By ZIYAAD MIA, Special to the Sun
As the Parti Quebecois conflates imagined Islamist plots with feigned concerns for animal welfare, I wonder if Chicken Little is on the separatist payroll. The latest act in Quebec’s Chronicles of Xenophobia takes us to the slaughterhouse, where the PQ claims all chickens are slaughtered under Islamic halal practice. The risk is twofold: (i) non-Muslim Quebecers will unwittingly eat halal meat; and (ii) halal slaughter practices are inhumane.
In response to the new-found problem, the PQ proposes a solution: clear labelling to protect the people of La Belle Province from halal meat. Interestingly, the solution only addresses the issue of unintentional consumption of halal meat, while being reticent on animal welfare. Moreover, because both the regulation of animal slaughter and food labelling are federal responsibilities, the solution is disingenuous.
Quebec politicians seem to be ripping pages from France’s playbook lately; first toying with hijab bans and now exposing the lurking threat of halal meat. They justify their actions by claiming that precious values are at stake. It is ironic that a province perennially clamouring for special treatment in our federal and constitutional family is quick to deny the distinctness of its own diverse communities. This is dangerous politics bereft of originality. Sadly, it is emblematic of a bankrupt social discourse that appears to be growing in Quebec.
With Canada facing significant challenges requiring positive solutions, the politicians of Quebec prefer the low road. While scapegoating Muslims is de rigueur among right-wingers, it seems that the left-leaning PQ is blazing a new trail by marching lockstep with the likes of Marine Le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Tea Party and Harper’s Conservatives.
Notwithstanding the PQ’s shameless exploitation of xenophobia, this controversy raises a genuine issue about the treatment of animals used for food, a matter that has largely been ignored in Canadian public discourse. In fact, it ought to be a serious ethical and moral concern for Muslim Canadians, in particular, because Islam requires significantly more than perfunctory ritualized killing of animals used for food. Islam mandates compassionate treatment of all animals at all times, which precludes practices that are common in Canada’s factory farms and slaughterhouses. Hence, it poses the question whether much of the meat produced in Canada, including some “halal” meat, is consistent with the substance of Islam’s moral and ethical imperatives with respect to animals.
In North America billions of animals are raised annually in massive industrial operations, where they simply become living widgets. As a society we condone such cruelty because of our insatiable appetite for 99-cent breakfast sandwiches and burgers.
Consider chickens for example. In Canada we continue to allow the use of battery cages to raise birds for their eggs. Caged chickens are debeaked early in life; a practice that is intended to prevent pecking of other birds or self-harm such as plucking their own feathers. They do these things because they are extremely stressed, living in a cramped unnatural environment. It is fair to describe many battery chickens as literally going mad because they spend their entire lives confined to a tiny cage.
Canadians have cognitive dissonance when it comes to the creatures we eat. Eggs, meat and dairy products are packaged and marketed to remove any connection to the animals those products came from. As a result, we do not think about the plight of tens of millions of animals in an industrialized system designed to churn out cheap food.
Canada has inadequate laws for the protection of animals used in food production. Most, if not all, rules consider chickens and cows, like all animals, including our beloved cats and dogs, to be mere property. In absence of good legal standards that are robustly enforced we end up with a race to the bottom; volume and profit are the key drivers and animals are expendable production machines. While it may create short-term economic efficiencies, such a system puts us on morally unstable ground.
According to Mohandas Gandhi, “[t]he greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” How do we measure up against that standard? If we want to be good citizens of a just nation, we cannot ignore the pain, stress and brutality suffered by animals to satisfy our desires. Contrary to the PQ’s aspersions, Islam goes much further than existing Canadian law by mandating compassion, rejecting the property model and requiring humans to give serious consideration to the interests of animals. That is why, on the issue of animal welfare, Muslim Canadians can lead by example.
Ziyaad Mia is a Toronto lawyer active in human rights, national security and animal welfare issues. He is a former board member of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association.