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.”