URL:  http://www.theepochtimes.com/news/6-2-23/38578.html


Ontario Puts a Check on Religious Arbitration

By Joan Delaney

Epoch Times Victoria Staff

Feb 23, 2006


Last September, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty took many by surprise when he announced that he would ban not only Sharia law but all faith-based religious arbitration in Ontario. Last week, the Province carried through on McGuinty's promise by passing legislation prohibiting the use of binding religious arbitration as a means of settling family law disputes such as divorce and child custody battles.

"The bill reaffirms the principle that there ought to be one law for all Ontarians," said Attorney General Michael Bryant.

While women's groups who believe religious arbitration is discriminatory are happy with the legislation, Steve Shulmann, regional director and general counsel for the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), is not.

"It's really a slap in the face to women because what it's saying is that women don't have the capacity to voluntarily consent to arbitration based on faith values in the absence of coercion," says Shulman. "Right now there's a lot of holes in this legislation and we're not clear what the results are going to be."

The government, which came close to scrapping the entire religious arbitration system altogether, made several amendments to the bill as a result of pleas from arbitrators and lawyers during committee hearings.

Among the changes are new rules that both parties must now receive legal advice before entering into an arbitration agreement; only Ontario family law can be used in binding arbitrations; arbitrators will have to be members of a professional arbitration organisation and trained to detect signs of domestic violence; from now on the government will keep records of all arbitrations.

Especially pleased with the new legislation is Homa Arjomand, the women's rights activist who organized a series of protests across Canada and Europe in an effort to convince the Ontario government not to allow Sharia law. Sharia is a set of religious laws that have been used for centuries in Muslim countries.

"Everybody knows that in Sharia women are considered second class citizens—they have no rights at all. So this was a big achievement for human rights in general and women's and children's rights in particular, not only in Canada but also worldwide," says Arjomand.

Arjomand says what makes this such an important victory is that the opponents of Sharia were actually challenging "political Islam," whose adherents hold that because Ontario has such a large Muslim population they have a right to legal religious arbitration. But Arjomand says they don't represent all Ontario Muslims.

"The Islamic extremists were pushing for the legalisation of religious arbitration which would result in the absorption of religion into the Ontario justice system. And it's not done by Muslims--it's done by extremists, by political Islam. We were fighting for secularism which is the separation of religion from state."

Islam is Canada's fastest-growing religion, and some 61 percent of Canada's 580,000 Muslims live in Ontario. The Ontario government approved faith-based arbitration for Catholics and Jews in 1991 as a way to alleviate the backlog in the court system. The practice got little attention until Muslim leaders brought it to the fore by demanding the same privileges. Quebec, which also has a large Muslim population, voted against using Sharia in that province last year.

Shulman says instead of reacting to pressure and banning all religious arbitration, the government should ensure that parties who go into faith-based processes do so voluntarily and be able to seek whatever decision-maker they wish as long as the final agreement is compatible with the law.

The CJC hopes to have some input into the new set of regulations before the changes come into effect, which could take a year.

"Now we have to see how it goes in terms of the regulations because that's where the real nuts and bolts are and we're hoping to have some impact on that," says Shulman.