The Sunday Edition

Why are so many Canadians obsessed by what people put on their heads?: Michael's essay

Through Bill 21, Quebec is trying to stop some public employees from wearing religious symbols at work — a move the government insists is to ensure healthy secularism. But host Michael Enright argues it's nothing to applaud.
Quebec's Bill 21 proposes to ban some public servants from wearing religious symbols on the job. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The Sikh cabbie and I were having a chat when I suddenly wanted to ask him about his turban.

"How long is it, unraveled? How long does it take you to tie it up?"

"It's about 16 feet long," he replied, "and it takes five minutes to get it ready." Quite a feat of heady dexterity; it takes me nearly that to get my fedora settled just right.

I have been interested in the trials of the turban since the 1980s, when the good folk of the Royal Canadan Legion agreed to ban Sikh veterans from the premises unless they de-turbaned.

Apparently the rule was that no head coverings are allowed in Legion halls out of respect for the fallen.

The turban issue became a human rights thing and in 1993, the Legion reversed itself, allowing the turbans. And that was that.

Except it wasn't. Some nitwit in the Tignish Legion Branch on P.E.I. last year refused to allow a turbaned Sikh in unless he took it off. To a background of racist shouts, the young man refused. The manager later apologized.

Now turbans are part of the city landscape. They are everywhere, not only on cab drivers. Sikh cops and Mounties wear them; they look great.

Why are so many Canadians and some governments obsessed by what people put on their heads?

Not only obsessed, but offended.

Whether it's the niqab, the keffiyeh, the fez or the yarmulke, somebody somewhere will be offended.

I realize that, in many cases, head coverings are closely associated with the wearer's religion.

For example, the hijab. It is a veil or headscarf worn by some women who are Muslim, as a visible profession of their faith.

Yet this simple piece of clothing drives a lot of us crazy. Women have been spat upon, yelled at, threatened and punched.

It's not just in Canada. Jewish men in some European countries have been urged to wear baseball caps instead of the traditional kippa so they won't be attacked.

People hold up signs during a demonstration in Montreal on April 7 in opposition to the Quebec government's Bill 21. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Now, through the conveyance of Bill 21, the Quebec government is going into the business of telling its public servants what they may and may not wear when serving the public.

The government insists that to ensure a healthy secularism in Quebec, religious symbols have no place in its bureaucracy.

The policy will affect only new hires and will be applied to teachers, jail guards, Crown lawyers, cops, school principals and judges, among others.

The prime minister has called the legislation discrimination based on religion.

Religious leaders of all faiths have condemned Bill 21.

On the other side, some Montreal media outlets have praised the bill in language that is highly critical of Muslims.

Lawyers look at government actions and ask: Cui bono? Who benefits?

In the religious clothing debate, it is difficult to discern who benefits.

Any visitor to Montreal or Quebec City would be hard-pressed to find a decline in secularism.

The era of control of Quebec by the Catholic Church began to disappear in 1960 with the election of Jean Lesage as premier, and the start of the Quiet Revolution.

Quebec has always been, and I hope remains, a distinct society. It's the one cultural entity that makes us different from the Americans.

But we shouldn't applaud its latest distinction — that it might be the only jurisdiction anywhere that can deny you a job because of what you wear on your head.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.