In-depth: religious freedom on Canadian campuses

The issue of religious freedom has come to the forefront in recent years, particularly on university campuses.

Bill 62, a new Quebec law that bans receiving or providing public services while wearing the niqab, a face veil a minority of Muslim women wear, has some students reconsidering pursuing a post-secondary degree in the province.

This comes on top of multiple instances of Islamophobia at universities, with anti-Muslim posters being put up at schools such as the ones found at Memorial University’s Newfoundland campus last month.

In addition, an Ottawa teen was recently sentenced to three months in the youth justice system after vandalizing two synagogues, a Jewish prayer house, a mosque, and a church with racist slurs and white supremacist symbols including swastikas.

Religious freedom is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that everyone has the freedom of conscience and religion. But, how free are people to practice their religion on campus?

Incidents on campus

Biftu Omar, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student at Carleton University and a Muslim, shared an incident that happened to her in March 2016.

She said she was leaving the University Centre carrying luggage because she had planned to go on a trip immediately after work, when a group of guys were walking by and one of them said, “I wonder what she’s carrying, she’s probably carrying a bomb.”

“I was so in shock,” she said. “I mean I see these things happening in the news but I didn’t expect it to happen here in Ottawa, at Carleton University.”

The University of Ottawa has also seen incidents of discrimination based on religion.

Hadi Wess, the president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, described an incident at the university where a student emailed a teaching assistant asking for help and mentoring but received an answer saying that the teaching assistant doesn’t tutor people from this student’s faith.

“I went to the dean because the student didn’t want to disclose their name. The dean denied the incident and said the student should come to report that themselves. And since the student didn’t feel comfortable doing that, nothing was done in this case,” Wess said.

He added that he doubts the university has a religious accommodation policy, “. . . even if there was it’d be terrible.”

According to the University of Ottawa’s website, religious accommodations can be given to students to allow them to “observe religious practices that conflict with academic requirements.”

In order to submit a request for accommodation, students must email or write a letter to their professor or faculty that administers the course, according to the website.

     Religious accommodations on campus

Susanne Nyaga, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union, said in an email that there is a multi-faith building on campus where students can book rooms and that religious student groups are prioritized.

Ryerson’s policy is that as long as students disclose their request for religious accommodation within two weeks then professors must accommodate the student, Nyaga said.

The University of Saskatchewan also offers students religious accommodations, according to the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union president David D’Eon. He said in an email that the university currently offers a prayer space for Muslim students and faculty.

“I know work is currently underway to better accommodate religious practice,” he said.

D’Eon added that one of their federated colleges located on campus—St. Thomas More—has a chapel and conducts regular prayer services.

However, D’Eon pointed that the main issue sometimes comes down to the ability to provide these spaces.

“Our facilities are simply not large enough to provide the space ourselves, so our tactic has been to work with administration to find appropriate spaces for students,” he said.

At the U of O, Wess said he recently took the lead in a multi-faith referendum that sought a levy fee of $1.25 for full-time student and $0.65 for part-time student per semester to fund the development of a Multi-Faith Centre on campus.

He added that this referendum will “break down stereotypes about people of faith.”

Religion at Carleton University

Meanwhile, Emily Williams, a second-year communications and film studies student at Carleton, said she can’t get Sundays off to go to church.

Williams works at a Tim Hortons on campus, and said that as a Christian, it is always hard for her to find jobs on campus that have Sundays off.

“It’s a little frustrating but at the same time I’m a student, I need money, I need to pay for things, and it can be a little bit difficult to balance work, spirituality and rest,” she said.

Carleton has a prayer room for Muslim students, as well as a Multi-Faith Centre which is a “bookable space for faith-based groups to meet, celebrate and practice their beliefs,” according to the Carleton University Students’ Association website.

Omar said she feels comfortable praying anywhere on Carleton’s campus and said she has not received any looks or comments from students.

She said the sole incident she has faced on campus has not changed the way she feels on campus, but rather made her think about how she should have reacted.

“I wish I could have turned around and maybe said something, because that’s my opportunity to educate,” she said.

Omar said if an incident were to happen again, she would love to report it but added that she doesn’t know who she would report it to.

Equity Services at Carleton has a complaint system in place in which students can bring forward any concerns or complaints under Carleton’s human rights policy, if the discrimination or harassment are based on religion, according to their website.

According to Omar, these services should be more prevalent on campus for students “who may face this on a regular basis.”

“It would be help if [students] who to turn or who to talk to in these kind of situations because for some it can be very traumatizing,” she said.

—with files from Haneen Al-Hassoun

Photo by Meagan Casalino