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Canada's Quebec province assembly bans 'kirpan'

February 10, 2011 18:59 IST
Canada's French-speaking Quebec province's legislature has unanimously voted to ban the kirpan from assembly premises, weeks after four Sikhs were denied entry for a parliamentary hearing for refusing to surrender their ceremonial daggers.

The National Assembly of Quebec voted 113-0 on Wednesday to adopt a motion tabled by the opposition Parti Quebecois, barring the kirpan from the legislative building, drawing criticism from the Sikh community. It supported the decision by security officers, who denied entry to four Sikhs who had come to the assembly last month for a parliamentary hearing during which they wanted to support a Muslim woman's religious right to wear a face covering or 'niqab'. Reacting to the development in the Quebec National Assembly, the World Sikh Organisation's Canada chapter expressed its disappointed.

"The World Sikh Organisation of Canada is disappointed that the Quebec National Assembly has voted unanimously in favour of a PQ motion to support the decision to bar the kirpan. We're disappointed that the wearing of the kirpan, which is a human rights issue, has been politicised," it said in a statement.

The vote represents a turn away from the values of tolerance and multiculturalism, said Balpreet Singh, WSO legal counsel. The four Sikhs, who were opposing the Bill 94 that bans the niqab in Quebec, had been last month invited to appear before a legislative committee debating the issue of reasonable accommodation of religious minorities. But the group never got through the metal detectors at the entrance of the National Assembly building as the head of security ruled the kirpans they carried were a potential weapon.

In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada had ruled that the kirpan, which Sikhs wrap in fabric under their clothing, is not a weapon but a religious symbol, like a crucifix. Louise Beaudoin, the Parti Quebecois member for Montreal's Rosemont riding who presented the motion requesting the government to prevent Sikhs from carrying their ceremonial daggers into the National Assembly building, told reporters she did so because provincial Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil remained neutral on the kirpan ban. Beaudoin said she wanted to know where Weil stands on the issue of security versus religious freedom. She said the Sikhs should have been ready to make an accommodation by checking their kirpans with assembly security. "Frankly, they could have made an effort to respect our institutions and our values," she said.

Beaudoin said multiculturalism is a Canadian value, not a Quebec value. Weil said assembly constables were acting within their jurisdiction in asking the four Sikhs last month to check their kirpans. "We are all agreed," the minister said.

While the PQ wants the government to adopt a law banning all ostentatious religious signs, ending the case-by-case process of granting reasonable accommodations for religious differences, Weil said her Bill 94, dealing solely with Islamic face coverings, such as the niqab or burqa, is "common sense." She noted that opinion polls showed 95 per cent support in Quebec and 80 per cent in the rest of Canada for her position.

Carole Poirier, the PQ legislator for Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, said banning the kirpan was justified by the May 8, 1984, shooting spree, when Denis Lortie, a former Canada army corporal, armed with two machine guns, burst into the assembly building, killing three people and wounding 13 others.

"Are we going to allow the Supreme Court of Canada to dictate to us," Poirier asked. The WSO has sent letters and education material on the kirpan to the National Assembly's Sergeant at Arms Jean-Francois Roberge, as well as Premier Jean Charest and Minister Kathleen Weil, inviting them to discuss concerns about the article of faith that Sikh men and women wear.