This article was first published in Socialist Voice, March 14, 2006
By Richard Fidler
On March 2, the Supreme Court of Canada overruled a Montreal school’s ban on a student’s right to wear the Sikh ceremonial dagger, or kirpan, on school property. The judgment was not just a victory for freedom of religion. It was also a major step forward in the ongoing struggle to integrate non-Francophone ethnic and racial minorities as full citizens of the Quebec nation through the public school system.
Gurbaj Singh Multani was rapidly learning French as a student in the École Sainte-Catherine-Labouré in 2001 when he accidentally dropped his kirpan in the school yard. His parents were told by the school authorities that he could not wear this symbol of his orthodox Sikh faith, which is normally concealed in his clothing, on school property. In response, they pulled him out of the French-language public school system and enrolled him in a private school that allowed the kirpan, and that also happens to be Anglophone — with the result that Gurbaj Singh Multani speaks almost no French today.
“I like learning French,” he told a press conference following the Court’s judgment. “But this affair prevented me from doing so. Now that we have won this case, the young [Sikhs] like me will have no further problems. They will be able to learn French.”
Gurbaj’s parents had initially agreed to an accommodation with the school board that would allow him to wear the kirpan sealed inside his clothing. This was rejected by the school. The Quebec Superior Court supported the Singh Multanis, but the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the ban. The case then went to the country’s highest court.
The Supreme Court judgments (there were three separate opinions, although all eight judges concurred in the result) were limited to the conclusion that the school’s ostensible reason for the ban — that wearing the kirpan violated the school’s ban on carrying “weapons” — was not rationally supported by the evidence. After all, some judges noted, “there are many objects in schools that could be used to commit violent acts and that are much more easily obtained by students, such as scissors, pencils and baseball bats.”
The Singh Multani judgment was a victory for the principle that public schools cannot exclude students who wear symbols of their personal religious beliefs. But there are broader implications as well.
The kirpan case is the latest event in the ongoing efforts in Quebec to build an integrated public school system that does not impose religious beliefs — or non-beliefs, in the name of a supposed “secularism” — on minorities. Until recently, under the Canadian Constitution, Quebec had two distinct public school systems distinguished by religion, one Catholic (and largely French), the other Protestant (and largely English). Non-Christians and non-Francophone immigrants overwhelmingly sent their children into the Protestant stream, where they were educated mainly in English and in many cases emerged with little or no knowledge of the mother tongue spoken by more than 80 percent of the province’s population.
Declining demographics of native-born Quebecers and rising immigration levels tended to increase the influence within Quebec society of English, long the language of privilege of a wealthy economically dominant minority based in Montreal. The divisions in the public school system reproduced and reinforced the distinctions between the linguistic solitudes.
Establishing a unilingual French public school system became a key goal for the rising nationalist movement and a major component of Quebec’s efforts to modernize and enhance its educational system beginning in the 1960s.
A major step toward that goal was achieved in 1997, when the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act) was amended to exclude Quebec from the requirement to maintain “denominational” (sectarian) public school systems. Since then, there is one, secular or non-denominational public school system in Quebec, although there is a sub-component of English schools within that system for children with at least one parent who was educated in English. All other parents must send their children to a French public school or, failing that, to a private school at additional expense to them.
The reform is still incomplete. Apart from the “grandfathering” rights of Anglophone parents, the Quebec government still provides generous funding to the province’s private schools. Just a year ago, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced the government would give full public funding to private Jewish schools — only to abandon his plan a week later in the face of massive public opposition. Religion classes are still an option in some public schools, although they are being phased out.
But since the mid-1970s two generations of immigrant children and many from old-stock English families as well have been educated in the French-language public school system. This has produced a broad layer of young Québécois adults of non-Francophone ethnic origin who are fluent in French and comfortable in a French Quebec. They are often referred to as the “Bill 101 generation,” after the legislation, the Charter of the French Language, that required most Quebec students to attend French-language schools. This has been one of the great achievements of Quebec’s nationalist upsurge since 1960, a cornerstone of the new multi-ethnic Quebec nation in which French is the common language of public communication and discourse.
Accommodate, don’t discriminate
Underlying the school integration movement, as it was known, was the understanding — or at least the implicit logic — that religious beliefs and practices are fundamentally individual matters, and that in modern, pluralistic, democratic societies the majority has no right to impose its religious beliefs on others. This principle of separation of church and state, or secularism as it is often described, is strongly supported by most progressive-minded people in Quebec and Canada.
