By Balpreet Singh, legal counsel WSO
Ever since I was denied entry to the Toronto courthouse on a high school class trip because of my kirpan, I’ve had in interest in human rights law and addressing the issues faced by Sikhs who wear their articles of faith. I’ve dealt with various issues over the years including restrictions on the kirpan on Via Rail and more recently at the Quebec National Assembly. Recently I had the opportunity to deal with a similar issue on Greyhound buses.
In March, I was scheduled to travel between Ottawa and Toronto on Greyhound. Before boarding at the Ottawa terminal, all passengers were required to be screened with a metal detector wand and have their carry-on luggage inspected. Upon approaching the security table, I informed the security guard that I was wearing a kirpan as per the requirements of my faith. Initially the security guard didn’t know what a kirpan was. When I explained the kirpan to him and showed him that I was wearing it underneath my clothes, he told me I would not be permitted to wear it on board. I politely informed him that the kirpan was permitted in places like the Parliament of Canada and VIA Rail trains and that it should be accommodated. After consulting with another security guard, the security guard explained that I would only be permitted to travel if the bus driver in his “discretion” allowed me to. Although I insisted that the accommodation of the kirpan was not optional or discretionary but a human rights issue, the attitude of the security guards was confrontational and rude and I didn’t see much point in arguing the issue further. I proceeded to board the bus (without waiting for the driver’s “discretion”) and fortunately, no further incident took place.
In October 2007, I had been involved in a similar incident at the Ottawa terminal when I was not permitted to board a bus due to the kirpan. Subsequently, the station manager apologized and assured me that such an incident would not be repeated and a memo on the accommodation of the kirpan would be issued to all staff and security. I was surprised that the security guards were still completely ignorant about the accommodation of the kirpan.
When incidents like this occur, in my experience, it’s often due to ignorance. I also wonder how someone who might not be as familiar with their rights might fare. A large part of my role at WSO is to make sure that the Sikh community knows their rights and when incidents like this take place, to ensure that are immediately addressed.
I wrote to Greyhound Canada about both the March incident and my experience in 2007 and recently received a response. Greyound has clarified that the kirpan is accommodated on Greyhound buses so long as it is “sheathed, worn underneath clothing, [and] not visible to other passengers.” I was provided with a copy of Greyhound’s kirpan policy which can be seen HERE.
Interestingly, Greyhound’s kirpan policy is dated October 11, 2007, which is exactly one week after my 2007 incident. It seems that the memo which had been promised to me was indeed issued at that time.
I was also assured by Greyhound that the incident had been investigated and the security contractors had been told to ensure that the kirpan policy was properly enforced.
A point to note in Greyhound’s kirpan policy is that the kirpan is in fact not accommodated on Greyhound buses in the USA. That’s something that perhaps our American friends need to address.
If you or anyone you know encounters discrimination due to the wearing of Sikh articles of faith please let WSO know and we’d be happy to assist.