Sharia law in Canada, almost

A 2004 report recommending that Muslim faith-based tribunals be allowed in Ontario, Canada, triggered huge controversy.

February 8, 2008 1:11 PM

The introduction of sharia law in Ontario, Canada, was effectively recommended by a 2004 report which prompted debate and street protests, both for and against its findings.

Family faith-based tribunals had been set up by Catholic and Jewish communities following the passing of the province's Arbitration Act in 1991.

The act was an attempt to deal with a backlog of court cases. It enabled groups to use the guiding principles of their faith to help settle disputes over divorce, inheritance and custody.

In 2003, the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice said it intended to establish similar tribunals for the 400,000 Muslims who live in Ontario.

Irfan Syed, chairman of the Toronto-based Muslim Lawyers Association, said:

"In truly multicultural countries, this is quite common. It's a legitimate way to give religious communities some autonomy within the scope of our law. The two can exist because the Canadian courts have an ultimate supervisory capacity"

During the ensuing outcry, a former attorney general, Marion Boyd, was asked to review how the arbitration act was working and whether it adversely affected vulnerable people, including women, the elderly and people with disabilities.

Published in December 2004, her report recommended (pdf) that the "Arbitration Act should continue to allow disputes to be arbitrated using religious law."

She, no doubt, realised it would not be possible to allow Christian and Jewish tribunals to continue but ban Muslim ones.

Faisal Kutty
, writing in the New Catholic Times, supported the report's findings.

"Sharia is not coming to Canada and there will be no sharia courts. Muslims simply wish to use Islamic principles to resolve their disputes within the Canadian legal system"

But plenty of others didn't.

Homa Arjomand, an Iranian who organised International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada, argued that the recommendations would push back Canadian law by 1,400 years.

"Our lawyers are studying the decisions of several arbitration cases and will bring them to court and expose how women are victimised by male-dominated legal decisions based on 6th-century religion and traditions."

Another protester Nasrin Ramzanali, said "If the shariah is used in Canada, I also feel threatened here."

There was mainstream scepticism that such tribunals were compatible with Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nonsense, argued Richard Fidler, who suggested the "anti-sharia" campaign "unfolded against a backdrop of anti-Muslim propaganda related to the Iraq war, the growing threats to Iran, and Israel's ongoing repression of the Palestinians as well as Canada's increasing military involvement in Afghanistan".

Such was the political feeling that the province's premier, Dalton McGuinty, eventually dismissed Boyd's recommendations. He was also forced to ban other religions which had been using faith-based tribunals.