Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Glad to be on Prairie side of Canadian contradiction

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Almost a decade ago, my family and I made Canada our home, I have only doubted this choice on the few days every year when the temperature in Winnipeg went below -40 C.

Other than that, as our family settled, worked, as our children were born and as they grew up, as they attended public schools, as we bought a house in old St. Vital, and as our network of neighbours, teachers, doctors, and grocery stores expanded, we felt this was home. I have travelled to different parts of Canada, from Montreal to Victoria and up to Nunavut.

There is always this feeling of things being familiar yet new, inclusive yet unique. Whenever our family travelled overseas to visit extended family and friends, there was always that sigh of relief at the sight of the Canadian customs and immigration officers who greeted us as we landed back home.

I know Canada is not perfect and has its share of contradictions and injustice. Certain aspects of its history are troubling. I find myself crying when I hear stories of residential school survivors. The conditions of our First Nations in some parts of Canada are a national disgrace. Yet, Canada, as a vibrant democracy, has the power to reform and improve itself and extend its promise of human rights, equality and good-old Canadian politeness to anyone who sets foot on its shores.

Democracies, however, can and do regress. When people are gripped by the politics of fear, when they perceive differences as threats and when they are insecure in their own identities, they can allow things to happen that their moral compass would otherwise forbid.

One such regression is Bill 60, the proposal to ban religious symbols from Quebec's public sphere.

Any way you look at this proposed ban, it does not hold up to simple logic and common sense. If the aim is to liberate hijabi women from the oppressive veil, then this is the worst form of "white man's burden." If the religions and cultures of recent immigrants appear too different and alien, then experience suggests future generations of these communities will have more in common with mainstream culture than that of their countries of origin (mainstream culture being that of the majority anglophone or francophone Canadians, who started coming here just a few centuries ago).

Advocating for a completely neutral public sphere leads to one that is cold and dark, devoid of values and meaning. It will be as neutral as darkness is to all the rainbow colours.

If the purpose was to engage in divisive politics, to drive visible minorities out, and to set the stage for the next elections or referendum, then maybe indeed Bill 60 has served its purpose. Further, the definition of Quebec's political elite of a neutral public sphere appears to be one which recognizes Quebec's Christian history, affirms its secular aspirations, and yet excludes other faiths and cultures from contributing to its future.

A few years ago we spent a brief family vacation in Montreal. My daughter, then five, was mesmerized by the French language and wanted to learn French. She is enrolled here in Winnipeg in the French immersion system, which she enjoys tremendously. Her strong interest in French prompted us to think about relocating to Quebec. I am glad we remained on the Prairie side of the Canadian contradiction. While Quebec seeks to ban religious symbols, Manitoba this year declared October as Islamic History Month. My daughter enjoys learning French and English at school, while also speaking her parents' native Arabic at home.

I believe Canada, including Quebec, is large enough and confident enough for all three languages and many more.

Idris Elbakri is the president-elect of the Manitoba Islamic Association.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2013 $sourceSection0

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