The politics behind Quebec's soccer turban ban

The Quebec Soccer Federation's ban on turbans had already been roundly criticized in the province for being insensitive and not well thought out, Michelle Gagnon writes. But once Premier Pauline Marois stepped into the fray, a new, more politicized game was afoot.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois. Looking for federal-provincial wedge issues?

Since assuming office last fall, Quebec's Pauline Marois and her minority government have been taken to task repeatedly for improvising and backtracking on some pretty big issues.

Their missteps have even made international headlines. First, last winter, when Quebec language police found "too much Italian" in an Italian restaurant menu, and now with the ban on turbans on Quebec soccer fields.

The debate began earlier this month when the Quebec Soccer Federation, the association responsible for organized leagues of all ages, banned Sikh headwear from its competitions.

The association cited safety concerns as its rather dubious justification; no dangers are known and none proven.

QSF director Brigitte Frot followed up with the suggestion that players left on the sidelines for sporting the headwear could play among themselves in their own backyards, adding, somewhat officiously, without the assistance of any official referees.

The ruling was controversial and criticized for being senseless, ridiculous and, some argued, outright prejudiced. But none of those objections seemed to matter to Premier Marois and the Parti Québécois this week.

On Monday, the Canadian Soccer Association gave the Quebec federation a dose of its own medicine, and suspended the provincial body. Until further notice, Quebec leagues will not be allowed to compete in any national tournaments.

But as the situation degenerated in the world of amateur sport, the premier saw a political opportunity. On Tuesday, Marois stepped into the breach and dug in the nationalist wedge.

"I believe the Quebec federation has the right to make its own rules," she said. "It's autonomous, it's not bound by the Canadian federation. In this regard, I support it in its orientations."

Bernard Drainville, the minister for democratic institutions and active citizenship, repeated the line. "It is not up to the Canadian association to decide what is going on Quebec soccer fields — this power belongs to the Quebec Soccer Federation."

The province's sports minister, Marie Malavoy, rather plaintively asked that Quebec just be left alone.

Backing the ban?

In all the political fuss, the premier and her ministers fell short of stating that they backed the turban ban per se. Though, effectively, that is what they did.

So, according to the government elected to represent all Quebecers, the decision to ban Sikhs from playing soccer in Quebec — because that is what it is — is worthy of support because it is a decision made in Quebec.

Aneel Samra, 18, plays with a soccer ball in his backyard in Montreal. Samra has not been able to play organized soccer this year due to his religious headgear. (Ryan Remiorz / Canadian Press)

It is ours to make, and we made it, so therefore it is good.

Along with the faulty logic, a few things feel off here.

First, the comments of Marois, Malavoy and Drainville speak to one of the inherent flaws of nationalist rhetoric: Quebecers don't live in a bubble.

Even if the made-at-home position was arguable or defendable on particular issues at certain points in the past, it seems increasingly weak in today's globalized societies.

What's more, federal and provincial soccer associations are affiliated throughout the country. Usually, Quebec soccer players would face Ontario soccer players in national tournaments.

Now, they won't. Until this issue is settled, Quebec children will only compete against Quebec children, and then only against some of them.

Quebec was the only province to balk at the national directive permitting Sikh headwear on the pitch. So why not take counsel from your partners?

Another thing that seems wrong here is taking advantage of a situation that primarily affects children to practice wedge politics.

It's a tactic employed by politicians of all stripes, but it is also classic PQ strategy, and it seems to have accomplished what it set out to once again.

In Ottawa, Conservative, Liberal, and NDP MPs stood up in Parliament and scrummed in the hallways, adding their voices to those decrying the Quebec Federation's decision.

A few calmer voices attempted to prevail, to try to figure out some sort of solution. But, so far, their call for dialogue has lost out to the budding federal-provincial tiff.

Finally, who ostensibly is being protected by this decision? And what exactly is being defended?

Identity politics

The most charitable answer is secularism. The longest and best-known chapter of Quebec's national narrative is about how Quebecers freed themselves from the yoke of the Catholic Church to become a modern secular society.

By almost any measure, Quebec is a very comfortable, liberal place that is often at the forefront on many progressive, social issues — as it looks to be again with its newly introduced dying-with-dignity bill.

But occasionally, and especially when identity issues come to the fore, the defense of secularism can feel as dogmatic as the Church once was.

One of the PQ's campaign promises is to enact a secular charter, not unlike what France legislated a few years ago.

The document would enshrine the secular nature of Quebec society, and, in the government's eyes, be a way of putting to rest many of the tensions of the relationship with its different ethnic groups. Others view this as a great way to polarize the province all over again.

But apart from that, it is one thing to try to regulate the public sphere, as France did by restricting religious clothing in public and administrative office, but kids' soccer pitch?

On Tuesday night, the Quebec Soccer Federation held an emergency meeting. Board members filed out, but had no comment for the cameras, other than to say that a final decision wouldn't be forthcoming for another 10 days.

Until then, the ban will be upheld. If nothing else, the delay may merit Quebec more international attention.


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.