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A Tolerant Canada

Ray Pennings examines the findings of a recent Angus Reid Institute study, which cites both hopeful and worrisome numbers in its summary of Canadians' opinions towards religious freedom. 

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A Tolerant Canada November 28, 2019  |  By Ray Pennings
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Disagreement is normal, if not necessary, in a healthy democracy. Being intolerant and disrespectful toward those with whom we disagree, however, is fatal to that democracy.

Historically, we’ve had the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (and the Bill of Rights before it) for protection, which is especially important for racial, religious, political, or sexual minorities, among others.

So, it’s worrying to see streaks of disrespect toward some minorities showing up in new Angus Reid Institute (ARI) survey data, collected in partnership with think tank Cardus just after the October federal election.

Take, for instance, the finding that almost one-third of voters say it’s unacceptable for a political leader to be personally pro-life even if the leader’s views don’t influence policy. Granted, the finding came following a campaign in which Conservative leader Andrew Scheer struggled to handle a barrage of media questions and political attacks on abortion.

Even so, almost one in three voters is prepared to tell political leaders not to bother putting their names on the ballot if they aren’t vocal supporters of the status quo in Canada – the absence of any law around abortion.

This view was especially strong among Bloc Quebecois voters, though it also showed up significantly in Liberal and NDP support.

Regardless of where we fall among the spectrum of opinions on abortion, is it not concerning to see some Canadians willing to reject candidates simply based on one of their personal beliefs about what could be a very difficult issue? A tolerant and respectful Canada makes room for disagreement.

Streaks of intolerance and disrespect also appeared when the pollster asked for a reaction to “the idea of a political candidate being a person of faith.” Shockingly, 22 per cent of respondents said the idea “repels” them.

Among Bloc voters, half are repelled by religious people running for office, followed by just more than a quarter of Liberal voters. Thankfully, six in 10 voters say they’re neutral on the question.

Still, there remains a significant portion of voters apparently willing to discriminate against candidates simply because of political hopefuls’ religious beliefs.

Even so, most Canadians seem to have a growing appreciation for one of the best guarantees of a tolerant and respectful society: religious freedom.

It’s a hopeful sign that 62 per cent of Canadians agree that religious freedom makes Canada a better country. That’s up seven per cent since ARI asked about it in 2017.

Meanwhile, just 12 per cent say religious freedom makes Canada worse, which is a two-point drop over two years.

Amid these hopeful signs, it’s possible that Canadians like religious freedom conceptually, but grow concerned when the rubber hits the road in a clash with culture.

So, in the thick of a federal election campaign with hot-button issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage showing up, Canadian support for the Charter-protected, fundamental human right of religious freedom gets softer.

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Consider the findings that almost seven in 10 Canadians told ARI they were aware of media coverage of the religions of Scheer, a Roman Catholic, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh. Much smaller proportions recalled coverage of other party leaders’ faiths.

Fully 51 per cent of respondents said the coverage of Scheer’s religion left them with a worse opinion of him, while just 24 per cent said the same of Singh. If anything, the coverage of Singh’s religion slightly helped him. Twenty-seven per cent say it improved their view of him, while coverage of Scheer’s Catholicism had a net negative effect.

The fact that Singh’s views matched majority opinion on hot-button issues, but Scheer’s did not, may have overridden any Canadian commitment to Charter rights.

But if that’s the case, we’re poorer for it.

The type of thinking that can’t stand even private disagreement on abortion or same-sex marriage, or is repelled by candidates who happen to be religious, is not only anti-Charter, it is fundamentally a violation of the guiding principles of a free and democratic society.

Closing politics and public life to those who are religious leaves us with a less tolerant society that brings fundamental freedoms into question. Frankly, it’s just as bad as closing the public square to the non-religious or to LGBTQ+ Canadians.

An important mark of a respectful and free society is not how majority views are treated. It’s really in whether someone is free hold a minority view and still fully participate in public life.

Instead of shutting or shouting down disagreement – religious or otherwise – let’s engage with each other respectfully, seeking to understand the other. That’s admittedly difficult to do in a world of 15-second soundbites. But doesn’t democracy deserve our best selves, instead of our worst?

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