Published in the Toronto Star, August 8, 2013
Just for a change of pace, here’s a news story you did not read about this week:
“A collective statement by traditionalist Sikh, Muslim and Jewish groups attacking Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird for defending gay rights in Uganda and Russia has produced outraged reactions across Canada. Call-in shows and comment boards are flooded with alarms about the threat to Canadian principles posed by immigrants, and pundit Mark Steyn has warned that Canada is in danger of being taken over by barbaric non-Western cultures. Massive protests are being organized by gay-rights groups on Parliament Hill. Harper government ministers are fanning out across the country denouncing the statement, with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander declaring that the government would sever all ties with the groups and asserting that Canada must now consider European-style values testing for prospective immigrants. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has cited the episode as further proof that the rest of Canada is ‘out of step’ with Quebec values. Meanwhile, academic experts are calling the statement further proof of the dangers posed by Canadian governments’ propensity to pander to ethnic groups in foreign policy-making.”
You didn’t read about this story because it’s not true – but does it ring a bell somehow?
No matter the mix of social groups present in Canada, a few voices saying things outrageous to the mainstream consensus on questions of principle will always be heard.
If so, that’s because just such a statement was made this week by the conservative group Real Women of Canada, who criticized Baird for imposing a particular “agenda” on other countries. The group unabashedly links their criticism of Baird’s gay-rights activism to their religious and traditional beliefs, with the group’s vice-president asserting that she doesn’t “want other countries to get what we have here where people’s religious values and traditional values are being pushed aside.”
Remarkably enough, a great national freak-out about the fate of Canadian moral principles did not ensue from this statement. What has transpired in its wake, instead, is widespread scorn for the Real Women position, many expressions of support for Baird’s activism, and much amused commentary in the Twittersphere about the pro-Harper government sentiments this episode has elicited from unaccustomed quarters.
As for the reaction from Ottawa, the Prime Minister’s Office has declined to comment, while Baird’s spokesperson has asserted that the majority of Canadians do indeed support Canada’s position against the persecution of gays. For its part, the Foreign Affairs department has offered to meet with Real Women to explain why it is opposing the criminalization of homosexuality abroad. The government has taken no further steps to denounce Real Women, nor has it repudiated its decision last year to invite Real Women to select recipients of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medals.
Needless to say, if a statement substantively identical to that made by Real Women had been issued by one or more ethnic or non-Christian religious groups, the reaction would have been much different, proceeding along many of the lines sketched out above.
That’s why this week’s events constitute a wonderful lesson for multicultural Canada in not overreacting in face of attention-seeking statements from civil society groups. Because no one thinks that Real Women represents any numerically significant group of Canadians or the future of Canadian society, no one saw the need to react in an alarmist way. If the next outrageous statement on tolerance and human rights by another, less WASP-y, group is met similarly by the public and elected officials, that will be all to the good.
Those with fears about the impact of high levels of immigration on Canada might respond that such homophobic and anti-rights statements coming from ethnic groups would indeed reveal something much more sinister about the direction in which Canada is heading, given demographic trends. But that’s not a sound conclusion to draw – as can be seen on a common-sense level by looking at the overwhelming majority of Canadian ethnic and religious groups with no interest in challenging our cherished human rights principles. Studies of how integration into Western societies changes the values of immigrants from developing countries can also be helpful to assuage fears.
No matter the mix of social groups present in Canada, a few voices saying things outrageous to the mainstream consensus on questions of principle will always be heard. If they’re growing in numbers, influence and potential danger, it’s worth being alarmed about and reacting accordingly. But otherwise, let’s thank Real Women for providing us with a reminder of how multicultural Canada can decline to freak out when milder forms of objection (and even mockery) are all that’s called for.