World Religions

On Saturday the 4th, the University of Waterloo hosted the 37th World Religions Conference in the Humanities Theatre of Hagey Hall. Confusingly enough, in the newer part of Hagey Hall there was another event happening at the same time. The theme of the conference was “My Faith and Canadian Values”, as a bit of a Canada 150 special. The fact that not everyone approves of “Canada 150” as being worth celebrating came up quite a few times, of course. This event was not solely organized by the University: the main organizer was the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, whose many objectives include promoting understanding between people of different religions. There were many other organizations involved, not all of which were religious. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at saw it fit to start the event with a Quran reading.
    This event was moderated by Waterloo Councillor Melissa Durrell who once upon a time worked as a television reporter, producer and anchor. She started out by introducing the main speakers of the event: scholars representing seven different belief systems. Then Councillor Durrell introduced the dignitaries visiting the event: the Honorable Bardish Chagger (Member of Parliament for the Riding of Waterloo, Minister of Small Business and Tourism), Mayor Dave Jaworksy of Waterloo (technically Durrell’s boss, as she pointed out), a Councillor of Guelph, Elder Kevin Pearson of the Church of Latter Day Saints (who was visiting the Toronto region from America) and Gehan Sabry (of the Cross Cultures magazine). The Waterloo Philharmonic Choir sang the national anthem, the dignitaries made their statements, and Durrell laid out the rules of the event.
    Each of the main speakers would be allocated fifteen minutes. Some of that time would be spent on a scripture reading, or at least something resembling a scripture reading since not all the belief systems represented had a holy book of any kind. This portion wasn’t actually done by the speaker, except in Amy Smoke’s case. The rest of the time would be spent on a statement where the speaker needed to focus on the theme of Canadian values. Speakers were encouraged to focus on the beauty of their own beliefs, rather than make accusations of other belief systems. In fact, any comparison to other belief systems needed to be purely objective. Councillor Durrell revealed that she was “still a BlackBerry girl” and then let the first speaker take the stage.
    Amy Smoke was here to represent the indigenous spirituality. Smoke herself is a member of the Mohawk nation Turtle clan, but took on the task of representing the native peoples of the continent at large. The Mohawk lacked a religious text, so Smoke instead recited the Mohawk Thanksgiving Address, with a few pictorial aids along the way. She later explained that the Address was actually “the words that come before all the other words”. She was a bit nervous since it was her first time speaking her native language in public.
Smoke’s general tone was justifiably pessimistic. She talked at length about her own life stuggle, and about the relationship between humans and the environment. Regarding Canadian values, Smoke pointed out that her values were not being represented at all by the government of Canada. The last residential schools were only closed in 1996 and many native reserves are in terrible condition. Anyone who cared about environmentalism would do well asking indigenous people. Unfortunately due to massive efforts to stamp out native culture in the past, in the present much of their knowledge has been lost.
    The next speaker was Doug Thomas. Now, Thomas was listed as representing “Humanism”. Humanism is not strictly speaking a religion (unless you are a fan of Yuval Noah Harari): it is the stance that personal freedom must be defended and that critical thinking and evidence are the best means to learn about the universe. Obviously, not every nonreligious person is a Humanist, and not everyone fitting the Humanist description would call themselves Humanist. Still, the overlaps are strong enough that Doug Thomas represented atheists and agnostics in general.
Thomas pointed out that Canadians shouldn’t be too quick to pat themselves on the back for their values: we might not be following them as well as we like to think. He pointed out a number of laws discriminating against nonreligious individuals and organizations. He also pointed out the exclusionary nature of the national anthem: not just against those who do not believe in God. He was also concerned about the fact that immigrants are treated differently based on their income, and the fact that hate speech is apparently allowed if it comes from a religious scripture.
The third speaker was Reverend Andrew Asbil of the Anglican Church, representing Christianity. He mainly talked about Christians in Canada assisting immigrants and the homeless throughout history, going as far as defining evangelism as “one poor beggar telling another where to find bread”. He spoke about how the Church of the Redeemer provides housing and food without government assistance, claiming that “being Christian is not being a landlord.”
