Ban kirpan from Parliament: Bloc

An emotionally charged debate over multiculturalism that has raged in Quebec in recent years has landed on the national stage and it centres on a ceremonial dagger worn by Sikhs.

Bloc Québécois call to ban Sikh dagger called 'fear-mongering' by Liberal MP

An emotionally charged debate over multiculturalism that has raged in Quebec in recent years has landed on the national stage and it centres on a ceremonial dagger worn by Sikhs.

Some men in the Sikh religion wear the kirpan, which is kept against the skin, under their clothing. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters))
MPs face a demand to ban the kirpan, which is worn at all times by at least one Ontario MP.

The discussion is being spurred by the Bloc Québécois, which promised Wednesday to take up the issue with the House of Commons' all-party decision-making body.

That announcement came one day after a headline-grabbing move by security guards at the Quebec legislature to deny entry to four Sikhs because some were carrying kirpans.

That incident became a flashpoint in the province's so-called "reasonable accommodation" debate, an ongoing discussion about where to draw the line on minority rights.

That issue has already been the topic, in Quebec, of impassioned public hearings that led to the government tabling legislation in the form of Bill 94.

The provincial bill would deny government services to Muslim women wearing face-coverings, but the Parti Québécois opposition wants it to go further and regulate kirpans.

Some commentators in English Canada expressed bafflement over this week's incident at the Quebec legislature. But commentary in the province has been almost universally positive, with some flashes of annoyance at the complaints from English Canada.

The Bloc Québécois wasted no time taking up the issue. The party released a statement applauding the previous day's move and announcing it would push the matter in Ottawa.

"It was a well-founded decision [in Quebec] and it is perhaps time that Parliament adopt similar rules," the Bloc's whip, Claude DeBellefeuille, said in a statement.

"It's not a debate about religious symbols or a social debate above and beyond that," she later told The Canadian Press. "It is really a security question and we have to look again at our practices."

Taking sides

The issue hits close to home for one Liberal MP who wears the kirpan in the Commons. Mississauga-Brampton South MP Navdeep Bains accused the Bloc of seeking to make cheap political gains from the controversy.

Fellow Liberals applaud Mississauga-Brampton South MP Navdeep Bains, centre, in the House of Commons in 2007. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))
"I think it's fear-mongering at its best," Bains said.

"There is no real reason to bring this issue up now. I've been wearing a kirpan since 2004 and they have never raised this as a cause of concern."

The reaction from other federal parties, however, was more muted. The Conservative government and the NDP refused to take a public position in the dispute.

"Specific questions on the security of the House of Commons should be directed to the sergeant-at-arms," said Alykhan Velshi, spokesman for Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney.

In an almost identical statement, the NDP said it has full confidence in the House's sergeant-at-arms and security staff.

Aside from Bains, there are at least two other practising Sikhs in the Commons, though it's not clear whether the others wear the ceremonial kirpans.

As federal politicians cautiously sought to position themselves on the emerging debate, commentary was exercised in the media and in cyberspace Wednesday.

An editorial in one national newspaper accused the legislature of "failing to live up to its obligation" to promote the widest possible participation in the democratic process. But the comments from readers were widely supportive of the legislature's decision, with many heartily applauding the Bloc.

Meanwhile, Quebec's chattering class circled the wagons.

Mario Dumont, who once led the populist Action Démocratique du Québec, said on a radio show that such editorials were yet another example of "Quebec-bashing" from the rest of Canada.

One of the most popular bloggers in the province, La Presse's Patrick Lagace, accused the critics of unfairly tarring Quebecers as "bigots," "closed to other cultures," and "slightly backwards."

This flare-up over the kirpan rehashes an issue that many thought settled in a 2006 Supreme Court decision.

The court ruled unanimously that a total ban of the kirpan in a Quebec school violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it infringed on religious freedoms.

However, in that same 2006 decision, the court allowed school boards to impose some restrictions in the name of public safety.