By Mar­tin Sur­ridge — While the incred­i­ble events in Egypt con­tinue to cap­ture the hearts and minds of view­ers and lis­ten­ers around the globe, tra­di­tion­ally pro­gres­sive and reli­ably tol­er­ant Canada has been mak­ing unex­pected head­lines this week, unusu­ally decid­ing to curb the reli­gious rights of some of its cit­i­zens. This is Article18–RLTV’s weekly blog specif­i­cally ded­i­cated to reli­gious lib­erty issues in other coun­tries around the world. Each week, we focus on a dif­fer­ent nation, and the strug­gles fac­ing one of its reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties. This week: Canada and the French-speaking province of Que­bec, where the National Assem­bly “car­ried a motion tabled by the Parti Québé­cois” to deny entry into the build­ing for any Sikhs wear­ing the cer­e­mo­nial dag­ger known as the kir­pan. The deci­sion, unfa­vor­ably received by many in the inter-faith com­mu­nity, is widely believed to be linked to efforts to ban the niqab–the tra­di­tional head­dress worn by Mus­lim women.

Sikhs in North Amer­ica have endured a tor­rid time in the years fol­low­ing the attacks on the World Trade Cen­ter. Often dis­crim­i­nated against and incor­rectly labeled as Mus­lims because of the tur­bans that tra­di­tional Sikh men wear, adher­ents of the world’s fifth largest reli­gion, and largest non-Abrahamic monothe­is­tic faith, make up a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the diverse reli­gious fab­ric of Canada. Sikhs place much of their spir­i­tual empha­sis on the impor­tance of sym­bolic items, includ­ing the afore­men­tioned tur­bans, a steel bracelet known as the kara, which rep­re­sents strength and integrity, and per­haps most famously the kir­pan, worn to sym­bol­ize “readi­ness to defend the defense­less, defend one’s faith against per­se­cu­tion [and exem­plify] the war­rior char­ac­ter of a Sikh.” How­ever, Sikhs do not con­sider the kir­pan to be an actual weapon, despite fears by French Cana­dian politi­cians that it could be used as one in the future.

News of the ban fell wor­ry­ingly on the ears of Ontario Lib­eral MP Navdeep Bains dur­ing the days before its impend­ing pas­sage. Bains, a prac­tic­ing Sikh who wears the kir­pan, explained his sur­prise.

I’ve worn [the kir­pan] to the Supreme Court of Canada, even to the U.S. Con­gress and it’s never been an issue. It’s designed to remind me that I have a cer­tain oblig­a­tions to myself and soci­ety, and to look out for oth­ers. It really is a sym­bolic and inter­nal way to focus myself, and hold myself account­able in a pub­lic way. If there’s a legit­i­mate con­cern around the kir­pan I think we should have an open and frank and hon­est dis­cus­sion [rather than sim­ply call­ing for a ban]. I expected bet­ter from my elected-official fed­eral col­leagues. We should avoid fear-mongering and politi­ciz­ing the matter.”

The future of the ban is unclear at best. The mea­sure will have to pass an all-party body in the House of Com­mons and the Supreme Court has already ruled favor­ably on the kir­pan at least once before, vot­ing 8–0 to pre­vent it from being banned in a Que­bec school five years ago.

How­ever, the deci­sion made by the National Assem­bly in Que­bec is an odd one. Claim­ing a desire to increase secu­rity in gov­ern­ment build­ings and min­i­mize the risk of any dan­ger, the leg­is­la­ture secu­rity team sug­gested the restric­tion, after four secu­rity guards stopped four Sikhs from enter­ing the National Assem­bly last week, despite the easy access to steak knives, still avail­able in the building’s cafe­te­ria. There are also con­cerns that, despite the stated pref­er­ence for safety over reli­gious lib­erty, there is a cul­tural bat­tle eager to be won by con­ser­v­a­tive Que­be­cers who worry that reli­gious and cul­tural diver­sity will change their way of life.

When dis­cussing the issue, Louise Beau­doin, party mem­ber of the Parti Québé­cois and its critic for sec­u­lar­ism, con­firmed sus­pi­cions that per­haps the issue is not really about secu­rity when he stated that, “Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism may be a Cana­dian value, but it’s not a Que­bec one.”

Article18 is a weekly blog writ­ten by Mar­tin Sur­ridge, Asso­ciate Edi­tor of Reli­gious Lib­erty TV. Article18 logo and art­work cre­ated by Bradley Kenyon.