Reverend Asbil also darkly noted that “We have a lot to apologize for”, and stressed that it was important for Christians, and people in general, to really try listening to people with differing beliefs and understand their perspectives. Asbil’s statement was followed by the lunch break.
Councillor Durrell claimed the lunch would be purely vegetarian. Luckily, this meant it was pizza. In the older section of Hagey Hall, there were a number of stalls explaining aspects of various different religions, some of which did not have a speaker at this conference.
Dr Jaspreet Bai is not an expert on Sikhism, however since she is a Sikh and a PhD she got to represent Sikhism anyway. Her day job is being a professor, so perhaps that is why she was the only speaker to use a PowerPoint presentation. She started out with an explanation of the history of Sikhism, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the faith. Dr Bai noted that the Sikhs have survived multiple genocides, even saying that “My existence is resistance.”
Dr Bai then explained a principle from Sikhism that she felt would be beneficial for Canada to adopt, the principle of “ekta”. Bai described it as a concept of oneness, as the “ek” in the name suggests. Ekta does not mean that everyone is the same, or should be: Bai claimed it was closer to equity than to equality. Some historical and modern examples of ekta shaping people’s actions were brought up. Bai also noted that “Canadian values” is a very shifting, politicized idea, so Canada might benefit from having an eternal principle to turn to. She concluded with some statements about bringing down oppressive systems, standing up for the marginalized, recognizing privilege and actively working on decolonization.
Dr Daniel Moaz also holds a PhD, and while he represented Judaism he actually spent the bulk of his time talking about how it was “criminally negligent” to forget the indigenous people of Canada. He had a lot of sympathy for people escaping persecution, and said that helping indigenous people was an important part of “tikkun olam”, or “Repair of the World”. He took an interesting approach of determining which values were Canadian: rather than just laws or the government, he referred to a poll by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing about people’s values.
Swami Chidgan-Anand represented Hinduism by laying out the principles valued by Manu, “the great law-giver”. He also stressed that even though everyone might be convinced their own view is best, it is important to “listen attentively” to people of other worldviews.
Imam Imtiaz Ahmed represented Islam, and focused on Islamic and Canadian views of diversity. He pointed out that cultural diversity is highly valued in Canada, and also has a divine purpose in Islam. Even though people have many differences, he noted that none of these are supposed to confer “privilege or disability”.
There was a snack break after which all the speakers sat together for a question and answer session. Over the course of the day, attendees submitted questions on forms and at long last, some of them would be answered. Each speaker was individually asked a question, and then they were all asked, one by one, to answer a final question: What do people have to do to maintain and improve Canadian values into the future? Each of the speakers focused on different aspects of the question.
Imtiaz Ahmed focused on the concept of preserving personal freedom and acceptance of others. Swami Chidgan-Anand focused on getting different religions to collaborate and making a sort of global family. Dr Moaz focused on self betterment, stating that if “You want to change the world, clean up your room.” Dr Bai said that religious organizations needed to start, or in many cases continue, serving the general public outside their own religious group. Reverend Asbil talked about Christianity’s “complicated relationship with power” and stressed the need to allow one’s group to let go of it. Doug Thomas focused on how people needed to acknowledge flaws in our systems and work around them, stating that “Canada works because we make it work.” Amy Smoke was the last to answer, stressing the need for the country at large to ask indigenous people what they want, instead of pushing policies on them without consulting them.
    The conference wrapped up with some photos, expressions of gratitude and gifts for the speakers. Finally, Councillor Durrell randomly picked the order of speakers for next year’s conference.
    This conference was hosted on University grounds, but not necessarily student focused. There were attendees from many different age groups and backgrounds. There was a general feeling of age: from the limited use of technology, the fact that events from centuries ago were discussed at length and the atmosphere of Hagey Hall. The speakers were all very good, however the topic was not so well-defined: as many of the speakers noted, “Canadian values” have a different meaning for every Canadian. Let’s hope the conference is hosted here next year!

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