The expression and protection of religious freedoms and the inclusivity of Sikh children in sports is imperative to Canadian democracy.
So, let’s see if we can square this circle: It’s safe for Sikh soldiers to wear turbans in the British and Canadian militaries. It’s safe for Sikh police officers to wear turbans in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But it’s unsafe for Sikh children to wear turbans on a soccer pitch in Quebec.
Could it be that Quebec religious head coverings are distinct? Are Quebec turbans, keskis and patkas (smaller turbans often worn by children) sentient, malicious and self-propelled, giving them the power to suddenly unravel, leap off a soccer player’s head and attack an opposing team member, like the killer rabbit in Monty Python?
But if that is a ridiculous proposition — which it seems it must be — then how can the Quebec Soccer Federation even begin to rationalize its ban on turbans, which it opted last weekend to uphold, despite a directive from the Canadian Soccer Association that it should do the reverse?
Answer: It can’t. The subtext is that it doesn’t have to, because many Quebecers will approve of the ban, whether quietly or vocally. Like bigotry since time immemorial, this relies on a collective wink and nudge, and the willingness of the majority to look the other way. The QSF deserves to be mocked from the rooftops. Leading that charge should be the left-leaning, socially progressive idealists in Quebec’s Parti Quebecois government. Where are they?
The Harper government is speaking up: Parm Gill, MP for Brampton-Springdale, denounced the ban Monday. Bal Gosal, Minister of State for Sport, did so in the House of Commons Tuesday. Good. Where are the Liberals and New Democrats?
Many will remember the case of Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Malaysian-born Sikh who emigrated to Canada in 1982. In the late 80s he applied to join the RCMP. He was told he met the entrance requirements, but would not be allowed to wear his turban on the job.
For an observant Sikh the turban is more than a head covering. Along with his uncut hair and beard it represents his devotion to God, and his commitment to being an upstanding person. That it must be worn at all times reflects a basic tenet of Sikhism, which is that God is in all things, always. Forced public removal of the turban is therefore a fundamental violation. It has been described by observant Sikhs as akin to being made to strip naked in public.
Dhillon fought the RCMP turban ban, eventually taking his case to Norman Inkster, the force’s commissioner of the day. Inkster agreed with Dhillon, in the process igniting a fierce national debate. At issue was whether a cherished national symbol, the Mounties’ Stetson, should be set aside for the sake of an individual recruit’s religion. In 1990 the Mulroney government reversed the old policy, allowing turbans.
An almost identical debate occurred last year in Britain, after a young member of the Scots Guards – that is the famous bearskin-hatted unit that ceremonially guards the Queen – asked to wear a black turban, rather than the bearskin, while on duty. Amid much debate, the request by Jatinderpal Singh Bhullar was approved. It would have been difficult for the British military to do otherwise, given that Sikh British soldiers fought valiantly in both world wars, wearing turbans.
Those discussions, like the one taking place now in Quebec over children’s soccer, had at their heart the question of “reasonable accommodation.” They were different from the Quebec case, however, in their honesty: Opponents were frank about their motivation. In Quebec, by contrast, the QSF is hiding behind what it apparently considers to be a fig leaf; safety. “We don’t know if there have been accidents due to wearing the turban,” QSF director general Brigitte Frot was quoted by La Presse as saying. “We don’t know if it’s dangerous, and that’s why we’re banning it.” As well as stating a controversial statement, "They can play in their backyard, but not with official referees, not in the official rules of soccer." Frot replied.
This is, of course, egregiously, gloriously idiotic. In citing safety, the QSF points to rules set by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. But FIFA’s rule four, governing equipment and clothing, explicitly allows flexibility, at the officials’ discretion. “All items of clothing or equipment other than the basic equipment must be inspected by the referee and determined not to be dangerous,” the rule states. “Modern protective equipment such as headgear, facemasks, and knee and arm protectors made of soft, lightweight padded material are not considered dangerous and are therefore permitted.”
In other words: If a youngster wishes to wear a facemask, which by definition must be resistant, and could therefore conceivably injure another player in a collision (however unlikely that may be), it can be allowed, at the referee’s discretion. But a neatly tied turban, keski or patka is a bridge too far.
This decision is not only unjust to Sikh Canadians, and on its face a clear violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is also stupid – shamefully, transparently stupid. It should be denounced by every fair-minded person and rescinded without delay.