Ottawa, October 26, 2005
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
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
"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
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.