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When religious freedoms clash with the law

“Diversity is nothing new.  Ancient Rome was diverse.  But it had a state religion.  We do not.”

This simple truth, put forth by UofGH religion professor, Dr. Matthew LaGrone.

Add to this a police officer’s job to maintain social order, to preserve the law and defend the Charter – for which human rights and religious freedoms are enshrined – then place it within a geographical area near our university, home to an exceptionally diverse population.

A situation that prompted Peel Regional Police to invite Dr. LaGrone to offer assistance.  He spoke recently to police officers and others who work in emergency services in the region, giving insights into the many areas where the law, human rights and religious freedoms intersect.  We reached him back at his office.

Dr. Matthew LaGrone

In Conversation with Dr. Matthew LaGrone

We think of all of Canada as diverse on a grand scale - what’s significant about Peel?

The number of people in Canada saying they affiliate with no religion has risen dramatically over the last decade.  The religiously unaffiliated in this country is up to one quarter.  That may well be accurate for downtown Toronto - but that’s simply not true in Peel region.

Peel is probably the most diverse place in all of the GTA, which also means it’s the most diverse place in all of Ontario, and probably the most diverse place in all of Canada, which means perhaps the most diverse place in the world.

With strong South Asian and Chinese populations throughout Brampton and Mississauga, you find certain religions germane to the region:  Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

But this is not necessarily the same for police officers in this region.

No, it’s not.  While there are certainly some officers from these backgrounds, the majority are coming from Catholic or Protestant backgrounds.

Everything from street parking on the holiest day of Islam to where to build crematoria becomes a situation in which there is a high potential for misunderstanding. 

There are issues surrounding death.  What do you do with a body?  In some Buddhist traditions, the family may want to sit and watch over the body for eight hours because they’re concerned about the disposition of the soul.  For Muslims, they may want to bury the body as soon as possible, with no post-mortem.  But this situation may conflict with the law, where a post-mortem is necessary.

Symbols may become a problem.  One Hindu symbol greatly resembles the swastika – its shape is different than the Nazi swastika.  Theirs is a symbol of prosperity.  Its cruciform shape is one of the most ancient symbols of Hinduism.

There are issues surrounding women veiling, where identification becomes problematic.  Why are women veiled?  There may be a religious source, but also cultural.

I imagine cultural norms between first- and second-generation immigrants also adds a layer of complexity.

The story is never simple - nor the solution.  A general truth is that immigrants are more religious than people born in Canada.  The second generation can be more acculturated to Canadian norms. 

While they may still be fully religious, they often lose a lot of the cultural habits, and will gain more conventionally Western cultural habits, while remaining devoted to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, or Islam.  That’s just the way these things work out. 

Despite diversity being nothing new – this is all relatively new [laughs].

Ethnic expectations may not always match religious groupings.  There could be conflict within a religion.  We’re always, in a way, flying by the seat of our pants.

How would you characterize our approach to these issues that we often never fully resolve – yet find endlessly fascinating?

The Canadian solution has largely been to allow more religious freedom than not – and work from there.  There’s no perfect answer for any of this.

This is an application of humanities in its truest form.

When you’re working with people who may not necessarily have your background or share your immediate values, humanities can help to provide universal values, virtues and wisdom.

Humanities, at their best, help us to think critically and to think empathetically.  They give us anchors in a multicultural society; they give us a vocabulary to speak with one another.


Dr. Matthew LaGrone is the assistant program head of Electives at the University of Guelph-Humber.  His courses include Religious Traditions of Asia, and Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Toronto.

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