The ongoing battle for cultural accommodation loses two skirmishes

Regular readers may recall last month’s discussion over the kirpan, a piece of Sikh religious iconography that has been the subject of recent debate in the Quebec legislature:

While it would be a complete failure on our part to refuse to recognize the impact on the Sikh community (as a manifestation of privilege) of such a ban, we also must respect the fact that Canada is a secular nation, meaning that religious symbols are not to be given any kind of legal standing.

Finding equally compelling arguments on both sides of the issue, I was forced to swallow the bitter pill of compromise and suggest that a reasonable accommodation would be to allow kirpans that could not be used as weapons – either because they were locked or because they were too small (some are worn like lockets around the neck and are less than an inch long). I dislike advocating compromise, because it is usually a sign that both sides have given up trying to convince the other and are trying to get out of the room in time for lunch. In this case, I found myself stuck between two secular principles and unable to arbitrarily pick a side.

It seems that the Quebec legislature suffers from no such quandary:

Quebec’s governing Liberals voted in favour of an opposition motion to ban ceremonial daggers from the provincial legislature. The Parti Québécois tabled its motion Wednesday — requesting the government prevent Sikhs from carrying their ceremonial daggers into the national assembly building — and the legislature voted unanimously in favour.

The Opposition PQ was more strident and applauded the building’s security details, while stressing the party’s view that multiculturalism is a Canadian but not a Quebec value. PQ MNA Louise Beaudoin urged Sikhs to make a “little bit of an effort” and demanded the Liberal government clarify its position on religious objects in the legislature.

It’s nice to see that despite our differences, lawmakers can all agree that there is no room for accommodation of any of those weird foreign practices. Certainly no middle ground to be found between respecting individual freedoms and the secular nature of the state – that would be ridiculous.

Sikhs, predictably, are unhappy with the ruling:

The World Sikh Organization of Canada is disappointed with the Quebec national assembly’s decision to ban Sikhs from wearing a kirpan in the legislature. Arguing that multiculturalism is under threat, Canadian Sikhs pointed out that the Supreme Court of Canada decided in 2006 that the ceremonial dagger, traditionally worn underneath the clothing, is an article of faith — not a weapon.

While I sympathize with their feelings on this issue, I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever someone tries to claim that the kirpan isn’t a weapon. It is true that the religious dictates requiring Sikhs to wear kirpans do not require them to be viable as weapons, but to say that the kirpan isn’t designed with that purpose in mind is willful ignorance masquerading as tolerance. The question is whether or not the religious belief surrounding the weapon allows it to be exempted, under the assumption that nobody will ever use it for violence. That would be a stupid decision made for a stupid reason.

There have been accusations of racism/xenophobia that accompany this decision, and for the most part I tend to agree. There have been exactly zero incidents of someone being attacked in the Quebec legislature by a kirpan, so passing a law that bans them isn’t motivated by self-preservation so much as the wish to make a statement that people who look and behave different must fall in line. Again, I think a reasonable accommodation could have been made here, and failing to pursue that (with a unanimous decision it’s hard to argue otherwise) is strongly suggestive to me of a pervasive attitude that precludes the idea of accommodation.

This issue of religious behaviour functioning in secular society may become the defining issue of our discourse in the next little while. With the Supreme Court wrangling over the constitutionality of bans on polygamy, the Ontario provincial court grappling with veils on testifying witnesses, and now the kirpan issue, can we throw one more log on the fire?

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says a private members bill that would force people to show their faces when they vote is “reasonable.” A Quebec Conservative backbencher, Steven Blaney, rekindled the debate over veiled voters on Friday with the tabling of a bill that critics decry as an attempt to divide the electorate.

It is tempting to try and weigh the merits of this kind of issue and try to figure out if it is indeed reasonable. I would argue that asking someone to identify themselves in order to vote is very reasonable, and if that cannot be done by means of facial identification and there is no other alternative, requiring someone to show their face is perfectly fine. However, such a view of this issue ignores the real purpose – this is simply an attempt to find wedge issues in anticipation of an upcoming election. Unless there is a suspicion that voter fraud is happening at such a level that national-level legislation needs to be enacted, then this is simply an argument for argument’s sake. It’s a typical tactic of the Harper government that is about as transparent as it is utterly meaningless.

However, there is a larger point to be gleaned in all of this. Canada has to decide how it wants to define itself – as a rigidly secular nation where immigrants have to learn to adopt our customs, or as a place where accommodations are made as often as possible to ensure that everyone feels welcome. Both of these approaches have their merits, but I’m more optimistic about the second one working out as a long-term strategy.

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  1. says

    I am going to take a wild guess, but I don’t think the kirpan is permitted to be carried while flying. Also, I remember hearing about a school district that permitted a student to carry one at school so long as it was welded shut. I am not sure which province that was in.

  2. Autumn says

    Was the ban on specifically kirpans or ceremonial weapons?

    Would a small, dull, kirpan worn about the neck, as you said, only an inch long, really be considered a weapon?

    Similar to laws that state one cannot carry concealed knives but also defines knives as having a blade over some per-determined length. Pocket knives are legal to carry, not meeting the minimum length.

  3. says

    I don’t think it was so specific as to say kirpans were banned but other ceremonial weapons were okay. Unless Quebec experiences a large influx of tribal Samoans, I can’t think of how this isn’t simply a de facto kirpan ban though.

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