Posted on January 20, 2011

Bloc Proposal to Ban Sikh Kirpans in Parliament Called ‘Un-Canadian’

Mike De Souza, National Post (Toronto), January 19, 2011

Renewed calls for a ban on religious ceremonial daggers and accusations of intolerance have spilled onto Parliament Hill Wednesday in the aftermath of an incident involving a group that was turned away from Quebec’s national assembly.

The controversy was ignited after four Sikhs were denied entry into the Quebec legislature on Tuesday for carrying a kirpan, a religious object that is routinely carried by MPs such as Liberal Navdeep Bains.

Ironically, the group was invited to speak about reasonable accommodation for cultural beliefs at hearings on provincial legislation that would ban religious garments from covering the face of people receiving such government-paid services as education and health care.

After the Parti Quebecois praised the actions of security workers at the national assembly, the party’s sovereignist cousins in the Bloc Quebecois went a step farther, proposing Wednesday that federal Parliament buildings should adopt similar policies.

“The national assembly’s decision to prevent access to people carrying the kirpan is completely legitimate,” said Bloc whip Claude DeBellefeuille in a statement. “It’s a justified decision, and it’s maybe time for Parliament to adopt similar rules.”

The kirpan is a 15-centimetre dagger that is considered by religious Sikhs to be an object of faith and not a weapon.

Mr. Bains, the Liberal MP for Mississauga-Brampton South, has been wearing one in the House of Commons for more than six years since he was elected in 2004. He said he was “frustrated” by the attitude of the sovereignists, calling on other parties to show more leadership.

“I’ve worn my kirpan to the Supreme Court, I’ve even gone to the U.S. Congress and met with officials there and had no problems. So I don’t see what the issue is,” Mr. Bains said in an interview from Miramichi, N.B., where he attended an event with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. “I’ve been born and raised in this country. . . . I think they need to rethink this issue and they need to understand it, and not just quickly jump on the bandwagon and isolate any one minority for any political purposes.”

A Bloc spokeswoman, Isabelle Monette, said that Mr. DeBellefeuille did not have anything more to add and declined a request for an interview to explain the comments. Ms. Monette explained that Mr. DeBellefeuillle would raise the issue at the Board of Internal Economy, a secretive all-party House of Commons governing body that handles financial and administrative matters and services in Parliament for MPs and staff.

Mr. Bains said the Bloc was using reasonable accommodation as a guise for promoting intolerance.

“I believe that the politics of fear is taking over now,” he said. “They’re trying to plant a seed of confusion and distort the truth to play on this fear that people have and I don’t think that’s the way we need to deal with this. It’s very un-Canadian.”

The federal Conservatives and New Democrats both dismissed suggestions that there were security concerns, but unlike Mr. Bains, they had no criticism aimed at the Bloc. Instead, they both referred that matter to the House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms, who handles security matters.

“The Quebec national assembly sets its own security policies,” wrote Alykhan Velshi, director of communications for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, in a short email to Postmedia News. “Parliament of Canada security accommodates Sikhs who carry a kirpan, including members of Parliament from several parties.”

NDP MP and party whip Yvon Godin added that he had confidence in security officials at Parliament, explaining that it was up to them to make those types of decisions.

Mr. Bains suggested that the Conservative and NDP position should do more to clarify confusion in the debate.

“I think it’s important that they take this opportunity to take on a leadership role and demonstrate very clearly that this is not a security issue, that a kirpan is not a weapon, and that there has been numerous examples cited in the past, especially in the Canadian context, where people have been able to wear the kirpan and it has not been an issue,” Mr. Bains said.

In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 8-0 that Gurbaj Singh Multani, a student in Montreal’s LaSalle borough could wear a kirpan to school, that it was not a weapon and barring it would violate charter guarantees of freedom of religion.

Conservative MP, Tim Uppal, a Sikh who represents the Alberta riding of Edmonton-Sherwood Park, was not immediately available for comment. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office also did not respond to a request for comment.