As millions of South Asians around the world celebrate Diwali this year, a festival symbolizing triumph over darkness and dating back 2,500 years, its strong foothold on regions far from the Indian subcontinent also comes to light.
A five-day celebration enjoyed by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, it is considered a national holiday in India, Fiji, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Nepal and most recently, a city in the United States.
Diwali will be a public school holiday in New York City starting in 2023 “to recognize over 200,000 New Yorkers” who celebrate the festival, NYC Mayor Eric Adams said in a press conference last week.
The recent move in NYC has raised questions as to why a similar move hasn’t already been made in Canada, which is home to millions of South Asians. In 2011, about 2.4 million people, or 7.2 per cent of Canada’s population, reported affiliation with Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim religions, according to Statistics Canada.
Data shows that one in five people coming to Canada in the last several years were born in India, making it the top country of birth for recent arrivals.
Immigrants also accounted for four out of five new workers in the labour force between 2016 and 2021.
“We work hard to pay taxes .. and to bring more talent to this country,” Siddhart Choudhary, director of the Vancouver-based non-profit Canadian Hindu Foundation, told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.
“But, at the same time, we want Canada to feel like our home. We are not strangers in the country.”
Choudary argues that there is frequently little place for immigrants, newcomers, and Canadians from religious and cultural minorities to celebrate their festivals due to the limited national statutory calendar of Canada, which is predominantly centred on Christian holidays.
Current statutory holidays in Canada include New Year’s Day, Labour Day, Good Friday, Canada Day and Christmas Day. However, the number of stat holidays often vary according to province and whether an employee is federally regulated.
For many South Asians in Canada, Diwali celebrations have often required rearranging schedules and figuring out unique ways to keep up with traditions.
But, this isn’t always possible.
This year, the festival fell on municipal election day in Ontario, which raised concerns for the South Asian community as they tried to find time to vote on one of their most important cultural celebrations of the year.
The Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association sent a letter to Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs asking for alternative dates but never heard back.
A petition to “declare Diwali as a public holiday in Canada” has garnered nearly 16,000 signatures on Change.org.
Organized by Gopal Saini, the director of Alberta-based non-profit International Hindu Foundation (IHF); he says that more people in Canada needed Diwali this year than ever before.
“Diwali is a time for family reunions and during COVID-19, people were not able to come together or go back home to other countries from where they came from … and that feeling of loneliness was really shocking,” Sonia Joshi, president of IHF, told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.
“This is a festival of togetherness, everyone coming together and celebrating the values and traditions and what our background is, and I should be able to spend that day without worrying about my salary or vacation… we just needed one day to celebrate and teach our children what community support and a celebration of our culture really mean.”
But can it be done?
Introducing new statutory holidays in Canada isn’t unprecedented. The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day, was introduced as a new federal statutory holiday on Sept. 30 in 2021.
It was created to honour children who died while being forced to attend residential schools, as well as those who survived and their families and communities still suffering from the trauma.
According to the Designation of National Days and Obervances in Canada, a federal document outlining how holidays are classified and how they can become recognized dates, “any senator or member of the House of Commons may introduce a bill proclaiming a national day.”
If the bill passes all stages of the legislative processes, it can be enacted as its own policy.
A national holiday or observance can also be established by the government, overriding the Parliament, through various processes, the document noted.
An example of this is National Indigenous People Day, which is celebrated on June 21. While not a national holiday, it does apply to federally regulated workplaces as a day off.
The individual making the request for a religious accommodation should be able to explain how it relates to their religion, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s website, along with information regarding “whether the person can perform the essential duties or requirements of the job … with or without accommodation.”
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, “Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy.”
The Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed as law in Canada in 1988 to “remove any barriers preventing full participation in society” and was designed to target and eliminate discrimination.
While the act doesn’t mention religious or cultural festivals, it aims to “promote the reflection and the evolving expressions of those cultures.”
According to Joshi, the existence of the act should be enough for any politician to introduce a motion to instate Diwali as a public holiday in Canada.
“This step was taken 50 years ago and we are still looking for an opportunity to celebrate one of our main festivals as we should. Our children should be able to see that, right?” Joshi said.
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press
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