QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC–(Jan. 18, 2011) – Today the World Sikh Organization of Canada was excluded from the Quebec National Assembly and prevented from speaking in favour of religious accommodation for veiled Muslim women because the Sikhs also wear articles of faith the Assembly has prohibited in its government buildings. WSO was scheduled to make a presentation on Bill 94 which would deny essential government services, public employment, educational opportunities and health care to individuals who wear facial coverings.
The WSO’s team was excluded from the hearing before the Committee on Institutions because they wear the Kirpan, a Sikh article of faith that resembles a small stylized sword. It is secured in its case and worn under clothing, fastened into a cloth belt. The Sikh faith requires initiated men and women to wear the Kirpan at all times.
Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the WSO, said the group was given conflicting information about whether the Kirpan could be worn to the hearing. The Kirpan is accommodated in the Canadian Parliament, Supreme Court of Canada and even in security-conscious international events like the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
“The National Assembly has no written rules or policies regarding the Kirpan, and we can’t even find out who is making the decision to exclude us,” Mr. Singh said, explaining that if their members cannot wear the Kirpan, they cannot attend the hearing.
The irony of the situation isn’t lost on members of the WSO and Mr. Singh adds there’s a further irony in the fact that the Sikh faith expressly forbids women adopting veils. Sikhs emphasize equality for women.
“But the tenets of the Sikh faith also teach us to strive for justice and equality for everyone. Freedom of religion may be enshrined in Canada’s Charter, but that’s meaningless unless we all stand up to protect the rights of religious minorities – especially when we disagree with their beliefs.”
Mr. Singh notes that Bill 94′s widespread ban on the veil, which prevents women accessing any government service while wearing a niqab, is discrimination.
“We doubt it would stand a Charter challenge, since there is a duty to accommodate religious beliefs. It’s one thing to require women to show their faces for airport security, or at the voting booth. But it is just mean-spirited discrimination to prevent a woman from using a library because she is veiled. That interferes with Muslim women’s right to participate in the community.”
The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) is a non-profit organization with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of the Sikh Diaspora, as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights for all individuals, irrespective of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and social and economic status.