Ottawa (May 19, 2021): The World Sikh Organization of Canada has written to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Education Minister Sarah Mitchell, after the province announced a ban on the wearing of kirpans in schools. The move followed a violent incident that took place in a Sydney high school earlier this month involving a kirpan.
The WSO provided information on the significance of the kirpan and has called on Premier Berejiklian to immediately rescind the ban, calling the move “knee-jerk” and “misguided” and having the potential to contribute to negative stereotypes and discrimination against the Sikh community.
The WSO has offered the Canadian experience with respect to the accommodation of the kirpan as a successful model that can be used to develop a kirpan policy in NSW that balances students’ freedom to practice their faith and any safety concerns.
The full letter is reproduced below:
The Hon. Gladys Berejiklian, MP
Premier of NSW
52 Martin Place
SYDNEY NSW 2000, Australia
Dear Premier Berejiklian,
Re: Sikh Community & Banning of the Kirpan
I am writing to you on behalf of the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO). The WSO is a Canadian advocacy and human rights organization with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs, as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights for all individuals.
We are writing to express our concern over recent developments with respect to the Sikh community and the banning of the kirpan in schools in New South Wales. It was announced by NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell that the kirpan would be banned in schools pending a policy review.
Given the significant Sikh population in NSW, we are concerned about the negative impact this will have on the community there.
While the incident that led to the announcement of this ban was highly unfortunate, the decision to ban the kirpan appears to be a knee-jerk reaction that is not based on an accurate understanding or facts about this article of faith.
The kirpan is a small sword that represents the duty to stand up against injustice. The word kirpan means grace and respect and the kirpan is worn by initiated (Amritdhari) Sikhs, both men and women, at all times. The kirpan is one of five articles of faith, often called the 5Ks. Sikhs wear them as a reminder of their commitment to the tenets of their faith including justice, charity, morality, humility, and equality.
Kirpans must be made of iron or steel and most range in size from 15 to 22 cm (6-9 inches including handle). Some have elegant, ornate hilts and sheaths. They must be wrapped in fabric held securely in place with a fabric belt (called a gaatra). The gaatra is worn across the torso, keeping the kirpan next to the body.
The kirpan is worn as a spiritual article of faith and should not be seen as a ‘weapon’. There are many implements we encounter in daily life, including in schools, that can potentially be used as a weapon. There have been many instances of instruments such as pens and pencils being used to stab others. Other items such as scissors, baseball or cricket bats and forks are commonly found in schools but are not inherently considered weapons or dangerous. We assume these tools will be used for their intended purpose, and we don’t assume students with access to these items are a danger. If an incident does occur involving these items, individuals involved are held accountable.
What prevents Sikhs using an article of faith for violence is that very faith, coupled with the same social customs that we all observe. Of all the blades used in daily life, kirpans are the least hazardous because they are sacred: they come with a philosophy that is an integral part of how Sikhs practise their faith. It’s not just a talisman or a piece of jewellery. Removing the kirpan is a serious matter for Sikhs. It is done rarely and only under extreme circumstances – Sikhs even wear the kirpan while sleeping and bathing. Parting with this article of faith, even briefly, requires prayer.
We understand that the violent incident that prompted the announcement of the ban of the kirpan is being seriously dealt with by the local Sikh community. While such an incident is shocking, it is highly unusual and not something that has occurred with any frequency in schools. We understand that the incident also involved persistent bullying which we believe also must be addressed.
The accommodation of the kirpan in schools is an issue that has received intense legal scrutiny here in Canada and was the subject of significant jurisprudence. The matter was eventually heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Multani case (Singh-Multani c. Marguerite-Bourgeoys (Commission scolaire), 2006 SCC 6, 2006). In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that the wearing of the kirpan must be accommodated in schools and that any assertion that the kirpan is a weapon is “contradicted by the evidence regarding the symbolic nature of the kirpan, it is also disrespectful to believers in the Sikh religion and does not take into account Canadian values based on multiculturalism.”
The kirpan is permitted in schools across Canada. Students may wear kirpans of a length of up to 7.5 inches underneath their clothing, secured in the sheath and further restrained in a gaatra belt. This accommodation allows Sikh students to freely practice their faith while also limiting any safety issues that may arise. This accommodation has been successfully applied for many years without incident.
We are concerned that the current rhetoric with respect to the kirpan is ill-advised and is leading to ignorance and xenophobia. Imposing a ban on this essential article of faith based on a single unfortunate incident is misguided. Sikhs are a highly visible minority and such decisions contribute to negative stereotypes and discrimination against the community.
We would encourage you to immediately rescind the ban on the kirpan and to engage with the Sikh community in finding a solution that permits Sikh students to freely practice their faith while addressing any safety concerns. The Canadian precedent would certainly be useful in this exercise and our organization would be pleased to assist in any capacity.
Tejinder Singh Sidhu
World Sikh Organization of Canada
c.c. Sarah Mitchell, Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning
The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) is a non-profit organization with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs, as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights for all individuals.