Ottawa , November 07, 2005
The Ottawa Citizen
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has condemned
Via Rail for barring Sikhs from wearing religious
daggers on its trains, pointing out that the railway's
professed safety concerns about kirpans do not stop
it from supplying first-class passengers with steak
Last week, the association wrote to Transport Minister
Jean Lapierre, accusing the Crown corporation of unjustifiably
violating the religious freedom of Balpreet Singh,
a 24-year-old law student from Ottawa, who was twice
ordered off trains recently after some passengers
complained they felt threatened by his kirpan.
A kirpan is a small, sheathed ceremonial dagger,
one of five religious articles orthodox Sikhs are
obliged to wear at all times.
"VIA seemed awfully selective in their concern
about safety," suggested Alan Borovoy, the association's
general counsel. "They apparently are blissfully
tolerant of hockey sticks, and baseball bats and skates,
and they give first-class passengers cutlery, including
knives," he observed. "Maybe they take the
position that the ability to buy the first-class fare
makes people more trustworthy and makes these passengers
a more acceptable risk?"
An estimated 45,000 of Canada's 300,000 Sikhs wear
kirpans, a symbol of their religious duty to defend
the weak and fight for justice.
The association's letter, faxed to Mr. Lapierre Thursday,
argues there is "no excuse" for the national
carrier to, in effect, bar thousands of people from
rail travel, and urges the transport minister to press
VIA to rescind the kirpan ban in favour of "a
more reasonable accommodation with its passengers."
The association suggests one safety measure might
include requiring kirpans to be sheathed in such a
way that they cannot readily be dislodged by their
The civil liberties group also noted that unlike
the airlines, which also ban "knife-like"
objects from their cabins, VIA does not screen all
the baggage its passengers carry aboard. "Thus
there is no protection against any one of a number
of potentially dangerous items that may accompany
a good many rail passengers," they contend.
A call to Mr. Lapierre's office was not returned
But VIA officials have explained that the national
rail carrier's security policy seeks only to ensure
its passengers' safety, and does not target Sikhs
or any other religious group. All weapons are banned
from its trains, including those "of a ceremonial
Federal regulations prohibit knives and knife-like
objects from airline cabins.
VIA is free to make its own policy, but there is
mounting pressure on the railway to revisit its kirpan
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Paul Martin's parliamentary
secretary, Navdeep Bains, a Sikh MP from Toronto who
wears his kirpan in the House of Commons, called VIA's
treatment of Mr. Singh last month "unfortunate
and unacceptable" and pledged to take the matter
up with Mr. Lapierre.
School authorities in British Columbia, Alberta and
Ontario permit students to wear kirpans. But a Quebec
ban was upheld last year by the Quebec Court of Appeal,
which ruled that despite its religious symbolism,
the ceremonial dagger is a "dangerous object"
that poses a risk to the security of students and