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


VIA's kirpan ban draws fire; railway still gives out steak knives
Carrier 'awfully selective' on safety, rights group says

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 knives.

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 bearers.

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 Friday.

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 nature."

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 ban.

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 staff.

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