McGuinty rejects Ontario's use of Shariah law and all religious arbitrations

 

Keith Leslie

Canadian Press


September 11, 2005

 

Ontario Priemer Dalton McGuinty on Saturday. (CP/Nathan Denette)

 

 

 

TORONTO (CP) - Ontario will not become the first Western jurisdiction to allow the use of a set of centuries' old religious rules called Shariah law to settle Muslim family disputes, and will ban all religious arbitrations in the province, Premier Dalton McGuinty told The Canadian Press on Sunday.

In a telephone interview with the national news agency, McGuinty announced his government would move quickly to outlaw existing religious tribunals used for years by Christians and Jews under Ontario's Arbitration Act.

"I've come to the conclusion that the debate has gone on long enough," he said.

"There will be no Shariah law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians."

McGuinty said religious arbitrations "threaten our common ground," and promised his Liberal government would introduce legislation "as soon as possible" to outlaw them in Ontario.

"Ontarians will always have the right to seek advice from anyone in matters of family law, including religious advice," he said. "But no longer will religious arbitration be deciding matters of family law."

Last December, a report from former NDP attorney general Marion Boyd recommended the province allow and regulate Shariah arbitrations much the same way it does Christian and Jewish tribunals, setting off a firestorm of protests.

Homa Arjomand, the women's rights activist who organized a series of protests across Canada and Europe last Thursday to convince McGuinty to abandon Shariah, was elated when she heard the news late Sunday.

"I think our voice got heard loud and clear, and I thank the government for coming out with no faith-based arbitrations," said Arjomand. "Oh, I am so happy. That was the best news I have ever heard for the past five years."

A representative from Ontario's Jewish community expressed disappointment and shock over McGuinty's decision.

"We're stunned," said Joel Richler, Ontario region chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

"At the very least, we would have thought the government would have consulted with us before taking away what we've had for so many years."

Richler said the current system - in place since 1992 - has worked well and saw no reason for it to be changed for either his or other communities.

"If there have been any problems flowing from any rabbinical court decisions, I'm not aware of them," he said.

Despite calling for an end to all religious arbitrations, Ontario's New Democrats were not happy with the way McGuinty handled the Shariah debate.

"By merely sitting on the issue, and by hiding his head in the sand, McGuinty allowed the debate to in fact fester and grow pretty ugly," said NDP justice critic Peter Kormos. "That was not helpful to anything in this multicultural community of ours."

Opposition leader John Tory agreed with the NDP's position that McGuinty mishandled the Shariah debate."One of the tests of leadership in a diverse society is that you not allow issues like this - which are complex - to boil over into angry, polarized debates," said Tory.

"By letting it go on, and suddenly ending it mysteriously on a Sunday afternoon, is not probably the best kind of leadership that one could show."

Currently, Ontario's Arbitration Act allows civil disputes ranging from custody and support to divorce and inheritance to be resolved through an independent arbitrator, if both parties agree.

Catholics, Mennonites, Jews, aboriginals and Jehovah's Witnesses, among others, have - until now - used the act to settle family law questions without resorting to the courts.

But those who opposed permitting Shariah family arbitration argued that the reforms would give legitimacy and an unenforceable appearance of oversight to a legal code they say is - at its heart - unfair to women.

McGuinty said the debate around Shariah gave his government time to "step back a little bit" and look at the original decision to allow religious arbitrations in Ontario.

"It became pretty clear that was not in keeping with the desire of Ontarians to build on common ground. . .of one law for all Ontarians," he said.

The premier said his wife Terri had not raised the Shariah law issue with him during the lengthy debate, but noted the 17 women in his Liberal caucus urged him to reject the idea.

Just hours before McGuinty's announcement, a group including author Margaret Atwood, activist Maude Barlow, writer June Callwood and actresses Shirley Douglas and Sonja Smits issued an open letter to the premier on behalf of the No Religious Arbitration Coalition.

During last Thursday's protests, angry demonstrators outside the Ontario legislature likened McGuinty to Afghanistan's former extremist Taliban leaders for even considering Shariah.

Speakers in Toronto called McGuinty naive for saying women's rights would not be trampled if Ontario allowed Shariah, while 100 people braved the rain in Montreal to protest the use of Shariah law in Ontario. Similar rallies were held in Ottawa and Victoria, while smaller protests were held in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Dusseldorf, Germany.

The Muslim Canadian Congress, which supported the regulation of Shariah law under Ontario's Arbitration Act, was not immediately available to comment Sunday on McGuinty's surprise announcement.