Canadian City Blurs Church-State Line With “Christian Heritage Month” December 4, 2019

Canadian City Blurs Church-State Line With “Christian Heritage Month”

Last week, the City Council in Brampton, Ontario, voted to declare the month of December — yes, the entire month — “Christian Heritage Month,” leading some councillors to voice concern that the city’s municipal government has its priorities all wrong.

The motion was presented by Councillor Charmaine Williams and supported by several  delegations from churches around the city. But one delegate, former City Council hopeful Sam Kunjicka, held the current lack of recognition for Christianity responsible for such societal ills as crime, lack of education, and “economic and moral decline.”

It’s a very interesting claim to make about the only religion whose major festivals have been declared national statutory holidays across the country.

Councillor Martin Medeiros urged the City Council to redirect its focus and prioritize the work of government over cultural support or recognition for various groups:

I just think we have to be very cautious of the encroachment and the way that we’re really blurring the lines. Ultimately, constitutionally, we are a democratic system with a separation between state and religion. As much as we respect all religions, that’s not our function and right now I think we’re blurring the lines… The time and effort on all these sorts of religious and cultural things to a certain degree is political pandering.

Nonetheless, he backed the motion, saying he feared a backlash if he refused. He also pointed out that it seemed unfair to refuse this request after the council granted recognition to other religions, citing a decision to rename a Brampton street after the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. It’s worth mentioning, too, that Brampton declared April Sikh Heritage Month in 2013.

Roughly one-third of Brampton’s population of near 600,000 professes the Sikh faith; the city is known for its large immigrant population, with more than half its residents born outside of Canada. While the groups calling for Christian Heritage Month included members of various ethnic groups, there’s plenty of justification for seeing this as part of an ongoing pattern of racial tension in the city.

In 2016, Noreen Ahmed-Ullah described the racial politics of life in Brampton as a hijab-wearing South Asian immigrant:

Racial tensions ignite over everything from permit battles for a new temple to fireworks regulations for Diwali. In 2014, anti-Sikh flyers distributed by an immigration reform group called Immigration Watch, entitled ‘The Changing Face of Brampton’ and asking residents, ‘Is This Really What You Want?’ sparked outrage among Sikh community groups. Another flyer distributed in March 2015 warned of the city’s dwindling ‘European’ population, implying the decline was a result of “white genocide”.

Her writing paints a picture of a city where long-standing residents, often white Christians, feel resentful of changes that have happened in the city over time — an influx of immigrant families, more shops and groceries catering to South Asians, and the city’s growing reputation as a racialized “ghetto” that, they fear, impacts their property values and standard of living.

Even the title “Christian Heritage Month” is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Christian Heritage Party, a right-wing political party that calls for cultural assimilation of immigrants (as well as an end to abortion and a withdrawal of marriage equality). They are minor contenders in the current political landscape and ran two candidates in Brampton in the last federal election.

Brampton is a melting pot ready to boil over, and it would be impossible — and frankly irresponsible — to consider the move for a Christian Heritage Month outside of that context. The best move for a municipal government that wants to give the appearance of neutrality would be to avoid recognizing religious heritage altogether – to focus, as Medeiros suggests, on running a city.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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