Thursday, July 14, 2005

A little word, but oh, the difference it makes

It's now a thoughtcrime, apparently, to even imply that not all cultures and societies are equal in their attitudes and values - like, say, determining what's an appropriate male-female relationship: An Ottawa police detective who gives sexual harassment sensitivity training to taxi drivers could use some lessons herself, according to a chorus of voices yesterday who say the officer made remarks that were culturally insensitive. In an interview published yesterday in the Citizen, Det. Theresa Kelm said part of the function of the training course was to explain to drivers what constituted acceptable behaviour toward women in Canada and what types of actions or remarks crossed the line into harassment or assault. "Some of this behaviour may be acceptable in the countries they are from," Det. Kelm said. "Our message to them is that it's not acceptable here, and it won't be tolerated." The comment was made in a story about a cab driver who was convicted of sexually assaulting a female passenger, the third of its kind in the Ottawa area in the past year. Yousef Al Mezel, president of the union that represents Ottawa taxi drivers, said the detective's remark was unfair to drivers. "It's a racist comment from the detective," he said. The comment implied Canadian culture was superior to that of other countries in terms of attitude toward women, said Mr. Al Mezel. You know what? It bloody well is. Canada doesn't suffer from the repressive medieval phenomena of honour killings or female "circumcision," nor does this country endorse societal norms that consider women property of their husbands, fathers, or brothers. Not now, anyway, except in the unnervingly unassimilated. To pretend that there's no difference between Canada (or the western world at large) and some of the most repressive and misogynistic societies left over from the middle ages is dishonest, and doesn't speak well of the accusers. At least the federal government, uncharacteristically, has its head on straight, recognizing that the cult of multiculturalism is only so much smoke and mirrors once you leave the country. Meanwhile, when Canada's Foreign Affairs website offers advice to female travellers, it warns Middle Eastern countries can be a particular hazard. "Unescorted women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse," the website says in the travel report on Egypt. "Physical and verbal harassment of women is a problem," the report adds about Kuwait. Foreign affairs also publishes a travel guide for women, called Her Own Way, which explains "female travellers are directly affected by the religious and societal beliefs of the countries they visit." It says that in some countries -- although it does not spell out which -- a differentiation is made by men between women who dress or behave conservatively and those who don't. "Understand that, in some parts of the world, 'respectable' women don't go out alone in the evening. In these places, a flagrant rejection of this custom could very well put you in jeopardy." Andre Lemay, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs, said the department isn't looking to offend anyone, but sometimes there is a "reality" that needs to be explained. "Our job is to protect Canadians," he said. We need more police officers like Detective Kelm, who recognize that some people are unwilling to leave the old country, with its attendant attitudes and behavioural norms, behind. That's not racist. It may be unfortunate, but it's true.

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