Last Friday, I sent a letter to the Toronto Start in response to the following article on a recent Ontario Human Rights lawsuit:
Did Ms. Dimanno get it right?
Ontario courts are being questioned on a case of human rights versus religious rights. A Toronto woman was recently denied a haircut because she is a woman. A male hairdresser refused to cut her hair, claiming that his faith did not allow him to touch a woman’s hair (other than that of a close relative).
While it is true that the problem could have been avoided if the owner of the salon had clearly advertised his establishment to be a “Men’s Barber Shop”, the issue at stake is certainly of a much deeper nature. It is the question of the relative rights of competing rights. In our society, are some rights more fundamental than others?
Some will – figuratively and hastily – attempt to brush the issue away, claiming: “It was just a haircut.” “What is all the fuss about?” “This lady could have gone anywhere else to have her hair done.”
However, is it acceptable for a woman to be discriminated against, and denied services, because she is a woman? Is it tolerable for black people to be discriminated against because they are black? Is it right for transgendered people to be discriminated against because of their genetic nature? In our society, don’t we all have equal rights and freedoms?
Some will claim to have such prejudicial prerogative for personal, philosophical, moral, traditional or religious reasons. After all, there are many societies where individuals are not afforded equal rights because of gender, skin color, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cast, etc.
Ms. Dimanno is right. When in Bagdad or Kandahar, Canadian women will be subjected to substantial discrimination because of their gender, and will have no other choice but comply to local traditions and customs. But this is Canada; misogynistic and patriarchal traditions have no place in our free society. While immigrants from any part of the world are welcomed, they are certainly not welcomed to import attitudes that are in direct opposition to our charter of rights and freedom.
The issue is complex, significant and will hopefully not be brushed away. A full analysis would require lengthy debate, but essentially it should simply be understood that the relative value of competing rights should be measured on the essential nature of such rights. Essential rights and freedoms should not be diminished or truncated by personal convictions. The greater good of a society and the freedom of all its members should not be jeopardized by the personal beliefs of others. It is the immutable and fundamental principle of one’s freedom not restricting the rights and freedom of others.
Values, traditions and religions are many, often conflicting in nature and ever changing. Religions evolve. Personal beliefs are not set in stone. Many individuals convert from one religion to another. Over the centuries, many religions have forced their beliefs on conquered nations.
On the other hand, some components of our human nature are essential to the very definition of our humanity. These elements are fundamental and should always take precedence over issues of personal conviction.
Ontario courts will hopefully understand the importance of this case and reaffirm the predominance of fundamental human rights over idiosyncratic religious beliefs.