Cultural barbaric practices here and there

NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims recently revealed that she is uncomfortable with the revised edition of the Welcome to Canada guide—a 146-page document compiled by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and presented last week by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. Sims doesn’t care about the guide’s monarchist bent, or its omission of  “O Canada” lyrics. But she does take umbrage with the following passage:

“Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, honour killings, female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.”

Sims’ problem isn’t with sentiment (she agrees such crimes are barbaric). It’s with semantics.

“All of those practices are barbaric, but they are barbaric no matter which culture they happen in,” she explained. “As soon as you put the word ‘cultural’ in there, you are putting it as if it doesn’t happen here.”

I called Sims and asked her to elaborate. Why the opposition to the word “cultural?”

“It is barbaric,” she said. “You don’t need any other adjective. They are barbaric. Period.”

I tried to press her:  Isn’t there a cultural difference, I argued, when you’re dealing with immigrants who are coming from a place where certain barbaric practices are condoned? Doesn’t the cultural acceptance of those practices render them culturally barbaric, as opposed to just plain old barbaric?

We have our fair share of gender violence, of course, I argued, but our culture rejects it overwhelmingly as immoral. That’s a stark cultural difference.

Sims didn’t want to talk semantics, or ethnicity. When asked if the word “cultural” stigmatizes certain cultures, she changed the subject to the Conservatives.

“I see a little bit of hypocrisy,” she said. “We’re telling newcomers all of these things are barbaric, but my question is, what has this government actually done? What has the government done right here in Canada and internationally to address those issues?”

Although Sims wouldn’t say directly why she objects to the word “cultural,”  the obfuscation in her answers leads me to the following:

Describing vaginal mutilation and honour killings in a cultural context is inappropriate, she and others probably feel, because there is gender violence in Canada. Therefore, labelling imported gender violence as “cultural” is potentially racist and misleading. The same barbaric things happen here as well. Or as Sims said, on average, “every six days a Canadian woman is killed by her partner.”

Forgetting for a moment that the incidence of vaginal mutilation in Canada is probably lower than it is in Djibouti, there’s a glaring logical error in this argument: it confuses behaviour with attitude.

It may be true that gender-based violence and other barbaric practices occur “here” and “there,” as Sims suggests. But if you mutilate a child’s genitals here, you go to jail; there you carry on and go about your business. Culture is attitude.

Jinny Sims likely feels that by condemning certain “barbaric cultural practices,” we are judging entire countries and civilizations. But when behaviours are antithetical to what we believe and at odds with what we consider to be civilized, it’s our responsibility to underline our antipathy in terms that leave no room for misinterpretation.

The “Welcome to Canada” guide says we are a tolerant society, but our tolerance does not extend to intolerance or savagery — here or there. The Canadian government’s rejection of cultural barbaric practices from afar is not a tacit approval of cultural barbaric practices at home. It is a clear message to our immigrant population that where gender violence is concerned, there are no sacred cows.

When I was an undergrad, I tutored adult ESL at a public library. My students were women, the majority of them immigrants from theocracies where “barbaric cultural practices” aren’t barbaric — they’re what you do on a Tuesday afternoon. Many told stories I will not repeat here and don’t like to think about. But I am reminded of their words every time a well-intentioned person like Justin Trudeau or Jinny Sims equivocates and obfuscates in the name of cultural sensitivity.

I am also reminded of the time I tried to discuss with my ESL students, this strange breed of well-intentioned Canadians (which for me, at that time, was a university classroom of white feminists debating the freeing qualities of the burka). They were, I assured my students, really well-intentioned. My students laughed, loudly.

They thought I was telling a joke.

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