As It Happens

World Sikh Organization welcomes Canadian decision to allow small kirpans on flights

New Transport Canada regulations will allow blades of six centimetres or less on on domestic and international flights, except to the U.S.
Kirpans are ceremonial daggers worn by Sikhs. As of Nov. 27, they will be permitted on most flights out of Canada, so long as they are shorter than six centimetres. The dagger that is pictured here would not be permitted as it's too large. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Story transcript

The World Sikh Organization is welcoming new Canadian regulations that will allow Sikhs to wear small ceremonial daggers on most flights.

Transport Canada announced that, as of Nov. 27, it will update its Prohibited Items List to allow for blades of six centimetres or less (much smaller than the dagger pictured) on all domestic and international flights, except to the U.S. 

The new rules mean Sikhs can travel with a kirpan — a ceremonial blade that is worn sheathed and underneath clothing — so long as it's small enough to meet the requirements. 

"This isn't really a change based on religious accommodation," Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization (WSO), told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It's a change that brings Canada in line with international standards."

Balpreet Singh of the World Sikh Organization was once kicked off a train in Ottawa because he was wearing a kirpan. (Submitted by Balpreet Singh)

The new rules bring Canada in line with the International Civil Aviation Organization, a Transport Canada spokesperson told As It Happens.

Razor blades and box cutters of any size remain banned.

The new rules also prohibit more than 350 millimetres of certain powders and granular materials, such as baby powder or bath salts, from being taken through screening checkpoints in Canada.

"The safety and security of Canadians, the travelling public, and the transportation system are Transport Canada's top priorities," Transport Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement.

"These changes to screening procedures will bring Canada in line with international standards and our partner countries, while continuing to keep passengers safe. The Government of Canada remains vigilant in continuously assessing security risks."

What is a kirpan?

The kirpan is one of five articles of the Sikh faith. Devout Sikhs wear them at all times, sheathed and in a fabric belt holder, underneath their clothes.

It is not considered a weapon by Sikhs, but rather a symbolic reminder to stand up against injustice for righteousness, Singh said.

They were first banned for most air travel after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. 

 'It's not worn as a weapon and we don't see it as one.'- Balpreet Singh, World Sikh Organization 

"The Sikh community went with that change and we respected the security conditions at that time and we said, 'OK, Sikhs that want to travel by air will have to check their kirpans,'" Singh said.

"But I guess the government has now recognized that small blades really aren't an issue and Sikhs who wish to travel with the kirpan can do so, as long as it's under six centimetres."

Kirpans in Canada

Kirpans have long been a source of controversy in Canada, a fact that Singh is all too familiar with. 

In 2007, when he was still a law student, Singh won a human rights settlement against Via Rail after he was kicked off a train in Ottawa for wearing his kirpan.

"Every single passenger in first class gets a steak knife to eat their meal," he said. "Why would my kirpan be any more dangerous than a knife that every passenger is getting?" 

In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a Quebec school board's ban on kirpans in the classroom.

The daggers are now allowed in most places that don't permit weapons — including Parliament buildings and some courthouses — but are still banned in the Quebec legislature. 

Montreal teenager Gurbaj Singh Multani is embraced by members of the Sikh community in the rotonda of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on March 2, 2006. Multani successfully challenged a Quebec school board's kirpan ban. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Ultimately, Singh said, the fight for the right to wear a kirpan is not about changing rules and regulations, so much as changing hearts and minds. 

"Similarly with Via Rail, if you have a hockey player comes on with their hockey skates, no one looks at that person with any suspicion and there's no malice understood on that person's part. But, I mean, let's face it, a guy with a turban and a beard coming on with what appears to be a quote-unquote knife is going to raise some concerns," he said.

"So for us, it's been question of raising awareness of the fact that, hey, Sikh men and women wear the kirpan, it's not worn as a weapon and we don't see it as one."