Of course Christmas is not racist; we never said it was

We at the Canadian Human Rights Commission have created quite the stir. But our discussion paper on intolerance has been misinterpreted.

Opinion piece, as published in the Montreal Gazette on Saturday, December 02, 2023

A discussion paper by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) on religious intolerance as a form of systemic discrimination has caused quite a stir in recent days. On Wednesday, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion in defense of Christmas. On Thursday, the House of Commons did the same.

To be clear, the Commission has not issued a statement or a position on Christmas or any other religious holiday. Of course, Christmas is not racist.

Christmas is an important and time-honoured tradition in Canada. It is both spiritually and culturally significant for millions of people in this country, Christians, and non-Christians alike.

The issue has never been about the importance of Christmas but rather about the simple fact that, just as Christmas is deeply important to many of us, there are also many of us who feel similarly about religious celebrations from other traditions.

Canada should be a country that invites everyone to join in the traditions we have long celebrated while making space for new ones. This is not a zero-sum game. These new traditions do not come at the expense of the older ones. Instead, they enrich Canadian society.

Religious practices are no exception. We must face the reality that religious intolerance exists to properly address how to better include them.

That's why, in early 2023, we worked with experts representing a variety of religions and perspectives to explore the issue of religious intolerance. This resulted in a discussion paper that reflects the views that were shared and what we found in our research. Recently, we have published this paper online as part of our anti-racism work.

Our discussion paper has been misinterpreted, leading to a conversation based on this misunderstanding.

At it’s core, the paper is about promoting equity and inclusion.

Our discussion paper explains that, based on current Canadian law, providing a statutory holiday for one religion, and not providing reasonable accommodation for other religions may be considered discrimination. It simply mentions Christmas as an example of a religious holiday that is also a statutory holiday.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it is vital that we remember that every person has the fundamental right to freely practice their religion. And it is enshrined in Canadian law. This includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and every human rights code in every jurisdiction in this country.

Canada has made a commitment to equity and inclusion. Canadians care deeply about this and we hear about it everyday. Increasing awareness about all religions and making space for their traditions is a natural step to making people feel more included.

In Canada, if you practice a religion other than Christianity, observing a religious holiday might mean having to take the day off work – assuming your employer will give you permission to do so. In some cases, you might have to chose between participating in an important work event or observing an important religious holiday. This has a real effect on people’s lives that may not be visible to those who already get the day off to observe their traditions.

Making these kinds of changes takes awareness and discussion because the barriers that people face are most often not intentional, nor are they malicious. They are baked right into our society and our systems.

When standards and social systems do not create obstacles for us, it can be difficult to realize. That's why it needs to be discussed.

In the end, this is not about Christmas. It is about making sure everyone in Canada can practice their religion with the same equality, dignity, and respect as others.

We may not all agree on how we get there, but it’s worth a discussion.

Charlotte-Anne Malischewski, Interim Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission

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