Much less understood, however, is its corollary: that a democratic society, in the interest of integrating minorities with full rights into the larger society, must be prepared to accommodate particular beliefs and practices of minorities that the latter consider vital to their cultural self-definition, provided those beliefs and practices do not threaten the rights or safety of the society as a whole. Many such beliefs and practices are all too often singled out as grounds to ghettoize and otherwise discriminate against minorities, especially visible minorities.
The kirpan incident illustrates how progressive secularism can work in practice, allowing room for the expression and practice of individual beliefs within public institutions in order to ensure that those institutions are responsive and available to all.
Implementing this principle requires developing a knowledge of how and where to draw the line between public and private. What are legitimate concerns of the collectivity, and what are not? When the Montreal school characterized the kirpan as a “weapon,” that is, a threat to society and not a religious symbol, it made a false distinction. Although the Supreme Court judges do not speculate on the school authorities’ motives, it is not hard to detect the odour of racism in the school’s decision.
Judging from the furor over the Court’s ruling that is being expressed on hot-line radio shows and in letters to the editor, many Québécois are having a hard time understanding and accepting these implications of an integrated public school system. But imposing “secular” dress codes could drive many immigrant kids away from the French school system and point Quebec backwards to the ethnic self-identity that divided its population and ultimately tended to undermine the status of French as the common language of the nation.
It must be said that the Canadian Court’s verdict compares favourably with such manifestations of imperialist arrogance as the French government’s recent ban on the wearing of ostensible religious symbols of personal faith in the schools, otherwise known as the “hijab ban.” In effect, the French state told staunch Muslims that they must abandon or redefine their religion if they wish to join French society. This is what goes by the name of “secularism” in contemporary France and indeed in much of Europe. The violent protests that shook France’s immigrant ghettos last summer were surely fuelled in part by resentment of this xenophobic contempt for the beliefs of a beleaguered minority.
Closer to home, many feminists and otherwise liberally-minded individuals were quick to line up last year in opposition to a modest proposal by some Muslims to bring their faith-based private family arbitration system under the ambit of Ontario’s Arbitration Act. Advocates of this proposal argued that not only would it respect the particular religious beliefs of many Muslims, but it would help protect vulnerable women and children and reinforce the rights of all parties engaged in private arbitration, especially when coupled with the recommendations in a report by Marion Boyd, a former Attorney General, to reform the Act and related legislation.
Opponents of the proposal warned darkly that it would undermine family law reform and be the thin edge of the wedge to impose “sharia” tribunals in place of Canadian courts. Even the Quebec National Assembly weighed into the debate with a motion unanimously supported by federalists and sovereigntists alike condemning the Boyd report and the proposed reform in Ontario — although none of the honourable members had evidently read the report or knew anything about the real issues involved!
Feminist opposition to faith-based arbitration was particularly troubling, in my view. Feminists understand the importance of choice in other contexts (e.g. a woman’s right to abortion). Why deny Moslem women the option of faith-based arbitration of private family matters where they so wish?
In the end, wiser heads prevailed. The McGuinty government’s Bill 27, which just passed the Ontario legislature (the NDP opposed it), effectively implements the bulk of the Boyd recommendations. There is nothing in the bill that would bar Muslims from conducting arbitrations under the reformed Arbitration Act, provided they are duly certified as having the requisite knowledge of the applicable Ontario and Canadian laws. That was in fact what most of the Muslim advocates of private family arbitration were asking, as Boyd’s report clearly documented.
The Supreme Court’s kirpan judgment and Ontario’s Arbitration Act amendments are a useful reminder that those who control the vital institutions of the Canadian state are more sophisticated than many on the left are often prepared to acknowledge. While the rulers are certainly willing to inflame racist passions where it is useful to them, and are thoroughly committed to loyal participation in imperialist ventures around the world — witness their current military and police operations in Afghanistan and Haiti — they also have a well-honed understanding of the need to accommodate difference within the body politic where such difference does not threaten their class rule and where the recognition and calibrated accommodation of difference can reinforce citizens’ sense of identification with the state. It is their skill in navigating the shoals of these social tensions that earns them their status as a “ruling class.”
Those of us who aspire to build a movement that can some day replace that class and institute a government truly of the people and by the people would be well-advised to study the lessons to be learned from incidents such as the kirpan ban or the Muslim family arbitration issue. And to learn how to build effective bridges of solidarity around such issues with our Sikh, Muslim and other sisters and brothers who are now, through immigration, becoming an increasingly important part of the working class in this country.
We need to demonstrate, in action, that their real allies are not the capitalist rulers, who concede such rights only reluctantly, but the working people, who can only gain in strength and political consciousness through identifying with these struggles.
 Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, http://makeashorterlink.com/?S6E3219CC.
 Le Devoir, 4-5 March, 2006, http://www.ledevoir.com/2006/03/04/103550.html