canadian life with regard to religion, observed Andrew Parkin, Executive Director of the Environics Institute. The first is declining identification with organized religion, and the second is the increasing diversity of Canada’s religious landscape. This presents a possible cleavage in Canadian society between those who have a range of different beliefs and those who do not identify with religion.

One consequence of this trend, commented Dr. Parkin, is that Canadians are generally comfortable with religious diversity as a cultural expression. They are less so with regard to matters of faith and belief. There is a privatization of belief, even though diverse practices are accepted in public.

Dr. Parkin suggested that in response to this phenomenon, religious people and communities could be more forthright about their motivations for making positive contributions to society. Religion inspires a great deal of social service and contributions to the common good, but these services are not always recognized as arising from a wellspring of faith. There is a need to strengthen our public conversation about the ways in which religion motivates positive action.

Misunderstanding and prejudice towards people of faith, particularly those of racialized minorities, has been called “faith-ism,” according to Shaheen Azmi. Dr. Azmi is Director of Policy Education Monitoring and Outreach for the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

He remarked that there has been a growing body of case law and legal protections that support people of different religions from discrimination in private and public settings. However, there is a gap between the legal protections granted to people on the basis of their religion and belief, and evolving norms of society. While an “open secularism” prevails in the law (aiming to encourage neutrality and fairness), in more informal settings there is a tendency towards “closed secularism,” which excludes religion from public discourse and social action.

Shari Golberg added that many institutions are thinking of their obligations towards those they serve within a framework of reasonable accommodation. This is often oriented towards meeting human rights and other standards that allows peoples’ religious practices to be accommodated within a variety of social settings. Dr. Golberg urged those present to embrace a mindset of “inclusive design” of social spaces as a more proactive approach to religious diversity. This could include training and education about religious customs and practices, to help Canadians become more comfortable with the enduring presence of religion in our society.

The final seminar in this series will take place in 2020. Please contact the publicaffairs@bahai.ca for more information.