Concept 3: Freedom of Conscience and Religion

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Noa Mendelsohn Aviv
Director, Freedom of Expression Project
Canadian Civil Liberties Association
January 21, 2009

One of the other things that came up in this case that was very important had to do with attitudes towards the kirpan and the Court [Supreme Court of Canada] saw it not just on behalf of the students who opposed Mr. Multani having his kirpan in the school, but also other parents and even the school board itself. The very fact that the school board insisted on referring to the kirpan as a weapon, as a threat, as something that is inherently a weapon because of its shape, because of what it resembled, they [the Court] said we need to address a much more important value in our society and that is respect for diversity. We know that in our Canadian society different people have different values, different beliefs, different religions, and we're not all going to agree with each other. And when Canada talks about itself as a multi-cultural society, a society made up of many cultures, that doesn't mean that we all like each other's cultures. It doesn't mean that we all agree with each other's values and we might be in a very boring country if we did. It also means that we're going to argue strongly and loudly with each other's opinions. Multiculturalism and a respect for diversity means that we're going to be living with other people with whom we do not agree. We don't have to agree on them, we just have to live together and respect the fact that they're different. And the Court said if there is no real harm, then the kind of threats that they see in this kirpan, well, they haven't shown that those threats are really there, but what it does provide is an opportunity for the students to learn about a different culture, about a different religion, about a different way of seeing the world. And that's the role of schools in our society. It's a place where people can be exposed to all sorts of different ways of life. It's a place where we can have an exchange of ideas, even where we don't agree with each other on what the result of those ideas should be. Schools are a place where teachers have an opportunity to educate students and students have an opportunity to dialogue with teachers and to talk to teachers about what they believe and how they live and what they think is right and what is wrong, what is, what is true, and what is false. All of that should be happening in a school, not enforcing one kind of religious observance, one kind of religion, one kind of way of life.

There's one really ugly element that came up in this case. Sometime during all of this process and procedure, he came back to school. And when he did, he was met by students and parents holding picket signs that said all sorts of horrible racist things against him calling him horrible racist names, and this was not lost on the Court. The Court said we need to understand that schools are there to encourage multi-culturalism, to encourage a respect for diversity. But that involves the school taking on its responsibility seriously and allowing people to learn about other cultures. This is, this is a learning opportunity. This is a growing opportunity. Those are the opportunities that present themselves in schools when people get to interact and to meet with people who come from different cultures and different ways of life. And this the court said is something to be encouraged so that we could all learn to live together.

There's one other point that the Court made when it was talking about multi-culturalism, and this is important too. They said schools are also where we teach about constitutional values. Freedom of religion is a constitutional value. In order to teach about it we know that the best way to teach is by example. We want students to understand what freedom of religion means, we have to allow them to experience it. We have to allow for that freedom to exist in the schools.


Disclaimer - The resources presented in this learning tool, the Charter in the Classroom: Students, Teachers and Rights (CC: STAR) are included only to assist in the study of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They do not necessarily represent an endorsement of a position or issue, opinion or view of its contributors, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Inukshuk Wireless, the Ontario Justice Education Network, the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust or any of the people, organizations, or institutions affiliated with it.