The controversies caused by the tolerance of religious symbol over the past have highlighted the challenges faced by the Canadian multiculturalism. Bob Mok’s article sheds light on how the multiculturalism survived the big tests.
This is part of a series of articles on Canada’s multiculturalism. For the earlier article, please go to the following links:
In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was adopted by the Canadian Parliament. It was the first national multiculturalism law adopted by any country. The Act struck a balance between cultural distinctiveness and equality. It specified the right of all to identify with the cultural heritage of their choice, yet retain “full and equitable participation … in all aspects of Canadian society.” It also focused on the eradication of racism and the removal of discriminatory barriers as ways to fulfill Canada’s human rights commitments.
Immediately, Canada’s multiculturalism faced a number of significant challenges. In 1990, a naturalized Canadian Sikh (a religious follower of Sikhism) had to choose between serving Canada as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) or wearing his turban. At that time, the turban was not allowed in the RCMP traditional dress code even though turbaned Sikhs served in the British Indian Army in two World Wars and worked in many Canadian police forces.
There were two arguments to this issue: "Respect our traditions, wear our hat" and "I think that if somebody wants to wear something that's important to them, to their nationalities, or to their beliefs and it doesn't interfere with what they do, let them."
Over 150,000 people signed petitions to retain the traditional RCMP dress code, many felt that the iconic image will not survive this change and this would open a floodgate to more changes in future. But on March 16, 1990, the federal Solicitor General amended the policy to permit Sikhs to wear the turban while on active duty in the RCMP. Multiculturalism survived its first big test.
In 2006, yet another challenge to multiculturalism came along, this time involving the Canadian Charter of rights and Freedom Act (1982). A Quebec school board told a 12-year-old Sikh boy he could not wear his ceremonial dagger in the classroom, as his faith requires. It was suggested that the kirpan is a weapon of violence by its opponents. Many viewed that as another concession to a religion and a privilege for a special group with the RCMP dress code controversy still in their memories.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 8-0 to throw out arguments from lawyers for the Quebec school board that originally implemented the ban. It said there is no suggestion the kirpan is a weapon of violence or that the Sikh boy, who was 12 when the court case started five years ago, intended to use it as one.
But the ruling re-establishes a lower court decision, which allows Sikhs to wear kirpans under certain conditions. The knife must be worn under the clothes and sewn into a sheath. Under those conditions, "the kirpan is almost totally stripped of its objectively dangerous characteristics," the court said. "Access to the kirpan ... is now fully impeded by the cloth envelope sewn around the wooden sheath. In these circumstances, the argument relating to safety can no longer reasonably succeed." This was a very sensible judgement at the time and a balance was achieved. To this day, very few incidents were ever recorded involving injury and assault with a Kirpan.
Both times, Canadians of different cultural backgrounds reluctantly accepted these controversies above on the basis that they did not infringe on their own rights. Since then, they are facing new challenges perceived to be affecting their rights and their daily lives. Next time, we will look at those.
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