The kirpan decision isn't welcome in Quebec


The Supreme Court of Canada decision allowing Montrealer Gurbaj Singh Multani to attend school with a kirpan (a ceremonial dagger that orthodox Sikhs consider part of their religion) raised a storm in Quebec -- and for good reason. In a country where little old ladies cannot board an airplane with a small pair of manicure scissors, being allowed to bring a dagger into school seems, to say the least, illogical.
Of course, there is little chance that young Multani or other religious Sikhs would use their kirpan as a weapon, but their daggers could be stolen by other students. The Supreme Court, following a lower court's earlier judgment, dealt with the argument about security by micromanaging the issue: The kirpan should be put in an envelope sewn into the student's clothes.
In any case, this is beside the point. Little old ladies' manicure scissors pose no risk either, especially when they are in a cosmetic bag placed in a suitcase that is itself stored in an overhead baggage compartment.
The point is that in Canada, there are laws and regulations preventing the carrying of weapons and possibly offensive objects in airplanes and schools, and these laws should be respected by all.
There is a reasonable limit to the extent that Canada should accommodate religious rights. (Incidentally, most religious Sikhs do not wear, and do not claim the right to wear, a real kirpan and opt for a small symbolic representation of the dagger.)
A degree of common sense should be used by the courts. Otherwise, why not allow fundamentalist Muslims to slit the throat of sheep in the middle of the street, as they ritually do in Muslim countries to celebrate the sacred day of Eid al-Adha? Or should streets be closed to traffic on Shabbat in the districts where the Hasidim are concentrated? Should creationism be taught in public schools to accommodate fundamentalist Christians? I'm not exaggerating. After all, didn't Ontario come within an inch of allowing sharia-based civil courts to deal with family issues? And aren't some Toronto academics seriously talking about the possibility of legalizing polygamy in order to accommodate some religious groups?
There should be a rational way of balancing individual religious rights with the mainstream values of a secular society whose main pillar is the separation of church and state. There should be a middle way between, for instance, the overly rigid French model, that forbids students to wear hijabs, kippahs or prominent crucifixes in public schools, and the Canadian model, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum. As it is taking form through a series of Charter decisions, it is about to become a case of multiculturalism gone mad.
Here's a proposal for what kind of head dress should be allowed in public schools. Why not make a distinction between students, who represent nobody but themselves, and teachers, who represent the moral authority of the state and act as role models?
Students should be allowed, as indeed they are in North America and most anglophone countries, to wear whatever religious symbols they want, unless it goes against decency or security regulations. The same shouldn't go, though, for public school teachers, policemen, RCMP officers, judges, Crown prosecutors and so on. People fulfilling these roles are representatives of the state and should not only be clearly neutral, but they should also appear to be. In this sense, a student should be allowed to wear a Sikh turban, but an RCMP officer should not, because the neutrality of the state and its institutions is the best way to guarantee to every citizen freedom of thought and religion.
Quebeckers might be especially sensitive to this issue, because they have experienced for many generations the oppressive power of religion.
Because of their past -- and also because they are closer to France -- they embrace the concept of a secular state more vividly than other Canadians, and this is why they are unable to swallow the Supreme Court decision about the kirpan.

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