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NRI, Sikh student wearing kirpan, ordered out of train by VIA Rail (1)

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Liberal MP calls VIA's banning of ceremonial sword 'unacceptable'
PM's parliamentary secretary to take up issue with transport minister

Ottawa, October 26, 2005
Mohammed Adam
The Ottawa Citizen

Prime Minister Paul Martin's parliamentary secretary has condemned VIA Rail for ordering a Sikh student off a train for wearing a ceremonial sword, or kirpan, saying he intends to take the matter up with Transport Minister Jean Lapierre.

Navdeep Bains, an Ontario Sikh and MP for Mississauga-Brampton South, said yesterday he also plans to raise the incident with VIA Rail executives and the board of directors.

Mr. Bains noted that he wears the kirpan in the House of Commons without any problem and is disappointed that a Crown corporation, such as VIA, would order a man out of a train for wearing an article of religious significance. "It is unfortunate and it is unacceptable. It is disappointing to see an institution like VIA Rail taking a position like this, because you expect better from them," Mr. Bains said.

"I want to make sure that the appropriate authorities that I am aware of -- ultimately the transport minister -- are brought up to speed on this. The management of VIA Rail and the board of directors have accountability on this particular issue and I'll probably communicate in an appropriate fashion with them."

Controversy over kirpans, long a subject of debate and litigation in the courts, erupted once again after University of Ottawa law student Balpreet Singh was taken off a train twice in a month after someone complained that he had a weapon. His explanation that the kirpan is a religious symbol worn by baptized Sikhs wasn't acceptable to VIA officials, who took him off a train once in Toronto and last Friday in Ottawa.

A VIA spokeswoman said the company prohibits all kinds of weapons from its trains and the kirpan falls under a ban on weapons that includes "collectibles, antiques and those of a ceremonial nature." VIA said the ban is in the larger interest of public safety and security.

Mr. Bains acknowledged that public safety is of paramount importance to Canadians, but said people ought to know the difference between a weapon and the Sikh religious artifact. In a democracy, every effort should be made to strike a balance between public safety and religious freedom to make sure people's rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are respected. After more than 100 years in Canada, Mr. Bains said the incident shows that Sikhs still have a major task of educating Canadians and the likes of VIA Rail about their religion.

"Public safety is always an important part of sound public policy, but I think it has been demonstrated, through various cases, that there should be a balance with respect to articles of faith," he said.

"At the end of the day, the issue is very clear -- Balpreet poses no threat. He is simply practising his beliefs and it is important for VIA Rail to understand that, and enforce a policy that is mindful of that."

About 15 per cent of Canada's estimated 300,000 Sikhs wear a sheathed kirpan strapped to their chests as a sign of their readiness to defend the weak and fight for justice. While Sikhs say the daggers have never been used in violence or cited in any such action in North America, they have been the subject of furious debate and controversy in Canada. The blades are allowed in most Canadian schools, but in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., Transport Canada banned the carrying of knives and "knife-like objects," which includes kirpans, from airplanes.

Sikh leaders say the 2001 attacks were such a searing event that "there was no way anyone could have made a stand or fuss" about the prohibition, said Manjit Singh, a spokesman for the Canadian Sikh Council. The community had to strike a balance between its religious beliefs and public security, and accepted the ban. "That was an exceptional circumstance," Mr. Singh said.

Even then, Sikhs had to make an atonement for not wearing the dagger, he said. At the end of their journey, they had to say a special prayer of atonement and perform other rites and then don the kirpan. VIA Rail's action, however, is viewed as a form of harassment that threatens the religion. "You've got to look at the next step. Can people carry kirpans anywhere?" Mr. Singh said.

What They Said

The Citizen's Vito Pilieci spoke to several shoppers last night and asked them: 'Would you object to having a person wear a kirpan on public transit and what are your thoughts with regard to Mr. Singh's ordeal?' Here is what they said.

Sanjein Lee, 28

It is part of their religion, so they should allow it. But, for safety reasons, maybe then there should be some kind of limitations.

Pierre St. Cyr, 39

I think it's a good thing not to allow him on the train with that. They wouldn't allow me to come on with a knife, even if it was for my religion.

Matt Martin, 21

I know it's ceremonious for them to wear it (the kirpan). Personally, I don't feel uncomfortable with it. But there are a lot of people who would feel uncomfortable with it and so I would say, don't allow them on the train.

Roberta Dupont, 70

We have had so many problems. This fellow may be fine. But if you are going to have a rule and break it, where does it end? I find it a difficult thing, because we have had so many problems with high school kids carrying blades. Rules have to apply to everyone.

Richard Whitelock, 48

This is a free society. We are very open. If he is boarding the train, then he should not be hassled. The way he was dressed ... he might be going somewhere. If he wanted to do anything (terrorist related), it would not have been possible. He is not a terrorist. They should have asked him where he was going, dressed like that. They may have learned something.

Ran with fact box "What they said", which has been appended to the story.




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