Canada 2017·So, Canada...

Can religious and non-religious Canadians learn to put faith in each other?

'If anyone can keep our beautiful land of Canada glorious and free, it is not God.'

'I wrote a play about religion in Canada, and I learned a few things.'

Diane Flacks reflects on a perspective-shifting experience. (Library and Archives Canada / e006078821)

So, Canada...: Canadian writers, musicians, educators, poets and leaders riff on big and little topics inspired by our anthem's lyrics. 

Genesis 1:26, is often interpreted to mean "God commands the humans to rule over all the animals." There is an opinion that this is a mistranslation, that the word "yirod", which connotes "rule over" can be translated as not "keep," or "rule," but "watch over." God commanded Adam to watch the land, to be its gardener.

Which makes sense because you don't have to binge watch The Handmaid's Tale (although I recommend it) to know that if anyone can keep our beautiful land of Canada glorious and free, it is not God.  

This is how I've felt about religion, and whichever gods fuel it, for a while: since a rabbi refused to shake my hand after a speech he gave in my Hebrew School. Since I jumped off the flabby agnostic fence after my son spent a year in Sick Kids hospital, where we witnessed the randomness of children's suffering, and I realized that it's not true that God doesn't give you more than you can handle. That if anyone can handle anything it's more likely to do with sleeping pills, chocolate and the kindness of community.

But then, I wrote a play about religion in Canada, and I learned a few things.

The play, Unholy, was set in a fictional live debate on the question, "Should Women Abandon Religion." And my goal was to present arguments pro and con that might change people's minds, including my cynical, tortured own.

Supporting the view that women should embrace religion, I wrote a character who is an Iranian-Canadian progressive Muslim lawyer. It so happened that the actor, Bahareh Yaraghi, who played this character is also Iranian-Canadian and Muslim.

The show opened right after Trump's inauguration, on January 22, 2017. Our first weekend coincided with the Muslim ban and the Women's March on Washington. The show's run completely sold out. It seemed to be asking insoluble questions at a time of need. We felt pretty good about that.

Then, on the night before our final week, six people were killed as they prayed in an Islamic cultural centre in Quebec City.

I called Bahareh. I got her machine and could barely choke out the words "I'm so sorry." I called the director and asked if she thought we should tone down my character's anti-religion rhetoric, or if we should have this debate at all.

The next day, seconds before we were to enter the stage, our lone male cast member had his face buried in his phone, shaking his head and clenching his jaw, getting updates. My fellow actresses and I held hands, looked into each other's faces, eyes shining, trying to smile encouragement through our fear. And I imagined the audience was just as nervous. Would they feel implicated if they agree with my character about religion? Would they turn away from the perspective of our Muslim character, because looking too closely would fill them with guilt and despair?

Well, the audience was fierce and unafraid. They cheered the anti-religious sentiment with the same intensity that we felt them embrace the other side with, and especially Bahareh when she first rose to speak. I could feel them holding her, asking her to stay open to them.

With great poise, she did. And by the curtain call, we could feel that the audience was grateful that we were all here together, in this fragile theatrical reality. Asking questions about God, love, and freedom.

It's up to us to keep ourselves "glorious and free," no matter if our faith is in God and religion or carrot soup and two really good friends. And it's not hard. We just have to stay open.

Next in So, Canada...: George Elliott Clarke's take on "O Canada, we stand on guard for thee:"


Diane Flacks is a multitasking writer/performer/author whose work can be seen on CBC TV in Working Moms, Young Drunk Punk, Baroness Von Sketch, and Kids in the Hall among many others. She’s written for the Globe and Mail, Now, was a columnist for the Toronto Star and a long running CBC radio parenting columnist and freelance contributor. Her theatre work has toured the country, most recently Waiting Room and the award nominated Unholy, which is being remounted this fall.


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