Every Accommodation Is "Reasonable"

I am not offended when I invite my Jewish friend over to dinner and he brings his own kosher food. And I do not mind when my Hindu colleague serves me dinner in special utensils reserved only for his non-Hindu guests.

At lunch meetings during Ramadan, my business associates not only feel at ease when I do not eat, but some even offer to conduct the meeting without eating themselves.

For years now, I have been an active member of a Canadian movement called Spirituality at Work. We encourage businesses to consider providing workplace spaces for prayer and meditation: because this is good for the bottom line.

And we invite international speakers to address the same topic, drawing a parallel to the fact that many big corporations worldwide are now providing workplace facilities for their employees to exercise or nap during breaks. Such facilities enhance workers’ physical and mental well-being and hence productivity.

Some Canadian airports now provide common prayer rooms, instead of leaving it up to Muslims and others to pray in open hallways, foyers, or unoccupied waiting-rooms. I wish shopping malls would take the same positive step – food courts are no place for prayer!

In fact, I am also willing to pay extra tax dollars so that the dietary requirements of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Seventh-Day Adventist and Mormon children can be met in public schools. And the same goes for other public institutions, such as hospitals or prisons.

As part of their design plans for new buildings, many universities now include a common prayer room for students, faculty and staff; this simple proactive step has gone a long way to making campuses more user-friendly.

Similarly, many high schools now turn their gyms into prayer halls for part of school days when students of various faiths need a place to gather for worship. This is another positive move that will produce more well-rounded and confident young citizens.

I live in an area that is well-known across Canada for its surrounding communities of Old Order Mennonites, who choose to retain horses and buggies as transportation. I do not mind that horse-drawn buggies slow down our frantic urban traffic a little, or that a few extra tax dollars are required to build public parking barns and to clean up the organic by-product of old fashioned "horse power."

Mennonite women modestly cover their hair with tied bonnets or caps whose functions are similar to the Muslim hijab, while their menfolk wear wide-brimmed straw hats or black felt ones, similar to those of Hasidic Jews. None of these traditional head coverings ever felt negative to me.

Despite the ongoing legal and political debates over what should (or should not) be included on an official Canadian list of "reasonable accommodations," I believe that every accommodation that preserves human dignity and worth in relation to a person’s faith and culture is reasonable. If there is a will to accommodate our fellow citizens from other traditions, there is a way.

Along with millions of other Canadians, I believe that such accommodations enhance our own value, and the value we accord our brothers and sisters of the greater human family. In addition to the positive impact that accommodation can have on Canadian society as a while, it can also be felt quantitatively, giving Canada enhanced productivity and a more competitive edge in the international marketplace.

But if Canada – in part or as a whole — sends a negative or deterring message to the world that it is becoming less receptive and understanding to minorities, then we will lose too many of the skilled and highly educated immigrants we urgently need.

The traditional populations of European countries are declining as birthrates fall and they must now focus on attracting new immigrants to preserve their economies and infrastructures. Germany is even creating a new ministry of Immigration and Integration in response to this growing 21st-century challenge. Governments are now beginning to reformulate existing policies and plans to encompass the need for direct involvement. Integration is becoming tied to direct federal actions, including responsibility for providing training, addressing discrimination, and meeting the cultural and spiritual needs of new immigrants. This is a virtual sea-change in attitude from the recent past, when immigrants were routinely and falsely accused of not wanting to integrate.

Today, Canada’s primary sources of skilled and highly educated immigrants are from mainly non-white and non-Christian countries. As a nation, therefore, we cannot afford to send a negative message to potential immigrants – unless, of course, we want to end up with living standards similar to those of developing countries. The stark reality is that Canada, as we know it today, is not sustainable without the resources of new immigrants.

In Québec alone, for example, that province’s main source for highly educated francophone professors, researchers, teachers, engineers, doctors and other professionals is North and West Africa, Syria, or Lebanon. And most of these potential immigrants are Muslims.

Language, culture and religion are the main factors shaping identity, so immigrants to Québec already have a great deal in common with most Québécois from the moment they arrive. And their children will grow up to speak Québécois French rather the French of their parents, love hockey more than soccer, eat more burgers than shawarma, wear more blue jeans than white galbabs, listen to Céline Dion more than traditional Arabic or African artists, dance to more North American bands than Dabka, and celebrate more religious holidays with their non-Muslim friends than their parents ever did.

Historically Québec accommodated the religious needs of Roman Catholics. Today, nuns and priests are free to walk the streets in their traditional habits and soutanes if they chose. Therefore, why not offer an equal gesture of accommodation for Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and others?

Let us not allow some fearful Canadians to kill the growing spirit of understanding and accommodation in our society – it is a truly Canadian value and one that is too precious to lose.