Quebec: Zero-tolerance for tolerance
This post was written by MJ on 29th May 2002
Ignoring legal and political precedents in British Columbia and Ontario, provinces with Canada’s largest Sikh communities, Quebec Justice Minister Paul Bégin announced Monday his government will appeal the recent court ruling allowing South Shore pupil Gurbaj Singh to wear a kirpan to school.
“Maintaining security in school settings requires zero tolerance toward the bearing of bladed weapons,” he said in a statement.
It’s deja-vu all over again.
In 1988, a student and a teacher in the Peel Board of Education outside Toronto each complained the Board prohibited wearing a kirpan. Then, as now, the Board sought to frame the issue as simply and exclusively one of school safety. Then, as now, they were backed up by the non-Sikh community, ignorant of Sikh traditions, unwilling to accept a pluralistic society protects the right to differ.
Eventually, the federal minister of citizenship convened a Board of Inquiry under Dr Gunther Plaut who, after a review, found that during the 100 year history of Sikhs in Canada, a kirpan had never been used as a weapon and that the Peel Board regularly allowed violent students to remain in its schools. Plaut “found it incredible that ‘extraordinary’ measures are taken by the Board to integrate children with psychiatric problems into the system (by the hiring of assistants) and yet the same could not be done for Khalsa students. Furthermore, it was inconceivable that neighbouring jurisdictions which allowed Khalsa students to wear kirpans were significantly less violent environs.”
Their school safety argument thus undercut by their own policies, Plaut ordered the Peel Board to allow kirpan-wearing students to attend school but under some moderate restrictions. (A legal history of kirpans and turbans in Canada available here.)
Fast forward to today. Plaut’s compromise — kirpans should be small, must be worn under clothing, and should be difficult to remove — is almost exactly the same as the deal reached to allow Singh to return to school last month. So why is Quebec going to court to overturn this sensible, moderate decision?
Don McPherson argues in the Gaz the sinking PQ are looking to shore up their support amongst that enlightened part of the electorate who think the immigrant’s only job is to give up their culture and assimilate. If so, a final irony: Until last fall, Singh attended english school without incident; his parents switched him over to the Margeurite-Bourgeoys board so that Singh could learn french.