Sharia law out of question, Quebec government insists
is closed and will remain closed,' justice minister says
Province remains Canada's only officially secular jurisdiction
non, no way.
Ontario may feel it should or must allow Muslim Canadians to use
religious sharia law to settle family disputes, but the Quebec
government says it's out of the question there.
"Certainly not in Quebec," Justice Minister Yvon Marcoux
said earlier this month. "The door is closed and will remain
Quebec uses civil law based on France's Napoleonic Code, rather
than the Britain-derived common law employed by Ontario and other
provinces. Since the 1960s, it has been Canada's sole, officially
secular jurisdiction, excluding any and all religious considerations
from civil affairs.
There is therefore no Arbitration Act, as in Ontario, which can be
used by religious groups to resolve domestic conflicts.
A furor was set off here last year with the news that parts of
Ontario's sizeable, but non-homogenous Muslim community intended to
use the act to set up arbitration tribunals for disputes involving
marriage, divorce and custody.
Muslim and non-Muslim critics alike protested that the
1,400-year-old body of Qur'an-inspired laws considers women inferior
to men and would infringe their equality rights as guaranteed by the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
However, a six-month study by former attorney-general Marion Boyd
concluded in December that, with new safeguards in place, Muslim women
would still be protected by Canadian law.
Her controversial recommendations still require final approval by
the premier and attorney-general.
The ruling Liberal party in Quebec thinks it would be a mistake to
sign off on it.
"(We) must say loud and clear that not only do we not want sharia
in Quebec, we don't want it in Ontario and we don't want it in
Canada," International Relations Minister Monique Gagnon-Tremblay
told a conference last week.
The former immigration minister went even further in denouncing
Ontario's attempt to accommodate both gender and religious rights in
its increasingly pluralistic society.
Immigrants who want to come to Quebec, she said, "and who do
not respect women's rights or who do not respect whatever rights may
be in our Civil Code — should stay in their country and not come to
Quebec, because that is unacceptable.
"On the other hand, if people want to accept our way of doing
things and our rights, they will be welcome and we will help them to
The government's opposition to sharia arbitration comes as
no surprise to Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of
"We didn't expect they'd entertain the idea because they have
a taboo on all religions," he says.
"They are trying to impose secular extremism, but we're not
France. We still have a Charter of Rights in this country that gives
us the right to express our religion."
Which means that Quebec Muslims "don't have to be given the
right to use sharia. We already have the right. We're talking
about a complementary, not parallel, system of laws for those who want
to live according to their faith.
It may be illegal for him to "arbitrate" in Quebec, says
Elmenyawi, but as an imam, or prayer leader, he can and already does
"mediate" between feuding couples who choose to use his
`There are boundaries
to tolerance. But there is a lot
to be said for letting people work it out themselves'
Joseph Heath, a political philosopher
at the University of Toronto
He notes that the Muslim rate of divorce is only 3 per cent,
compared with an overall Canadian rate of 50 per cent. But when it
occurs, a religious divorce is important because otherwise a Muslim
will feel "guilty," he says, and be unable to marry another
Elmenyawi, who is also the Muslim chaplin at McGill University,
thinks Boyd did an "excellent job" on her report and blames
the media for giving its critics a high profile.
He vehemently objects to the widely raised argument that Muslim
wives, many new to the country, unable to speak the language and
unaware of brand-new legal rights, will be forced into accepting an
imam's sharia ruling.
"It is condescending to say they will be pressured," he
says. "Women are not oppressed by Islam. It equates men and
Islam may, but sharia laws — written over a period of 200
years after the death of Mohammed and subject to a variety of
interpretations — do not, say Muslim critics. They point out that
one of the constants in sharia is that a woman's testimony in a
dispute is worth one-half of a man's.
Farida Osmami of the Federation of Quebec Women is opposed to
Ontario's move. Osmami, an Algerian-born Muslim, says many Muslim
immigrant women will not be able to afford a divorce lawyer and will
see no recourse but to accept an imam's ruling.
"Ontario is not facing up to its responsibility to provide
justice for all," she says.
"This isn't just about religion, it's about sexism, even
Osmami says Quebec's concept of multiculturalism is "accommodation
raisonnable," or the "reasonable accommodation" of
different cultures. And with different faiths, she says,
"secularism protects the state from religious conflicts."
Possibly so, but secularism is not what Canada as a liberal nation
subscribes to, preferring, like Britain and the U.S., the concept of
"separation of church and state."
"In our society, we allow religious groups to
discriminate," says Joseph Heath, a political philosopher at the
University of Toronto, "because a liberal state must remain
He cites as examples the Catholic Church's ban on female clergy and
various churches' refusal to marry same-sex partners: "Why do we
permit this? Because religions are voluntary organizations."
Islam is no exception.
Heath says that unless there is an issue of safety — he cites the
Sikh tradition of carrying a kirpan (a small religious knife) into
classrooms — or an overriding public interest in interceding, the
state should stay out of religion.
Each requested exemption to the law (kirpans were considered
weapons), should be assessed, he says.
"I don't subscribe to rolling over and playing dead. There are
boundaries to tolerance. But there is a lot to be said for letting
people work it out themselves."
Ontario has no choice but to allow Muslims to use the Arbitration
Act because the province's small Hasidic Jewish community already uses
Unless, Heath adds, it decided to ban all religious involvement in
civil matters, including family law: "That would be acceptable
because it is consistent."
Otherwise, the sharia issue is an intramural debate between
liberal and conservative Muslims, whether in Ontario, Quebec or the
rest of the country.
"Let Muslims work it out."