Because the assumptions that underpin Quebec’s Bill 60 occupy the same racist mindset that drove the Canadian government’s decision in the 19th Century to set up the Indian Residential School system, it was fitting that local Idle No More activists capped Winnipeg’s “Day Affirming Human Rights and Religious Diversity for All Canadians” with a round dance.
The event was held inside the Manitoba Legislative Building on December 10, a day dedicated to celebrating the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. While this day is typically marked in Canada with an eye to international human rights concerns, attention was focused on Canada this year because of a proposed bill before the Quebec National Assembly entitled “Bill 60: Charter affirming the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests,” known more simply as the “Charter of Values.”
The bill is controversial across Canada because of a provision to prohibit public employees from wearing “objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation” while at work.
About 200 people crowded into the foyer of the Legislative Building to listen to speakers address Bill 60 from a variety of perspectives. Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association, welcomed the audience, thanking them for coming out “to stand in solidarity with all other Canadians across the country, affirming our human rights for all Canadians, and our religious diversity.”
Art Miki, former president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, questioned the sincerity of Bill 60′s framers. “The Quebec government [says] that their goal is to defend equality between men and women and to encourage equality and harmonious relations amongst all people . . . the National Association of Japanese Canadians sees the values expressed in the proposed [Quebec] charter to be contrary to the values expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms . . . We want guarantees to the right of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom to manifest one’s religion.”
John Harvard, a former journalist, Member of Parliament and Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba said that “This invidious piece of legislation has been moved in the name of secularism in a further attempt to exclude religious considerations from the area of government. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am a secularist and I say ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ ”
Rabbi Alan Green, senior rabbi at Congregation Shaary Zedek described the terminology of the bill as “Orwellian in effect if not in intent.” He continued: “Maintaining religious, ethnic and cultural traditions has always been respected and promoted in Canada. . . [The Quebec charter] represents nothing short of an attack on the open, inclusive, pluralistic Canada we have all known and loved these past many years.”
Bernice Cyr, executive director of the Native Women’s Transition Centre questioned the right of a government to restrict human rights, saying “Human rights are a foundational component of every person’s value in our country. The fact that other people are voting on them – it doesn’t even make sense . . . Rights are not not meant to be voted on. They are meant to [be upheld].”
Marie Lands, a social worker and advocate for aboriginal rights, said Bill 60 seemed all too familiar. “When I started paying attention to this particular bill, I find it quite appalling . . . because our aboriginal people know very well what that means. What it means is that it takes away everything of your identity, of your culture and of who you are and assimilates you into something that you don’t know who you are anymore. We have a whole nation that is struggling to try and reconnect to who they are and what they have lost in their whole lives.”
Dr. James Christie, director of the Ridd Institute for Religion & Global Policy at the University of Winnipeg, said that the bill is being driven by the political ambitions of Premier Pauline Marois. “She would be delighted if it failed before the Supreme Court of Canada in a challenge around the Canadian Bill of Human Rights or Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Why? Because Madame Marois doesn’t care about religion, yours or mine. Madame Marois cares about Madame Marois’ political agenda for Quebec. . . People of her own political stripe think that this is a wicked and intolerable thing. But Madame Marois doesn’t care because Madame Marois wants to drive a wedge between the people of Quebec and . . . the rest of Canada.”
The evening ended on an uplifting note, with short speeches by two members of Idle No More Winnipeg, and a round dance.
Holding a wreath of braided grasses, Michael Kannon asked the audience: “How long are you really going to be here?” and answered: “A long, long, long time. Canada is young. We’ve assembled this brief cross-section of who we really are as human beings in this place. For the next couple of hundred years this building is going to be alright but we’re going to be around to build it again. That’s how long we’re going to be here, all of us. I want each and every one of you to remember that. Such a long time we will be together in the future. So now, in this day and in this moment in 2013, we should start really looking at how do we treat each other. How do we share? How do we weave ourselves into that rhythm and braid that is Canada? . . . Our families and our children – how are they going to weave together in a nice balance? . . . That is what First Nations have been working for for thousands of years.”
Raising her hand drum high, Ko’ona Cochrane invited the audience to participate in a traditional round dance. “Behind this drum you see the four directions and you see all nations represented in the centre of this drum. No matter who you are, no matter what your belief, no matter where you are on the globe, you are represented on this drum. You are here on my ancestral lands; welcome to Treaty One. . . These are our homelands. We invite you here to share and to participate with us. We honour this round dance and we want to offer it to you and ask you to join us. The round dance is a spiritual dance. It’s a dance of reciprocity. We’re holding hands; your right hand is connected to the left hand of the person beside you. In our teachings we receive with our right and we give with our left. In order for you to be a whole and balanced human being you have to be always receiving and giving.”
The round dance, the singing and the speeches can be found in my video report.