CTV: Sikhs wearing kirpans denied entry to National Assembly

The four Sikhs then left the building, saying they would try to reschedule their presentation to the committee, and urged the National Assembly to create rules regarding the kirpan.

"The accommodation exists at the Parliament of Canada, at the Supreme Court of Canada," and other places, said Balpreet Singh, the WSO's legal counsel.

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QUEBEC CITY

— Four Sikhs were denied entry into Quebec's National Assembly Tuesday that served as a flashpoint in the province's emotional debate about multiculturalism.

Security officials at the legislature refused to let them in because they were wearing kirpans, small stylized daggers worn by some religious Sikhs.

The two men and two women, members of the World Sikh Organization, were asked to leave their kirpans at the door. They refused, saying the religious knives could not simply be checked.

The four Sikhs then left the building, saying they would try to reschedule their presentation to the committee, and urged the National Assembly to create rules regarding the kirpan.

"The accommodation exists at the Parliament of Canada, at the Supreme Court of Canada," and other places, said Balpreet Singh, the WSO's legal counsel.

Planned to attend hearing on niqab

The timing of the incident was laden with symbolism.

The visitors had planned to attend legislative hearings into a bill that would set some limits on religious practices -- namely, denying government services to Muslim women with covered faces.

The Sikhs were planning to meet members of the committee analyzing Bill 94, a law under consideration that would affect how a niqab is worn in Quebec.

If passed, women wearing a face covering could not be employed by the government, and could be denied access to health care, schools, and other government services.

The Sikhs said that, while their own religion forbids covering women's faces, they planned to speak out against the bill anyway, in the name of religious tolerance.

Debate over kirpan dates back years

The debate over reasonable accommodations has often focused on Muslim women's face-coverings and where they should be banned. But it arguably began years ago with a controversy over a boy who wasn't allowed to wear his kirpan at school.

In that case, the Supreme Court of Canada finally ruled 8-0 that a total ban of the kirpan in schools violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it infringed on religious freedom. However, in that same 2006 decision, the court also allowed school boards to impose some restrictions in the name of public safety.

Nationalist commentators have, during Quebec's ongoing debate, taken shots at the Canadian Charter of Rights and accused it of ramming excessive political correctness down Quebecers' throats.

The Parti Quebecois has increasingly championed that theme under Pauline Marois. On Tuesday, the party expressed little sympathy for the spurned visitors.

"They could make a little bit of an effort, frankly,'' said Louise Beaudoin, who is the PQ's appointed critic for the issue of secularism.

"I think a lot of the onus is being placed on us, telling us how we have to accept this and that. It seems to me a different question should be asked and it should be asked of the people who absolutely insist on wearing either the burqa or the niqab, or the kirpan in the national assembly.''

Pluralism a key value in Quebec: Weil

In discussing Tuesday's incident, Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil referred cautiously to "pluralism'' and "openness'' as key values within Quebec society.

As for the security that barred the visitors, Weil avoided taking a position and said, "each institution has its rules. The airports, courthouses are all dealing with these kinds of questions.'' She added that she would read the brief that the Sikh organization had prepared for the hearing.

Legislature officials say the group of Sikh visitors had informed them a day earlier of their intention to bring the kirpans and were duly warned that they would not be allowed on the premises.

A similar situation last year resulted in a different outcome.

Last February, a group of about 20 Sikhs visiting the assembly had agreed to leave their daggers at the door. One member of the group left his larger dagger behind and continued wearing a tinier one, and was subsequently escorted around the building by security.

- with files from The Canadian Press


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