Canada: New law to ban religious tribunals

Toronto Star
Divorce and other family law matters in Ontario will no longer be settled through sharia or any other faith-based system under legislation proposed yesterday.
"When it comes to family law arbitrations in this province, there is only one law in Ontario — that's Canadian law," Attorney General Michael Bryant said yesterday, when he introduced legislation to amend the Arbitrations Act.
Ontarians will still be able to seek "advice" from religious leaders but it "would not be enforceable by the courts," he said.

The legislation is the first time the government has officially acknowledged Premier Dalton McGuinty's surprise statement to Canadian Press last September that he would stop all religious arbitrations from having the force of law in Ontario.

Women's groups, which have long maintained that religious- based arbitration — such as the set of Muslim rules and guidelines known as sharia — discriminates against women, applauded the proposed law.

"All the things that (are) in place like sharia law and orthodox Jewish law are so misogynist, so anti-woman, it's unbelievable," said Elka Ruth Enola of the No Sharia Campaign, one of the groups that protested at Queen's Park earlier this fall.

"We can't have laws that discriminate against 51 per cent of the population."

There are many different interpretations of sharia, but most people agree it favours fathers for custody of children and men over women in matters of divorce and inheritance.

While sharia got most of the attention, banning it means banning other forms of religious arbitration that have been used quietly, and supporters say successfully, to settle family matters for many years.

Proponents of such arbitration say their fight isn't over yet.

"We have room to influence this because it's not a fait accompli," said Steven Shulman of the Canadian Jewish Congress, noting the amendment must still be debated and passed in the Legislature to become law.

Mubin Shaikh of the Islamic Group Masjid-El-Noor said the legislation would actually hurt women because the courts won't be there to regulate sharia based advice that families will still seek. "It's mistaken to think this legislation will end the practice," he said.

While the legislation would ban religious arbitration, divorce, child custody and other matters could still be settled through arbitration based on Ontario family law.

There are several proposed changes to protect vulnerable women and children, including:
  • Family law arbitrators will have to be members of a professional arbitration organization and trained to see the signs of domestic violence.
  • Both sides must receive independent legal advice before entering an arbitration agreement.
  • Arbitration decisions can always be appealed to courts.
Faith-based arbitration, including sharia, has been legal in Ontario since 1991. It was introduced as one measure to reduce court backlogs and costs.

Nov. 16, 2005