Quebec ban on Sikh kirpans in schools debated in top court

Judges reserve ruling on challenge

OTTAWA — Lawyers wrestled over whether a Sikh‘s ceremonial dagger is a weapon as the Supreme Court of Canada reserved judgment yesterday in the case of a student prohibited from wearing one at his Montreal school.

Lawyers challenging a Quebec Court of Appeal decision banning the kirpan from schools said the metal dagger, which is bound, sheathed and strapped to Sikhs, cannot be considered a weapon and has never been used as one.

Those defending the Quebec decision said it cannot be considered anything else and warned that overturning the ruling could open the floodgates to weapons in school.

There is no practical distinction between a kirpan and any other edged weapon, argued Franc,ois Aquin, lawyer for Montreal’s Marguerite-Bourgeoys School Board, which barred Gurbaj Singh from wearing the kirpan in 2001.

Ceremonial or not, it can be removed from its sheath and used to harm others, Mr. Aquin said. Whether it has been used that way is beside the point.

“There has never been a school assault in Quebec using a kitchen knife,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we will allow students to carry kitchen knives in school.”

Judges on the nine-member panel peppered lawyers with questions during the presentations as Mr. Singh, 16, watched intently along with members of his family and the Sikh community.

It’s the first time the issue has been brought before the country’s highest court. Most jurisdictions have permitted the kirpan in schools. Quebec has not.

While there has been no documented case in North America of school violence involving a kirpan, the Quebec court ruled 13 months ago that a ban is a reasonable limit to the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

The decision of the judges in Canada’s top court, who permitted Sikh members of the gallery to wear their kirpans in the expansive, wood-panelled chamber, is expected to lay the matter to rest.

Arguing on the youth’s behalf, lawyer Julius Grey said there is “overwhelming empirical evidence that the kirpan is not a dangerous weapon.”

Mr. Grey told the court that other jurisdictions such as Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia have operated for years without a ban and without incident.

In those jurisdictions, limits have been placed on size, visibility and security to ensure access to the daggers is difficult, he noted.

Intervenors in the case said the risks posed by the kirpan, which Sikhs are required to wear as a symbolic defence against evil, are no greater than geometry compasses or baseball bats.

Lawyer Palbinder Shergill of the World Sikh Organization said the kirpan is only considered a kirpan if it has three components — a metal blade, a sheath and a fabric holster worn close to the body.

“Take one out, and it is no longer a kirpan,” she said. “A Sikh must have all three in place. This object is not an intrinsically dangerous weapon. It is always in its sheath and its holster.”

Mr. Singh now attends private school where he is allowed to wear the kirpan, which was given to him when he was 12. He said the experience has taught him a lot about his religion and about Canada.

“This is very exciting,” the aspiring pilot said. “I am here for my rights and I hope that the judiciary will support my rights.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Canadian Press, via The Globe and Mail, Canada
Apr. 13, 2005
Stephen Thorne

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