Ori Epstein
Ori Epstein

Chanukah and Canada’s Religious Freedom Problem

Chanukah Candle Lighting (Ori Epstein)
Chanukah Candle Lighting (Ori Epstein)

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees, a renewal of Jewish Government in the land of Israel, and religious freedom in the face of spiritual threats. Religious freedom is a value that Canada claims to hold, enshrined in Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those who live abroad may think this is the case and that Canada is a tolerant progressive utopia with the downside of a little snow. Yes, Canada welcomes immigrants of all faiths, refugees fleeing violence, and, most recently, voted unanimously to ban LGBT+ conversion therapy. However, Canada also has flaws that are often not visible from the outside that those south of the border may find hard to believe.

In Canada, one does not have inalienable human rights. A person’s rights are constantly threatened either by courts and their “reasonable limits” or by provincial and federal governments and their potentially unreasonable ones. The Notwithstanding Clause of the Canadian Constitution effectively allows legislatures to overrule the most important rights one has and evade proper judicial review. With a simple majority vote, any province can take away one’s rights to: life, free speech, freedom of religion, liberty, security of the person, trial within reasonable time and equality. Legislatures can allow unreasonable searches and seizures, self-incrimination, cruel and unusual punishment, arbitrary detention, and double jeopardy. 

The scarier thing is that this clause has been used on numerous occasions, most often by the Province of Quebec. Quebec passed Bill 21 which prohibits anyone who wears religious symbols from holding any office of trust and authority within the government. Almost all government jobs, however, are positions of trust and authority. Most frighteningly, Bill 21 is not some archaic law, it was passed in 2018.

For Jews, this means that if you wear a kippah you cannot become a government lawyer, public (French) school teacher or principal, police officer, judge, or go into many other government roles. Jews who do not wear kippot know that, simply for being Jewish, they are deemed untrustworthy and forced to hide their identity.

We are left facing a new form of Hellenism, what Quebec calls laicite and reasonable people call antisemitism and bigotry. The Antiochus in this story is Francois Legault, Premier of Quebec and leader of the CAQ party. According to projections by 338Canada, Legault will likely win a supermajority in Quebec’s National Assembly next election. While Bill 21 seems to be here to stay on the provincial level, and courts are powerless to overrule it due to the Notwithstanding Clause, the Federal Government has been unwilling to use its various powers that can override the law.

I am left in the neighbouring province of Ontario, wondering how to celebrate a holiday that celebrates religious freedom when it is being crushed right next door. The lesson may be that religious freedom is not simply granted to us (especially as Jews); we must take initiative to make sure to protect it in every generation. 

From fighting to allow people to wear their religious symbols freely and opposing bans on circumcision and kosher slaughter to taking action against the religious intolerance of the Taliban and China, we must remain diligent in protecting the religious freedoms of people around the globe. No one should lose their job opportunities, freedom or life due to religious intolerance. 

We must stop demonizing people for their religious beliefs, especially if they disagree with us politically. It is wrong to hate anyone because of the religion they practice. Within Israeli society distaste towards Haredi Jews is a growing problem. In America, too many on the left harbour resentment against Evangelical Christians. In Quebec, the problem is legislated discrimination against people of all faiths.

Religious freedoms need stronger safeguards. One should not have to be right-wing to acknowledge this. In Canada, the Notwithstanding Clause needs to be abolished or drastically reformed. In the USA, a possible threat to religious freedoms comes from Texas Senate Bill 8, which attempts to circumvent judicial review and render the courts powerless. Though the bill has little explicitly to do with religious freedom, if the Supreme Court holds that it cannot review the bill’s contents to ensure they comply with the constitution, the ‘bounty hunter’ mechanism could be used in the future as an American version of the Notwithstanding Clause. The danger that this bounty hunger mechanism could be used to target religious freedoms should make even the most pro-life Evangelical quiver with fear. If it can happen in Quebec, it can happen elsewhere too.

Chanukah is often mistranslated as meaning the rededication of oneself. In reality, we celebrate the rededication, or more accurately, the reclamation of the temple. We do not necessarily celebrate the rededication of self. The Maccabees were always dedicated to Judaism and preserving the Jewish religion. Our dedication must remain firm, throughout Chanukah and the entire year, to preserving and protecting our culture, religion, and religious freedoms.

About the Author
Ori Epstein is a recent graduate ('21) of TanenbaumCHAT, a Jewish high school in Toronto, Canada, and is currently navigating the transition between high school and university. Ori is now studying at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Ori holds dual Israeli-Canadian citizenship and had the privilege of attending the International Bible Contest in Israel in 2019.
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