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TORONTO (CP) - The rights of women "will not be compromised" if Ontario becomes the first Western jurisdiction to allow Muslims to use a set of religious rules known as Shariah law to settle civil and marital disputes, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday.
"Whatever we do will be in keeping with the values of Ontarians and Canadians, I can say that much," McGuinty said after visiting a local school for the first day of classes. "I'm not going to say any more than that at this point in time. People will just have to be patient."
A report by former NDP attorney general Marion Boyd recommends Ontario allow Muslims to establish Shariah-based tribunals similar to Jewish and Catholic arbitration bodies already operating in the province.
The government has had Boyd's controversial report in hand since December, but McGuinty was offering no clues Tuesday about when or even if the province will act on its recommendations.
Attorney General Michael Bryant was still examining the report, he said.
"I know that he's reviewing it and at some point in time he's going to come forward with some recommendations for us," McGuinty said.
"And then we'll act on it at that point in time."
Conservative justice critic Bob Runciman said he couldn't understand why the Liberal government decided to tackle the Shariah issue in the first place when there was little call for it from Muslims in Ontario.
"I'm not sure why they put their toe in the water," Runciman said. "I don't know that there was an enormous demand for it to occur."
The New Democrats believe Ontario should follow Quebec's lead and exempt all family law matters from the province's Arbitration Act so courts would never have to enforce rulings from a religious tribunal that could infringe on Charter of Rights guarantees.
"The public courts should not be used to enforce anything other than the public law," said NDP justice critic Peter Kormos.
"That doesn't prevent anybody from going to their imam or their rabbi . . . to resolve their differences, except that it (would) be voluntary compliance."
Opponents claim the push for Shariah is part of an extremist Islamic agenda, and say it discriminates against women in basic matters such as divorce, inheritance rights and child custody.
Almost 100 organizations have banded together under the banner of the International Campaign against Shariah Court in Canada and plan protests around the world.
On Thursday, they'll march in at least five Canadian cities: Ottawa, Toronto, Waterloo, Ont., Montreal and Victoria. Protests are also planned in six European cities: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Goteborg, Sweden, and Dusseldorf, Germany.
The Boyd report was prompted by a retired Muslim lawyer who in 2003 announced he was setting up the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice to train arbitrators to use Ontario's Arbitration Act.
But Syed Mumtaz Ali's view of Shariah was considered unabashedly fundamentalist and political, unlike Boyd's vision of provincially regulated religious arbitration under the mantle of family law and Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
© The Canadian Press, 2005