Presumed innocent until proven guilty? Don’t make me chortle. Look at the judicial review of Steven Truscott’s murder conviction, 47 years later. Suppressed evidence and witnesses, finally emerging. Or skip the half-century and consider the process for the “Toronto 17.”

The general rule is, you are presumed guilty: First, when police charge you, or why would they? Then, when they hold a press conference about their case, backed up by props. (If you’re presumed innocent, why not keep the evidence till trial? And why a press conference at all?)

Next, when you’re arraigned in court, with snipers stationed around the courthouse. As for media, why do all those backgrounders, talking to your neighbours etc., unless they presume guilt? They insert formulaic disclaimers about nothing being proven yet, but would they cover the story so fully if they presumed your innocence?

The sole point at which presumed innocence kicks in comes when you enter court for trial, by which time it’s pretty late. Ask Glen Clark, who lost the B.C. premiership though he was eventually acquitted, or Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara. The notion has to arise somewhere, like a thumb in a dike; otherwise, presumed guilt would overwhelm the process at every point.

It’s not just in the legal system that presumed guilt prevails over the alternative. Canadian multiculturalism is now often presumed guilty of fostering “religious zealotry,” i.e. fundamentalist Islam. I think after the trial, though, we’ll discover that it was free speech, not multiculturalism, that did the deed.

Anyway, as Fawaz Gerges argues in a new book, the “idealistic” identification of young “homegrown” Muslims with, say, Muslim humiliation in Iraq is not inherently bad. It shows an ability to empathize with others. It’s what sent young Canadians to Spain in the 1930s and to Africa in the 1960s. The issue isn’t whether they identify zealously with Muslims elsewhere; it’s whether they break the law while doing it. But I digress.

Much presumed guilt about Muslims has to do with betrayal of Canadian values. Former diplomat Martin Collacott says new immigrants should swear loyalty to Canadian values. That one rots my socks. When my grandparents came here, anti-Semitism was a Canadian value. When medicare came in, it was denounced for being un-Canadian. Canadian values is not a Canadian value.

Christie Blatchford wrote in The Globe and Mail that Canada is a “secular constitutional democracy.” But it’s not secular, it’s got God all over it, and Catholic schools are in the Constitution. She cites women’s equality, but 40 years ago the House of Commons rocked to male guffaws when an MP mentioned violence against women. Dignity and equality of women became a value. What we have is not a set of core values but a relatively open process for altering our practices in the direction of universal values, through political work and dialogue among citizens, wherever they came from, with whatever baggage.

She also says our values don’t encompass “quarrels imported from other parts of the planet.” But people like my anarchist granddad brought their quarrels to Canada and argued with local élites and their values. Native peoples do the same, challenging “Canadian” values. From the debate comes a degree of consensus, a shared program called — wrongly, I’d say — Canadian values. The point is, people don’t just come for the values, they bring values with them, some of which end up suiting the new society and others not. But they get to bring what they want, including their burkas, for my loonies.

Twice recently, I’ve been on a weekly radio panel that consisted of three Canadian Jews talking mainly about Muslim terror. It seemed odd and I doubt you’d find the reverse: three Canadian Muslims commenting on a “Jewish” issue like Israel. But I can’t think of anything wrong with it. No one assumed we held the same views or that our ethnicity was even pertinent, though Jews are a far smaller and more compact group than Muslims, here and globally. You could say we were presumed diverse until proven monolithic. How nice it’d be to extend that assumption to our Muslim neighbours.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.