Discrimination as a basic right

Barbara Amiel July 9 1984

Discrimination as a basic right

Barbara Amiel July 9 1984

Discrimination as a basic right


Barbara Amiel

At the recent Liberal leadership convention, the various manifestations of an ugly Canadian epidemic of discrimination were discussed: discrimination against the old, the unemployed, the handicapped, women, homosexuals, ethnic groups, native people and a subcategory within them—Indian women. What was not discussed was the fundamental principle of true liberalism—namely, that a certain amount of discrimination is the most basic of human rights.

Two issues may illustrate that best: the proposed legislation that allows Indian women to keep their status when they marry non-Indians; and so-called homosexual rights. Previously, according to the rules of an Indian band, only men could marry non-Indians and remain on the reserve with all the rights of a tribal member. Women who found eternal bliss with a mate of a different racial background lost their Indian status.

In Ottawa’s Westin Hotel during the convention, a lady handed me a leaflet demanding justice for Indian women. I thanked her and remarked that I am unlikely to support that cause. “Oh no,” replied the lady.“No one who cares could be against this.”

In one sense the woman is right. On a personal level I wouldn’t dream of stripping a person of their tribal identity because of the sort of mate they choose. Nor would I refuse to employ or rent a room to someone of homosexual persuasion. I think it is odious to discriminate against homosexuals in such a way because my creed as a liberal happens to find that odious.

But a liberal is a person who acknowledges the right of other people to have opinions and to make judgments based not only on liberalism but on other philosophies, as long as their beliefs do not contravene the Criminal Code. Liberalism has always proceeded on the belief that people should have a right to their own values, national customs and religious beliefs.

I may not like the fact that the traditional Jewish religion is matrilineal and that children of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father will be accepted as Jews, while children of a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father will not, but that, like the Indians’ idea of who is and who is not an Indian, is a matter for the group to decide.

Sometimes, when matters fall square-

ly within the Criminal Code, the problems become easy to resolve. Acts that clearly contravene the code, such as manslaughter or forcible confinement, may be part of a group’s culture, but society has to prevent them. I suspect most Canadians would not allow a group of Moslems to stone an adulterous woman, much as we may encourage the multicultural mosaic.

But matters like the question of Indian women, matrilineal descent in Judaism, homosexual rights and religious beliefs are far more difficult. In those cases the state cannot possibly legislate one right or legitimate ambition without grievously offending an equal right and equally legitimate ambition.

In New York, on June 24, thousands of homosexuals paraded in the 15th annual Gay Pride March. As in Canada, it is not clear to me what rights homosexuals do not have. But the focus of discontent appeared to be with the members of the

We must have the right to hold discriminatory views on such subjects as homosexuality and sanctity of marriage'

Roman Catholic hierarchy who will not sign New York City Executive Order 50, which would force the church to hire homosexuals or else possibly forfeit its city contracts (the church has $76 million [U.S.] in city contracts for such things as child-care agencies and homemaker services), tax-exempt status or whatever weapon a powerful state can muster.

A church spokesman explained that the archdiocese does not ordinarily discriminate against homosexuals or anyone else in hiring, but Archbishop John J. O’Connor would not sign the executive order because to do so would be equivalent to condoning homosexuality and thus violate Christian teachings.

The archdiocese, in my opinion, is damn right.

As the marchers passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, one sign was flashed that read “The Lord is my shepherd and He knows I am gay.” But that does not address the central point: does the Lord like it?

It is of some importance to understand that there is a human right, whether for individual human beings or

for a person who defines himself as a faithful Roman Catholic, a fundamental Christian, a Sikh or a Protestant, to have discriminatory views on a number of subjects from homosexuality to the sanctity of marriage according to religious beliefs. That right—to discriminate and to hold those beliefs and act upon them—is a basic human right. It is the right of national or ethnic self-definition. It is what liberalism is all about. The minute you outlaw some basic moral judgments, as we have in Canada under our human rights legislation, simply because they run counter to the creed of liberalism, you are doing a very curious thing. Liberalism is elevated to a state religion, which is antithetical to its very nature.

For those of us who are worried about preserving freedom in this land—and I still think that there are enough of us to make a difference—there are two basic points to make. First, that in such a case as the status of Indian women, which belongs in the grey area of ethnic selfdefinition, the government should stay away from passing any legislation and let the group change, if it will, according to its own schedule.

And secondly that, while I think my creed of liberalism is njorally and philosophically the soundest creed, our country is still supposed to be one of diverse democratic beliefs. People ought to be allowed to be conservatives. They ought to be able to make their own moral judgments. The antidiscrimination laws of some provinces may demand that citizens cannot legally discriminate on the basis of mental illness, criminal record or sexual orientation, but that is illiberal. If hiring someone, I, for one, intend to have the right to ask the person about his criminal record and, if he has one, to make further inquiries. Let the Province of Ontario arrest me, if it dares.

The Gay Pride March in New York was not really about rights, of course. Homosexuals in that parade were more interested in getting approval for their lifestyle. Which is understandable, but too expensive if it is at the cost of legislating against someone else’s beliefs. According to The New York Times, at the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, Laura and Irwin Enteen of Plainview, L.I., were standing with a sign, “We love our lesbian daughter.” With them was their daughter, Riva. “We want to give support to the marchers,” Laura Enteen said. “It makes them feel good.” I guess everyone likes a parade.